Today, frictional shear resistance along pre-existing faults is considered to be the lower limit on rock shear strength for confined conditions corresponding to the seismogenic layer. This paper introduces a recently identified shear rupture mechanism providing a paradoxical feature of hard rocks - the possibility of shear rupture propagation through the highly confined intact rock mass at shear stress levels significantly less than frictional strength. In the new mechanism, the rock failure associated with consecutive creation of small slabs (known as 'domino-blocks') from the intact rock in the rupture tip is driven by a fan-shaped domino structure representing the rupture head. The fan-head combines such unique features as: extremely low shear resistance, self-sustaining stress intensification, and self-unbalancing conditions. Due to this the failure process caused by the mechanism is very dynamic and violent. This makes it impossible to directly observe and study the mechanism and can explain why the mechanism has not been detected before. This paper provides physical motivation for the mechanism, based upon side effects accompanying the failure process. Physical and mathematical models of the mechanism presented in the paper explain unique and paradoxical features of the mechanism. The new shear rupture mechanism allows a novel point of view for understanding the nature of spontaneous failure processes in hard rocks including earthquakes. © 2014 Elsevier B.V.