History of Russian Roulette

Russian roulette (русская рулетка) is a lethal game of chance in which a player places a single round in a revolver, spins the cylinder, places the muzzle against their head, and pulls the trigger. “Russian” refers to the supposed country of origin, and roulette to the element of risk-taking and the spinning of the revolver’s cylinder being reminiscent of spinning a roulette wheel.


It is claimed that this practice was widely known in Russia in the early 19th century. However, there is only one written source before the 20th century: in Mikhail Lermontov’s 1840 “The Fatalist”, one of five novellas comprising his A Hero of Our Time, a minor character survives a version of Russian roulette.

There are a number of legends trying to explain the origin of the game, most of them are based on opinion that the game used to be popular among soldiers and officers of the Russian army. According to one of them, in the 19-th century, Russian roulette was a popular time killer among prison guards in Russian prisons. The legend says that the guards made stakes on life and death of their prisoners and made theguys poor prisoners play the game in front of their eyes.

Another version states that Russian army officers used to voluntarily play this game to surprise others with their bravery.

Russian roulette was also said to be an effective, but relatively safe trick, because on some revolvers, when the trigger is not cocked, the drum rotates freely. Therefore, if the drum is well lubricated, during its rotation the only cartridge will snap down under its own weight and remain in the bottom of the drum, so the chamber of the drum coaxial with the barrel is highly likely to remain empty. However, on many types of revolvers, when the trigger is cocked, the drum does not rotate freely, including the famous “nagan” revolver, which was the main gun of the Russian army at the beginning of the 20-th century: a specially designed spring fixated the drum in firing position even when the trigger was not cocked, so the mass of the cartridge could not have a noticeable effect on the drum position.

russian roulette

The first written mention of the term “Russian Roulette” refers to January 30, 1937. Georges Surdez in the article “Russian Roulette” in the American magazine «Collier’s Weekly» provides a dialogue with a French Foreign Legion sergeant who had served in the Russian army:

«Feldhaym … Have you ever heard of “Russian roulette”?»

When I said that I had not, he told me all about it. When he served in the Russian Army in Romania, approximately in 1917, when everything was falling apart, the Russian officers believed that they were loosing prestige, money, family, country, and honor in the face of the Allies. Frustrated and driven by despair, some of them – right at a table in a restaurant or just surrounded with friends – would suddenly fetch a gun, remove one bullet from the drum (so that there was only one empty slot), twist the drum, put a gun to their head and press the trigger. The probability that the the gun would shoot and that the officer’s brains would splatter everything around was five chances out of six. Sometimes it happened, and sometimes it didn’t.”

This passage describes the most extreme and the most “deadly” version of Russian roulette, when there remains only one empty slot in a drum of a revolver. The 4.2 linear revolver Smith & Wesson, also known as the “Smith & Wesson-Russian” which had been the main gun of the Russian Imperial Army prior to “Nagan”, also had a drum capacity of six cartridges and could also be used for Russian roulette game – even before World War One.

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