For much of human history, it was not only perfectly acceptable but pretty much expected that disputes would end with a duel to the death. What we'll never know -- at least not until timecops become necessary -- is just how many would've-been-history-making men we lost to such fatal pissing contests, and just how much the timeline might have changed if said contests had turned out differently. Especially when you consider ...
5 Abe Lincoln Narrowly Avoided Getting Shot to Death in a Duel
You might recognize Abraham Lincoln as the president who completely owned the chin curtain/top hat combo. Oh, and also something about leading our nation through a brutal civil war and preserving the union. But it all could have ended way back when Abe was still shaving and Southerners were still slaving: Lincoln had himself a good old-fashioned duel to the death with a guy by the name of James Shields.
It all started in 1842, when the Springfield Journal published letters from one "Aunt Becca" accusing Shields -- an attorney and auditor for the State of Illinois -- of being "a ballroom dandy, floatin' about on the earth without heft or substance, just like a lot of cat-fur where cats had been fightin'." (Folks in the 19th century had very long-winded ways of calling someone a dick.) Shields, not one to let such shenanigans slide with a simple harrumph and a "Well, I'll be!" vowed that there would be "coffee and pistols for two" once he discovered the true author of the letters. And that's where Lincoln comes in -- because the author was none other than Mary Todd, aka the future Mary Todd Lincoln.
Since women possess far too much common sense to participate in something as ludicrous as a duel, Lincoln was forced to accept Shields' challenge on his fiancee's behalf. And that was a problem, because Shields was an experienced marksman, whereas Lincoln had little experience in the art of remotely drilling holes in other humans. Abe did have two things going for him, though: A) he got to set the terms of the duel, and B) he was basically superhuman. Lincoln used those two things to his every advantage: The duel would take place in a tiny arena where the participants would be separated by a wooden plank (stepping over the plank would mean forfeiture), and rather than Shields' preferred weapon of choice (pistols), they would use fucking broadswords.
Lincoln's carefully planned-out terms had precisely the desired effect. When they arrived at the duel and drew their broadswords, Lincoln reached up with his Stretch Armstrong arms and sliced a branch out of the top of a nearby willow tree. And that was the only limb hacked off that day, because Shields immediately called off the duel without so much as a drop of blood spilled -- although some say there was a puddle of something around his feet that day.
"Your dick. That could've been your dick."
So, just how close did our great nation come to never being led by the Great Emancipator? In his own words, "I didn't want the damned fellow to kill me, which I rather think he would have done if we had selected pistols."
And so Honest Abe never had to worry about pistols again, and he and Mary lived happily ever after.
And speaking of bullshitting your way out of a duel ...
4 Mark Twain Bullshitted His Way Out of a Duel
The "father of American literature" really needs no introduction. The quintessential American author, humorist, and satirist has been universally loved and admired by everyone from peons to American presidents to European royalty -- with the exception of one guy who wanted to give him a fatal, .58-caliber body piercing.
Before publishing any of his great works, the newly christened Mark Twain (he was plain old Samuel Clemens up until then) was editor of the Virginia City Enterprise. In his capacity as editor, Twain took it upon himself to relentlessly critique and slander James Laird, the editor of a rival newspaper. Twain's incessant needling built up to a head, and when it finally blew, Laird challenged him to a duel. Twain readily accepted -- a decision that, in retrospect, seemed a bit rash, given the facts that Twain barely knew "which end [of the revolver] to level at the adversary" and that Laird was "longer and thinner than a rail."
With a mustache like that, an overestimation of one's manliness is understandable.
As specified by The Official Duelist's Handbook (Third Edition), each duelist had a second -- a person who would try to reconcile the two participants before shit went down. The seconds acted as negotiators, relaying messages such as the time and place of the battle, as well as what weapons were to be used. Well, Steve Gillis, Mark Twain's second, turned out to provide a much, much more valuable service than that.
The story goes that, knowing that his reputation as a hopelessly inept shot preceded him and in quite justified fear for his life, Twain arrived early at the dueling grounds so Gillis could coach him as he practiced shooting a fence rail representing his lanky opponent. Twain went about missing every single shot.
"Can't I just trick my friends into shooting it for me?"
Understandably frustrated that his student seemed to lack even the most basic understanding of the dynamics of killing things with lead and black powder, Gillis snatched away the revolver and, noticing a flock of sparrows frolicking about 30 yards away, demonstrated how effective the pistol was at cleanly removing a teensy bird's head.
That's when Laird arrived, all snazzied up and aching to abort Tom Sawyer from the uterus of American history. One look at the headless sparrow, however, and Laird's demeanor instantly took a left turn to Abouttopissmypantsville. Mark Twain, being fucking Mark Twain, saw Lady Opportunity smiling his way, and immediately jumped on the chance to say, "Oh, that? Shit. Yeah, I did that." (But he probably said it better because, you know ... Mark Twain.)
"Your dick. That could've been your dick."
Needless to say, Laird called off the duel, and the future of American literature was saved via a combination of luck and trickery that would make Loki jealous.