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Pistols at Dawn

Episode 3 of 5

New Generation Thinker and historian of early weaponry John Gallagher examines the history and etiquette of duelling with pistols.

In the third of five talks by specialists of guns and gun-culture, Radio 3 'New Generation Thinker' and historian of early weaponry John Gallagher invites you to a duel. Where disputes of honour had previously been settled with the sword and the rapier, by the 17th and 18th century pistols became the gentleman's weapon of choice when wronged.

The polished firearms we find in museum cases make it hard to imagine the crack of pistols and the stench of gunfire, and our noisy culture has had time to become blasé about the incredible impact - sensory, social, and violent - made by guns 300 years ago. In a culture where a gentleman's honour was paramount, men duelled to protect their reputations - first with rapiers from Italy or Spain, and later with the newfangled pistols that made an indelible mark on English and European culture from the late Renaissance onwards.

Carried by travellers, gentlewomen, farmers and assassins, early modern firearms ranged from the beautifully tooled and decorated duelling pistols owned by the wealthy and passed down the generations to the snub-nosed dags that could be concealed in a sleeve or a pocket and which were banned by successive English monarchs. While gun culture and gun crime became features of English society 300 years ago, the gun became a feature of colonial and imperial history. Firearms were traded with native peoples and gifted to friendly rulers, transforming warfare and everyday life far beyond Europe. What does the history of guns in the 17th and 18th centuries mean for us today?

Producer: Simon Elmes.

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15 minutes

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