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Reading "The fatal eggs" by Bulgakov, I was surprised by his reference to "electric revolvers". The novel is science fiction, but it is very much Jurassic park style. It plays in contemporary (for the publication) Russia, and there is just one unusual scientific discovery which creates an apocalyptic scene.

The electric revolvers are mentioned in passing, and don't feel like a literary device of an alternate universe. They just seem a forgettable part of the scenery. As far as I can tell, no other part of the context is unusual for the times. Some things are satirically exaggerated (the professor's expectations of his students) but all other technology mentioned, with exception of the mysterious natural phenomenon at the center of the plot, feel normal for the time.

Did they have electric weapons back then? If yes, how widespread were they - just prototypes, or some exotic-but-known technology like segways today, or were they even in wider use?

Note that while the inspiration for the question came through the book, I'm still interested in knowing whether they had access to any kind of working electric personal weapon back then, not only in knowing whether the type mentioned in the book is realistic.

  • Could you describe these "electric revolvers" better? Do you mean they shoot electricity? Or that they're a normal revolver that incorporates electricity to fire a regular gunpowder bullet? – Schwern Oct 30 '15 at 19:34
  • @Schwern they're not described, just mentioned. I'd have to look for the exact passages. But for the purpose of the question, I'm interested in learning about anything that fits this description. – rumtscho Oct 30 '15 at 20:06
  • I found the text and a description of the effect and some Soviet weapons from the 80s that seem to (but don't) match the description. I've been updating my answer. – Schwern Oct 30 '15 at 20:12
  • Note that the book also describes in the same tone (in "passing") other non-historical details like a mixed USA-SU company solving the lack of habitages in Moscow. – SJuan76 Oct 31 '15 at 19:48
  • No, Tesla troopers weren't invented till the 80s... :p – Ne Mo Oct 31 '15 at 23:18
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I found a translation of this book online. It's a 1920s Soviet sci-fi novel about a special light that makes things grow fast. It doesn't appear to be particularly rooted in science.

Here's the two references in the text I found.

They only had one electric revolver, but it was good protection. A 1927 model, the pride of French technology for shooting at close range, could kill at a mere hundred paces, but had a range of two metres in diameter and within this range any living thing was exterminated outright. It was very hard to miss.

The electric revolver fired twice, lighting up everything around with a greenish flash, and the crocodile shuddered and stretched out rigid, letting go of Polaitis.

The way they casually talk about the gun suggests it's not a prototype, but an exported, easy to get commercial item. No, nobody had a gun then that could kill things with a two meter cone of green light, we would have heard of it.

We still don't have practical handheld energy weapons. The "rigid" effect sounds like electrocution. You could get that effect with a lethal taser, but that requires firing darts with wires into the target with a maximum range of 10m. Tasers were invented in the 70s and the 100 pace range of the electric revolver is about 75m.

M26 Taser


Why an "electric" revolver? Because it's cool! Cooler than just shooting a crocodile full of bullets.

Electricity was a fad in late 19th and early 20th century sci-fi similar to how DNA was a fad in the 80s, and nanotech and "quantum" in the 90s. I'm going to guess dark energy/matter are the thing now. Everything could be explained with electricity.

Why have just a gun, when you can have an electric rifle!

The cover of Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle

This book is from 1911, a possible source of inspiration. TASER stands for Thomas A Swift's Electric Rifle.

Of foremost notice is Swift's invention of the electric rifle, a gun which fires bolts of electricity. The electric rifle can be calibrated to different levels of range, intensity and lethality; it can shoot through solid walls without leaving a hole, and is powerful enough to kill a rampaging whale, as in their steamer trek to Africa. With the electric rifle, Tom and friends bring down elephants, rhinoceroses, and buffalo, and save their lives several times in pitched battle with the red pygmies. It also can discharge a globe of light that was described as being able to maintain itself, like ball lightning, making hunting at night much safer in the dark of Africa. In appearance, the rifle looked very much like contemporary conventional rifles.

It has been noted that The Fatal Eggs has many parallels with The War of the Worlds published 30 years earlier. The War of the Worlds had aliens firing a heat ray. It's the 1920s and electricity is the thing now, so The Fatal Eggs has an electric revolver.

In the years before publication "scientists" started claiming they had invented various death rays which could have been inspiration to toss one of his own in.


As for the "rays", the apparently magical properties of X-rays created a bit of a fad for inventing new rays.

The ray brought them to life. It's a new ray, never studied or even discovered by anyone before. The first thing is to find out whether it is produced only by electricity, or by the sun as well," Persikov muttered to himself.

Even legit scientists got caught up in the craze. The most famous case was the "discovery" of N-rays by the respected physicist Prosper-René Blondlot and even confirmed by others! The whole thing was found to be an enormous case of confirmation bias.

In the darkened room, Wood surreptitiously removed an essential prism from the experimental apparatus, yet the experimenters still said that they observed N rays. Wood also stealthily swapped a large file that was supposed to be giving off N rays with an inert piece of wood, yet the N rays were still "observed".


Dragging this back to history, sort of, Wikipedia says the Soviets claim to have developed a "laser" pistol and "laser" revolver in the 80s! as a weapon for their astronauts! Wow!

Soviet "laser pistol"

Soviet "laser revolver"

The use of a magazine like a conventional gun suggests why the "electric revolver" is a revolver. Rather than have a power pack like most sci-fi and real directed energy weapons, presumably each cylinder held its own lethal electrical charge fired in a ray out the barrel. Putting aside how they manage to focus and direct electricity over 70 meters of air (we've barely fired that out) there's the problem of packing a lethal charge which can jump that gap into a bullet sized package: basically a AA battery. If you think the battery on your cell phone sucks, imagine it with with 1920s low density battery technology that was 10 to 100 times lower than we have now.

Before you get excited, they weren't lasers. They were just a very strong camera flash in a gun form. The magazines contained disposable flash bulbs. Their intent was to disable the optics on spacecraft.

Guy taking a picture with an old time flash bulb

Not nearly as cool, is it?

  • Interesting! I haven't read far enough to find this passage about the 2 meters, it seems. I knew the book's main idea, the "magic ray", is obviously not rooted in science. But its discovery is the point of the book, and all other objects seem pretty commonplace for the setting back then. So I wondered why he'd insert exactly one futuristic item in his otherwise "standard" background. – rumtscho Oct 30 '15 at 20:14
  • Also, the answer is very good in regards to the "electric revolver" as described, but I was actually interested in knowing whether there was any kind of electric tazer like weapon, which he can have known but exaggerated for the book's purpose, or whether he came up with it out of nowhere. – rumtscho Oct 30 '15 at 20:15
  • @rumtscho He put it in because it sounded cooler than just shooting crocodiles with bullets. As for the idea, electricity had been known to be lethal for decades, ray guns had been around in sci-fi for decades, and Tesla was claiming to have invented a death ray. Also, the book is considered to be heavily influenced by The War Of The Worlds which featured a "heat ray". This book's magic was electricity, so he had an electric revolver. – Schwern Oct 30 '15 at 20:37
  • @rumtscho I've edited the answer with more historical context. – Schwern Oct 30 '15 at 20:54
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I believe it's rather a Zeitgeist. Soviet writers in 1920s were quite ingenious in arms "development". Belyaev in "Master of the World" used powerful mental weapon, A.N.Tolstoy in "Engineer Garin's Hyperboloid" projected a kind of laser weapon and so on.

"Electric revolvers" in Bulgakov's story are much more powerful than modern samples: a multi-charged pistol capable of "killing anything alive in the circle of 2 meter in diameter" would have become a "must have" tool in modern warfare.

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