Like 80% of console gamers since October of last year, I’ve been completely obsessed with Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption 2, quite possibly the finest and most absurdly detailed open-world game ever committed to the medium. Red Dead Redemption 2 is, of course, a Western, and like most Westerns it features the classic ‘high noon’ style duel that is a staple of the genre.
This got me to thinking: did this kind of shit actually happen back in the day, or was it just a Hollywood affectation?
After copious hours of Wikipedia rabbit-holing, it turns out that, as with a lot of stuff I write about, it’s a little bit of column A, little bit of column B.
Wild Bill Hickok gets trash-talked and robbed, shoots a motherfucker
Anyone with even a passing knowledge of the Old West has heard of Wild Bill Hickok, one of the most famous names to come out of that highly romanticised period. A lot of myths surrounding Hickok are utter bullshit, but if there’s one thing that isn’t, it’s that he took part in one of the Wild West’s few genuine quick-draw duels.
The dispute between Hickok and his antagonist, Davis Tutt, began as all good Old West feuds ought to: over women and cards.
The two men had apparently once been friends, despite their very different Civil War backgrounds (Hickok was a Union scout and Tutt had been Confederate), but at some point rumours had started flying that Hickok had fathered an illegitimate child with Tutt’s sister, and Tutt started paying a bit too much attention to Hickok’s then-squeeze.
When the two met again in Springfield, Missouri, Hickok started refusing to play cards with Tutt. Tutt began a passive-aggressive campaign of pettiness against his one-time friend, coaching his opponents on how to beat him, and eventually stole Hickok’s prized pocket-watch. Tutt’s friends found this extremely hilarious, and told Hickok that Tutt would walk across the town square with the stolen watch the next day.
Hickok’s admittedly bad-ass reply? “He shouldn’t come across that square unless dead men can walk.”
Sure as shit, Tutt turned up in the town square the next day, the watch gambling from his belt. Hickok arrived shortly thereafter and, hand on pistol, told Tutt not cross the square.
Tutt replied by putting his hand on his own pistol. The two men faced each other side-on (unlike the duels of cinema, actual gunfighters presumably liked to offer as small a target as possible), and both men drew more or less simultaneously.
Hickok had a reputation as a quick draw that has been exaggerated to outlandish levels, but whatever the truth of that, he didn’t outdraw Tutt. He did, however, keep his cool better; Tutt’s shot went wide, but Hickok hit the other man in the chest. Tutt called out “boys, I’m killed,” staggered to the steps of the courthouse and back, and died in the street.
Hickok was brought up on murder charges, which were then reduced to manslaughter. He argued self-defence; a legally inadmissible defence since he’d gone to the square armed and expecting a gunfight, but the ‘trail justice’ of the day prevailed, and he was acquitted after it was agreed he was provoked. As one historian put it:
“Nothing better described the times than the fact that dangling a watch held as security for a poker debt was widely regarded as a justifiable provocation for resorting to firearms.”
18th-century dandies trade pithy barbs, lethal sword wounds
When you think of 18th-century English aristocrats, you probably imagine foppish, perfumed men wearing elaborate wigs and clutching frilly handkerchiefs to their noses. You’d be right in this, of course, but this belies just how vicious said aristocrats could be. Enter Duke James Hamilton and Baron Charles Mohun.
Baron Charles Mohun was, by any account, a wrong ‘un. Born into an aristocratic family that was heavily in debt, Mohun had expensive tastes but no money. He therefore turned to gambling to support his lavish lifestyle, and during the course of his life was involved in several duels. Mohun was even, reputedly, an accessory to murder on at least one occasion. Luckily being born with a silver spoon in one’s mouth has its benefits, and Mohun was acquitted more than once.
Mohun was eventually rewarded for his licentious ways with a seat in the House of Lords, whereupon he commenced a feud with the Scottish Duke Hamilton over an inheritance. After the legal battle became too much for him to stomach, Mohun Mohun’d and challenged Hamilton to a duel.
As was the law at the time, gentlemen (and I use the word loosely) were accompanied to duels by ‘seconds’ – trusted men who would accompany and assist them. In the early 18th century, this meant that they would also get involved in the duel, to lethal effect.
The two men, accompanied by their seconds (a man named George Macartney for Mohun, and a relation by the name of Colonel Hamilton for, er, Hamilton), turned up at Hyde park at the crack of dawn.
