Russian roulette is a potentially lethal game of chance in which a "player" places a single round in a revolver, spins the cylinder, places the muzzle against his 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.
Because only one chamber is loaded, the player has a one in n chance of hitting the loaded chamber, where n is the number of chambers in the cylinder. So, for instance, for a revolver that holds six rounds, the chance is one in six. That assumes that each chamber is equally likely to come to rest in the "correct" position. However due to gravity, in a properly maintained weapon with a single round inside the cylinder, the full chamber, which weighs more than the empty chambers, will usually end up near the bottom of the cylinder, altering the odds in favour of the "player" - but only if the cylinder is allowed to come to a complete stop before the cylinder is relatched.
- 'Did you ever hear of Russian Roulette?' ... With the Russian army in Romania, around 1917, some officer would suddenly pull out his revolver, put a single bullet in the cylinder, spin the cylinder, snap it back in place, put it to his head and pull the trigger.
Legal case (Pennsylvania, United States)
In Commonwealth v. Malone, 47 A.2d 445 (1946), a Pennsylvania teenager's conviction for murder as a result of shooting a friend during a game of Russian roulette was upheld by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The court ruled that "When an individual commits an act of gross recklessness without regard to the probability that death to another is likely to result, that individual exhibits the state of mind required to uphold a conviction of manslaughter even if the individual did not intend for death to ensue." It is worth noting, however, that in the Malone case the teenagers involved played a modified version of Russian roulette in which they took turns aiming and pulling the trigger of the revolver at each other, rather than at their own heads. It has not yet been established whether simply participating in a game of Russian roulette in which another participant kills themselves with their own hand would constitute manslaughter or some lesser form of conspiracy or homicide.
Numerous incidents have been reported regarding Russian roulette.
- In his autobiography, Malcolm X says that during his burglary career he once played Russian roulette, pulling the trigger three times in a row to convince his partners in crime that he was not afraid to die. In the epilogue to the book, Alex Haley states that Malcolm X revealed to him that he palmed the round.
- On December 24, 1954, the American blues musician Johnny Ace killed himself in Texas after a gun he pointed at his own head discharged. Sources including the Washington Post attribute this to Russian roulette.
- Graham Greene relates in his first autobiography A Sort of Life (1971) that he played Russian roulette, alone, a few times as a teenager.
- In 1976 Finnish magician Aimo Leikas killed himself in front of a crowd while performing his Russian roulette act. He had been performing the act for about a year, selecting six bullets from a box of assorted live and dummy ammunition.
- John Hinckley, Jr., the man who attempted to murder President Ronald Reagan in 1981, was known to play Russian roulette, alone, on two occasions. Hinckley also took a picture of himself in 1980 pointing a gun at his head.
- PBS claims that William Shockley, co-inventor of the transistor and winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics, had attempted suicide by playing a solo game of Russian roulette.
- On October 12, 1984, American actor Jon-Erik Hexum was mortally wounded as a result of a Russian roulette stunt. The revolver that Hexum used was loaded with blanks and he apparently believed that the stunt was a harmless prank. However, the overpressure wave from the discharge of the blank propelled the round's wadding into his temple. The impact shattered his skull and caused massive brain trauma. Six days later he was declared brain dead and was taken off life support.
- On October 5, 2003, psychological illusionist Derren Brown appeared to take part in a game of Russian roulette on British television Channel 4. The stunt was broadcast with a slight delay allowing the program to cut to a black screen if anything were to go wrong. Also, the final firing of the gun was not shown, as the gun had gone out of camera shot. A statement by the police said that they had been informed of the arrangements in advance, and were satisfied that "at no time was anyone at risk".
- The BBC program Who Do You Think You Are? on 13 September 2010 featured the actor Alan Cumming investigating his grandfather Tommy Darling, who he discovered had died playing Russian roulette while serving as a police officer in Malaya. The family had previously believed that he had died accidentally while cleaning his gun.
- In the Discovery Channel reality series Bering Sea Gold, cast member John Bunce loaded a bullet into a .44 Magnum, spun the chamber and pulled the trigger, but the gun did not fire. He pulled the trigger a second time, which fired the chamber with the bullet in it, killing him. This incident occurred off camera at night between while John, an alcoholic, was "blackout drunk".
In popular culture
Russian roulette has been portrayed in many different works of modern culture.
- Russian roulette was made famous worldwide with the 1978 film The Deer Hunter, which features three soldiers who are captured during the Vietnam War and forced to play Russian roulette as their captors gamble on the results. Their captors demand an especially brutal variation of the game: the game is played until all but one contestant is killed. The game takes place in a bamboo room above where the other prisoners are held, so that the losers' blood drips down on future contestants. Several teen deaths following the movie's release caused police and the media to blame the film's depiction of Russian roulette, saying that it inspired the youths.
- In the 1997 film One Eight Seven, Samuel L. Jackson plays Trevor Garfield, a teacher who is forced to play Russian roulette with his gangbanger student, Caesar. Caesar, played by Clifton Collins, Jr., is depicted as having gotten the idea from the film The Deer Hunter. When Caesar hesitates to take his turn, Garfield takes his turn for him and is killed. After Garfield's suicide, Caesar insists on taking another turn despite the protests from one of his fellow gangbangers, and he is also killed.
- In 2008, 10 Years released a song called "Russian Roulette" on their album Division.
- In 2009, Rihanna released a song called "Russian Roulette".
- In 2010 the video game Call of Duty: Black Ops featured characters being forced to play Russian roulette, heavily inspired by the scene from The Deer Hunter.
- In 2014, Anthony Horowitz published Russian Roulette, prequel to his spy novel Alex Rider, focusing on the childhood and back-story of Yassen Gregorovich, the recurring assassin within the series.
- Georges Surdez, "Russian Roulette," Collier's Illustrated Weekly 30 Jan. 16, 1937; "Russian roulette n.", Oxford English Dictionary.
- "Really Old School", Washington Post, December 25, 1998.
- GoogleNews: Toledo,Ohio, Sept 10, 1976
- Garbus, Martin (2002-09-17) . Courting Disaster: The Supreme Court and the Unmaking of American Law (hardcover ed.). Times Books. ISBN 978-0-8050-6918-1.
- Transistorized!, Public Broadcasting Service, 1999.
- "Jon-Erik Hexum's Fatal Joke". Entertainment Weekly. 1994-10-14. Retrieved May 15, 2013.
- "Roulette gun stunt 'a hoax'". BBC News. 2003-10-07. Retrieved 2007-09-02.
- BBC1 13 September 2010.
- "The Deer Hunter Suicides". Snopes. August 16, 2007. Retrieved April 26, 2013.
- Grierson, Tim (May 13, 2008). "10 Years - 'Division' Review". About.com. Retrieved April 26, 2013.
- "Rihanna Released First Single called "Russian Roulette"". tonicgossip.com. October 20, 2009. Retrieved April 26, 2013.
- Stuart, Keith (November 9, 2010). "Call of Duty: Black Ops – review". The Guardian. Retrieved May 15, 2013.
- "Alex Rider’s nemesis: from terrified teen to assassin". The Irish Times. November 1, 2013. Retrieved March 17, 2014.