Re your column on Russian roulette [October 22]: It was my understanding that in one or another of the wars in which the Russians were involved, the soldiers were so ill-equipped for battle that they could rarely fully load their weapons. They placed bullets in the chambers at random.
Therefore, when they fired at an enemy soldier, neither they, nor the enemy, knew if there would be a shell present.
To do battle with a Russian became known as "Russian roulette."
Cecil Adams replies:
No mention of this scenario appears in the 1937 Collier's article "Russian Roulette," the first known appearance of this term in print. For further illumination I turned to John Bushnell, a Russian history expert at Northwestern:
"Never heard that, and it's very, very dubious, on many, many counts. Up to the early 19th century, soldiers firing smoothbore muskets, in all armies, missed almost all the time. By the end of the 19th century, Russian soldiers were adequately equipped with rifles. Only pistols had chambers that might have been loaded at random, and only officers had pistols. Only in the Crimean War, when the British and French were firing muzzle-loaded rifles that had five times the range of the Russians' smoothbore muzzle loaders, was there a situation in which Russia's opponents might have talked about a marked discrepancy in shooting prowess, but the situation doesn't seem to fit the explanation offered."