A few years from now, perhaps 10 or so, after a horribly botched first-contact led to the temporary conquest of humanity by aliens until humans could adjust to alien technology, humans are once again in charge of their own destinies

Of course, with the massive uphevals that accompanied the destruction of nations and governments and given that humans are now barreling around the lawless galaxy in alien-designed Alcubierre warpships, space piracy is rife, what with the minimal presence of antipiracy warships.

Still, piracy is a business, and those who choose such a life are a rough bunch, and the leadership of one of the more successful groups wants to formalize and codify rules for duelling. Their aim in doing so is to reduce the infighting in their command to a point where it is manageable, yet not turn their crews into wimps and cowards. To that end, their goals are:

  1. Minimise deaths and the severity of injuries while allowing for the ocurrence of injuries and a few deaths - the risk of injury and death must be real, even if reduced in frequency and severity.

  2. Utilize weapons and/or skills that are easily constructed or obtained and easily maintained - where applicable using late 20th to early 21st Century technology

  3. Utilize weapon or skill types that are of use to a pirate in his/her role as a member of a spaceborne boarding party.

  4. It must take significant skill more than mere luck to cause injury or death to an opponent in the context of a duel, in order to encourage practise in the use of the weapons in question.

  5. The risk to bystanders and starships (which are constructed more along in the style of a seagoing cruise ship than an aircraft or a thin-skinned spacecraft subject to the tyrrany of the rocket equation) must be minimized though need not be eliminated.

  6. While this code would originate to keep order and encourage bravery and practising combat skills amongst a pirate crew, it must also be applicable to a planetbound civilian population - pirates do retire sometimes.

  7. Despite having access to alien nanotechnology, Alcubierre drives and reactionless thrusters, many of the the weapons in use are still those of circa 2030 had aliens never appeared - think a lot of RPGs, AK-47s and 9mm semi-automatic pistols, and not many advanced weapons at all. Any duelling weapon must be able to be made by a human without nanotech assistance, and must not use any form of active aiming assistance. A device such as a laser sight, if permitted, would be considered to be a passive aiming assistance. On the other hand, all the weapons mentioned in this paragraph are much too powerful to be allowed, unless modified.

The Question:

What should a complete duelling code specify, what alternatives should it offer, and what should it not specify. Options for unarmed combat, melee-armed and firearm combat should be considered. Where firearm combat is concerned, what specifications should the weapons and ammunition have? What environments should be specified, if any? What protocols for challenging an opponent and conducting the duel should be specified - and why if any are not immediately obvious.

  • $\begingroup$ What is the difference between this scenario and trying to codify dueling rules for modern society? The two contexts seem similar enough that what works for one will probably work for the other. Also, are you specifically looking for dueling, as in two people go do something stupid with weapons, or are you looking for something which would be done by two leaders with their entire squads (a. la. paintball or other team sports) $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Aug 5, 2018 at 1:09
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Have you looked at how real pirates solved the problem of their ships not devolving into anarchy? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pirate_code $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Aug 5, 2018 at 1:43
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    $\begingroup$ Some of your conditions only make sense when the word "dueling" is used in the context of first-person-shooter games: two "friends" go off on a map and hunt one another until one is dead. That's not at all what dueling was in the good-old-days, for which something like an RPG makes no sense at all. Specifically which form of dueling are you talking about? I don't believe they're compatible. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Aug 5, 2018 at 2:21
  • $\begingroup$ @JBH The possibility exists in this modern age that two pirates might very well go to a depopulated area of a ship and hunt one another to first blood, based upon the FPS idea made real. $\endgroup$
    – Monty Wild
    Aug 5, 2018 at 8:10

3 Answers 3


Swords or knives can make sense in spaceship sci-fi for a couple of reasons: first, in any boarding action, you're going to be fighting in close quarters, and second, firearms or explosives risk cracking the hull and killing everyone. So it's reasonable to say that dueling swords made a comeback in your 21st-century sci fi story. Another thing that might be doable is armor, since pirates may be exposed to vacuum in the process of getting from their ship over to the other ship. So perhaps it's swords at ship's noon in armored spacesuits on the outer hull?

Setting the duels in vacuum or in zero-gee might also make an interesting twist on the ancient concept.

Your dueling code should specify a way to delope, that is to give up your chance to kill the opponent, like firing your gun into the air in the old days. A pirate might let go of his sword, for example. This is a very manly thing to do because the other duelist isn't bound to follow suit, so it still proves your courage. Many duels would end with both sides deloping: both will have proved their point and will come away from the fight more respected by the others. There should also be a way for a duelist who "wins" the fight to choose not to kill his opponent. Maybe if you turn your blade and "slap" the opponent with what could have been a killing blow, both sides acknowledge the win, and both walk away with honor.