Before commencing, of course, the men had to engage in some classic 18th-century smack-talk. Duke Hamilton turned to George Macartney and laid the sass on thick, saying:
“I am well assured, sir, that all this is by your contrivance, and therefore you shall have your share in the dance; my friend here, Colonel Hamilton, will entertain you.”
Macartney, not to be intimidated by florid threats, replied:
“I wish for no better partner; the colonel may command me.”
Borderline homoerotic death threats concluded, the four men had at it: Duke Hamilton vs. Mohun, and Colonel Hamilton vs. Macartney.
Mohun and Duke Hamilton’s trash talk may have been flowery, but their swordplay was anything but. The two of them didn’t bother with anything approaching defence and simply hacked the shit out of each other. Duke Hamilton was stabbed in both legs, but Mohun likely came off worse; in addition to multiple wounds all over his body, the rakish baron was unfortunate enough to take a shot to the dick.
The fight pretty much ended when both men ran each other through. At this point their seconds stopped their scrapping to assist; Colonel Hamilton did this by cradling his relative in his arms. Macartney, apparently being a total bastard, did this by stabbing the dying Duke Hamilton in the back and fleeing to Hanover.
Needless to say, both principal combatants died of their wounds.
Painting half of Hyde Park in blue blood sorta shocked the House of Lords to its core, and the law was swiftly reformed so that (a) seconds were unable to actually participate in the duel and (b) pistols, rather than swords, became the duelling weapons of choice. It was reasoned that, if men were to murder each other over perceived slights, they might as well make it fast.
As for the seconds: Colonel Hamilton, who remained in England to face the music, was tried as an accessory to murder. He was convicted of the lesser charge of manslaughter. Dickbag Supreme Macartney was eventually acquitted of even this charge when he returned to England some years later.
Wandering bad-ass samurai kills ‘greatest opponent’ with a wooden sword
Just as The Seven Samurai was rocking an against-the-odds ensemble of archetypes before The Magnificent Seven, so too were the Japanese engaging in to-the-death duels way longer before the Yanks got to it. Samurai were a tetchy sort who took their honour very seriously.
Some of them, though, just really, really loved duelling.
Miyamoto Musashi is renowned as Japan’s greatest ever swordsman, and the archetypal ronin, which is Japanese for ‘vagrant murder-hobo’. From the late sixteenth century, Miyamoto wandered Japan and got into sword fights, with a final record of 61-0. Coincidentally another famous warrior of sorts, Muhammad Ali, also fought in 61 fights, and had a record of 56-5.
So yeah: Miyamoto was pretty good. He was so good, in fact, that he pretty much effortlessly defeated his greatest opponent. With a goddamn oar.
Miyamoto’s opponent was kind of a big deal himself – a guy who’d studied the blade pretty much his whole life.
Sasaki Kojiro was the head of a school teaching swordsmanship and master of the nodachi, which was basically a big fuck-off katana. Generally considered to be unwieldy due to its larger size, Sasaki was nevertheless a deft touch with it.
The circumstances behind the duel coming about are vague, but it seemed to be professional rivalry rather than personal animosity that motivated the clash between the two men.
Whatever the reasons, the two agreed to meet on the beaches of an isolated island called Ganryujima. The remoteness was deliberate; Sasaki had a lot of students who, in the event of his loss, would probably try to avenge him.
Miyamoto arrived for the duel three hours late. Sasaki advocates argue that this was a deliberately insulting and dishonourable act, whilst proponents of Miyamoto contend that his lateness was a legitimate psychological technique intended to unnerve his opponent.
Miyamoto’s tardiness was not the only unconventionality he’d indulge in; he was brandishing a wooden sword rather than a real one, in what could have been seen as a further snub to his opponent. Legend says he carved the weapon from a spare oar on the boat journey, but common sense suggests that this would be a somewhat dubious use of both his time and his short sword.
Details on what happened next are fuzzy and vary from account to account – Sasaki was variously blinded by the sun/taunted into a reckless attack, and was struck in the head/ribs – but whatever the specifics, Miyamoto managed to kill his supremely skilled opponent with a piece of wood. Job done, he promptly fucked off in his boat before Sasaki’s allies could do anything about it.
The duel with Sasaki changed something in Miyamoto. Whether resting on his laurels as the greatest swordsman in the history of Japan or feeling remorse over his potentially dubious tactics in the duel, Miyamoto never took part in a duel to the death again. Instead he got his murder jollies fighting in wars, which are like duels but less organised.
Miyamoto died at the age of 60/61 of what was probably cancer. Before his death he had retainers strap his sword on and sit him upright, presumably because even death wasn’t taking him without a swordfight.