Russian roulette – stimulating hobby, bizarre suicide ritual, or both?

In today’s stressed out world, there’s a huge market for relaxing sounds. You have albums like “Absolute Ambient vol. 24” where you get hours upon hours of the sounds of rolling waves, the wind blowing through the trees, raindrops landing in wet grass, or birds chirping, whales singing and fruitbats doing whatever it is fruitbats do. The possibilites are endless.

One thing that hasn’t been marketed, though, is what might be the most relaxing sound in the entire world – the “click” of a loaded revolver aimed at your head. The “click” that could have been a “blam”. Although I feel it should be mentioned that if it had been a “blam”, you wouldn’t exactly be around to hear it.

But I digress. What I sat down to do was to write about Russian Roulette. It’s a very simple game, really. It is usually played against others (ideally, there’d be six people at the table), but it could be played by yourself as well. (1) You take a revolver with an empty cylinder. (2) You put one cartridge into it, then spin the chamber around. (thus the name, "roulette".) (3) You aim it at your head and pull the trigger. If you survive, congratulations! Hand the gun to the person sitting next to you!

Though it isn’t really like there are official rules for the game, for various reasons.

  • The rules for most other sports and games weren’t all there from the start. Instead, they usually start as simple ideas and then evolve over the years as more and more people got more and more experience with the sport/game and decide what changes that would make it better. However, due to the nature of russian roulette, a person can only get so much experience of playing the game before Darwin takes care of him. In other words, it’s still in the “a simple idea” stage.
  • There’s noone who can be arsed writing anything definite down, as all the people who’d be interested in standardised rules for the game are quite likely to vanish off the face of the earth pretty soon anyway.
  • If you’re insane and/or suicidal enough to actually play it, it’s not your top priority if you’re using a standard regulation .44 Smith & Wesson.

Speaking of insane and/or suicidal, a common question is why the hell anyone would want to play the game? Obviously, there are some people who actually do it voluntarily, and don’t care if they live or die, but most of the time this was played by people who were forced to do it. Russian prisoners have been forced to play it, while the guards watched on and betted on the outcome. It’s illegal today (obviously), but it still happens in the poverty stricken areas of Russia. It’s also been used as torture in wartime (see Deer Hunter).

The origins of the sport are not really known. It probably does come from Russia, but not much more is known. The Russian army used six-cylinder revolvers in the late 19th century, so it'd make sense if it started there. According to The Straight Dope it appeared in writing for the first time in the short story “Russian Roulette”, written by Georges Surdez in 1937. A Russian soldier asks the narrator:

"'Feldheim... did you ever hear of Russian Roulette?' When I said I had not, he told me all about it. When he was with the Russian army in Rumania, around 1917, and things were cracking up, so that their officers felt that they were not only losing prestige, money, family, and country, but were being also dishonored before their colleagues of the Allied armies, some officer would suddenly pull out his revolver, anywhere, at the table, in a cafe, at a gathering of friends, remove a cartridge from the cylinder, spin the cylinder, snap it back in place, put it to his head, and pull the trigger. There were five chances to one that the hammer would set off a live cartridge and blow his brains all over the place. Sometimes it happened, sometimes not."
Note that the odds in this version have been inversed – now you have a 1/6 chance of survival, instead (though the version where only one cartridge is in the cylinder also appears in the story). This is only for the hardcore Russian roulette fanatics and is not recommended for people who're new to the game.

Either way, it’s a very fascinating sport which I predict will only become more popular in the future. There’ll always be a steady supply of people who’re suicidal – in fact, if the current trends are any indication, it will even increase in the future! And with the advent of extreme sports, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a Russian roulette revival. It is, after all, the first real extreme sport, and at the same time the most extreme one the world will ever see.

It’s only a matter of time.



Node your Homework (Why yes, I do get fucked up assignments!)

Straight Dope article can be found at

The statistics of russian roulette are particularly interesting. If you were to play a single round (no pun indented), you have an 83.3% chance of surviving - not bad odds, everything considered. It isn't untill you decide to keep playing that things get silly.

Statistically - slightly depending on how the cylinder is spun, the design of the gun, and the weight of the cartridge, your chances might be different than 1/6.

Ways of spinning the cylinder, and their statistical effect on the outcome of the game

There are two main ways of spinning the cylinder before a game. On revolvers that have a cylinder that comes out on the side, it is possible to set the cylinder spinning, and then (with a Deer Hunter-style flick of the wrist) snap the cylinder into the gun. This result is most random, and the chances of getting a live round are indeed pretty exactly 1/6. The same goes for guns that break open along the axis of the barrel (imagine pointing the gun at a wall, and then break the barrel down, exposing the cylinder): Set the cylinder spinning and snap it upwards. Note that the person playing should never do the spinning themselves, as it is possible to catch a glimpse of the cartridge, completely spoiling the fun.

The second way of spinning the barrel is to close the gun, cock the hammer back half-way, and set it spinning. In some revolvers, you will have to halfway depress the trigger or release a catch to be able to revolve the cylinder without obstruction, while in other revolvers this will be completely impossible for mechanical reasons. The difference is that when spinning the cylinder in this fashion, the cylinder will be allowed to spin untill it stops. Because the firing cylinder is normally the one before the barrel (the action of a revolver, as you pull the trigger, is forwarding the cylinder 1/6th of a revolution, then release the hammer, firing the gun). However, as the cylinder has been allowed to churn itself to a stop, gravity will have had a say in the randomness of the stoppage: The bullet in one of the chambers will be inclined to liaison with gravity to stop towards the bottom, making it less likely to end up in the firing position.

It is possible - and this has no doubt happened in the past - that the person spinning the gun uses tricks such as the one mentioned above, to manipulate the outcome of the shooting, but that is a different matter altogether.

If you play consecutive games of roulette, including spinning the cylinder between each time, you have 5/6th of a chance of surviving every time - 83.3 %. Which, as we already established, doesn't sound so bad. But what happens if you keep going?

  • After 1 game, you have 83.33% chance of still being alive
  • After 2 games, you have 69.44% chance of still being alive
  • After 3 games, you have 57.87% chance of still being alive
  • After 4 games, you have 48.22% chance of still being alive
  • After 5 games, you have 40.19% chance of still being alive
  • After 10 games, you have 16.15% chance of still being alive
  • After 20 games, you have 2.61% chance of still being alive
  • After 50 games, you have 0.011% chance of still being alive

In other words: after 4 games, chances are less than 50/50 for still being alive. Perhaps it might be better to take a game of poker instead, in other words.

Oh, and remember to never play russian roulette with an semiautomatic pistol, as your odds of the gun not firing are somewhat lower and significantly less random than with a revolver.

Feel like trying the game but can't be bothered to die? I made a virtual russian roulette game, available here


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