You might find John C. Wright's Count to a Trillion and its sequels interesting to mine for ideas: dueling features prominently in the whole series.


Pirates Didn't tend to Follow the Code Duello

The dueling codes were more applicable to noble or wealthy men. Pirates were dirty back-alley brawlers who used brutality and dirty underhanded tricks to best enemies as quickly as possible. Pirates were not famous for being skilled duelers, they were famous for being skilled killers. Perhaps pirates are high society individuals in your story, but that is not likely. High society people don't have to pillage and fight for a living, they can hire people to do that for them. If it's pirates you are developing a dueling code for I recommend it be rather simple and informal following pragmatic lines of thought.

A few ideas come to mind.

1: No ranged weapons. Nobody in space wants to risk punching a hole in something critical to sustaining life or operation of the vessel. For this reason duels are typically conducted with knives, fists, large pipe wrenches, or whatever other weapons are chosen. Maybe they aren't even on a ship, but due to decades or centuries of tradition no ranged weapons are allowed based on the principle of observing old traditions.

2: Death is not required. Even in the golden era of the Code Duello most duels did not end in death. They went to first blood, or even more common, both men decided to back down honorably and their selected second mediated the dispute with the opponent's second then and there so both parties could go home honor intact and minus risk of life limb or eyesight.

3: People can't just challenge anyone anywhere. If your basic bulkhead swabber can simply declare himself captain based on the merit that his lead pipe swinging skills are superior things go to shit pretty quick. Likewise in any societey. Imagine being allowed to pass medical school just because you can kill or beat to within an inch of their life anyone who doesn't give you good grades. People can only be allowed to challenge those within or below their social status, with a stigma attached to punching down. (If he's below you why even validate his position with a formal response?) Likewise, men cannot be compelled to kill or maim each other over petty grievances. For a duel to be acceptable only certain offences in certain conditions can be considered valid. For example, two lieutenants who hate each other cannot declare a duel while critical mission tasks are at hand. Two mechanics cant duel over an argument how to best repair an engine that might explode if they mess up. Two doctors can't throw down right in the middle of a dangerous surgery.

4: Consequences still exist. Even during the era of the Code Duello killing people wasn't legal (in most places dueling wasn't even formally legal either.) High society and wealthy people often used said wealth and influence to dodge legal reprisal, but it was still considered murder (albeit a less serious form of it.) Being found guilty of killing somebody over a trifling matter would still incur serious consequence, so even winning a duel didn't mean one's troubles were necessarily over. Additionally, gaining a reputation for bloodthirstiness and cruelty could build a negative reputation. People don't want to enter into business partnerships or long term agreements with somebody known for killing anyone they disagree with. Maybe duels are socially accepted but that doesn't mean the fallout from killing somebody wont come back to haunt you. Being a known dueler could harm you legally, socially, or maybe one of your victims even just have a bigger tougher meaner brother who wishes to kill you back. Dueling is a very serious decision to make with possibly far ranging or unforeseen consequences that actually makes people more likely to mediate their differences rather than fight. Having a Code Duello can actually make people less likely to fight. (Which, by the way, was the justification proponents of dueling historically used to argue that such practices were beneficial for society.)


The dueling code will minimize loss of life and property.

A pirate will probably not attack another pirate unless there is profit in it. Grudges and vendettas are bad economics. Consider male mammals. Most of the time a male will leave another male alone. Why should they fight? You can't eat a conspecific, can't mate with him and if you fight you might get hurt. Nod your head and move on.

But in mating season you have your genetic fitness at stake, and so fight you will. Or fight by proxy. Show off your horns and your size, stand sideways so he can get a good look at you and you at him. If it is pretty clear who would come out on top, why waste time and energy - cede the field to the likely victor and wrap things up.

So too the pirates. If a fight is going to happen, they compare weaponry - perhaps with test fires into space or the like. The losers cede and can expect to leave with their lives and ship, if not their cargo. If the contest is for the ship, the losers can expect to be taken captive and treated well, and perhaps offered positions on the victors ship.

Sometimes contestants seem equally matched. In such cases, each side chooses champions and they meet to settle the matter in contest. The card game "War" is a popular one among the pirates. Darts and ping pong have their aficionados. Team battle video games are always contenders too.

  • $\begingroup$ This doesn't meet the specified requirements in the question. $\endgroup$
    – Monty Wild
    Aug 5, 2018 at 1:47
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    $\begingroup$ @Monty Wild - the darts games can get rough. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Aug 5, 2018 at 2:12

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