A term originating in British India for the highly skilled hunters able to bring down elusive “snipe” birds, today’s snipers are known as the most proficient sharpshooters in the military.
And while, historically, there have been sharpshooters and marksmen that stand out at every major battle and war as standout shots and soldiers willing–on all fronts–to risk their lives for the perfect shot, it wasn’t until the years following the Great War that the idea of dedicated sniper training began to take shape and gain traction. During the Second World War in particular, these capable and expertly trained marksmen emerged as a vital and impressive force–especially among the Eastern Front.
In fact, in the decade that led up to World War II, the Soviet Union was the only country in the world that dedicated specific training to sniper units–and their superiority in this arena clearly displays that this dedication wasn’t for naught. Soviet sharpshooters like Vasily Zaytsev, a man reported to have single-handedly killed over 220 soldiers during the Battle of Stalingrad (many of them officers and so-called combat multipliers–men whose deaths would disrupt the enemy’s ability to engage in warfare), proved the immense value of sharpshooters to military forces. And in the aftermath, the importance of the sniper would never be underestimated again.
In addition to sharpshooting, military snipers are trained in camouflage, infiltration, surveillance, reconnaissance, and several other essential components. Ahead of many other countries, during WWII the Soviet Union recruited both male and female snipers and in 1943 there were roughly 2,000 active female Soviet sharpshooters on the ground. Male or female, Russian snipers generally used standard issue Mosin-Nagant 1891 rifles with optical PU scopes, armor-piercing B-30 shells, tracer bullets, and calibrated incendiary.
Here’s a brief look at some of the most influential, lethal, and impressive snipers of World War II:
6. Fyodor Matveyevich Okhlopkov – 429 Confirmed Kills
An indigenous Soviet Yakut from the Krest-Khaldzhay village in Siberia, Fyodor Matveyevich Okhlopkov and his brother are said to have enlisted in the Soviet army together. Following his brother’s death during combat, an infuriated Okhlopkov swore to avenge his death, completing sniper training and going on to complete confirmed 429 WWII kills as a sniper.
But his marksman talents weren’t his only remarkable skill, as Fyoder was also often sent out alone by his commander, armed with automatic weapons, to drive back encroaching enemy forces. It was said that, armed with a machine gun, Okhlopkov could eliminate Germans like “a farmer trimming grass with a scythe,” and his total kill count is well over 1,000 when you factor in any type of weapon used.
Fyodor’s twelfth major combat wound came in June of 1944, when he was shot in the chest while fighting in Belarus and nearly died. It would mean the end of his military career, though he would eventually be honored as HSU–Hero of the Soviet Union (the highest military distinction of the country). Later, a cargo ship would be named after him.
5. Vladimir Nikolaevich Pchelintsev – 456 Confirmed Kills
Not much is known about Pchelintsev”s life before or after the war, though it is known that his prowess with the Mosin-Nagant 1891, as well as his knowledge of the terrain (coupled with the advancing German’s complete inexperience with the area) all helped him achieve an impressive confirmed kill count of 456.
4. Ivan Nikolayevech Kulbertinov – 487 Confirmed Kills
Just like with Pchelintsev there is not much known about Kulbertinov’s life before or after the war, though his prowess with his Mosin-Nagant 1891 rightfully earns him a place on this list. Kulbertinov was often active at the same time and in similar locations to Lyudmila Pavlichenko, one of the USSR’s most well known and celebrated female snipers at the time, with some 309 confirmed kills. But Ivan’s 487 take downs surpass even Pavlichenko’s impressive exploits, making him one of the most lethal snipers of WWII.
3. Nikolay Yakovlevich Ilyin – 494 Confirmed Kills
A sergeant major in the Soviet army during the pivotal Battle of Stalingrad, Ilyin was a locksmith before joining the Red Army and working his way up to becoming a sniper as part of the 50th Guards Rifle Division. Like another Russian war hero, Vasily Zaytsev, Ilyin really made a name for himself during Stalingrad, where he took down 216 of his 494 of his confirmed kills. And while the sharpshooter died in combat in 1943, he did receive his country’s highest honor–the title of HSU–earlier that same year.
2. Ivan Mikhailovich Sidorenko – 500 Confirmed Kills
The top sniper in the Soviet Union’s already impressive roster, Ivan Sidorenko was born into a peasant family and went on to study art after a 10th grade education. Later, he would join the Soviet Army and teach himself how to snipe. By the time he was a Junior Lieutenant, his commanding officers had Sidorenko train fellow soldiers as well, thanks in no small part to his undeniable efficiency on the battle field.
Fighting on the 1st Baltic Front, Sidorenko accumulated 500 kills between 1941 and 1944, during which time he also burned three German tractors and a tank with the use of incendiary bullets. Following a severe injury in Estonia in 1944, he was awarded HSU. Sidorenko retired as a Major of the Soviet army shortly after, and went on to become a coal mine foreman.
1. Simo Haya – 505 Confirmed Kills
Finnish sharpshooter Simo Haya, nicknamed “White Death” by the Soviets for his incredible marksmanship and his penchant for disappearing into the snow with his camouflage, holds the distinction of holding the highest number of confirmed sniper kills–505–in any major war in history. All 500 plus of the soldiers brought down Haya belonged to the Red Army; making him a force to be reckoned with by any measure.
Tormenting Soviet combatants during the Winter War of 1939-1940, it’s worth noting that most of Haya’s kills took place over the course of 100 days, when he was averaging roughly 5 kills per days during winter, when daylight hours were scarce.
Using a Finnish version of the Mosin-Nagant, Simo preferred using iron sights to the optical PU scope utilized by most snipers of the time, as it allowed him to keep his head lower (thus keeping him a smaller target to the enemy) and increased his accuracy because it didn’t fog in the winter weather. He also believed sunlight glinting off the glass of a PU scope could give away a sniper’s position–a risk he further reduced by keeping snow in his mouth to eliminate any steam from his warm breath.
In March of 1940 a Soviet soldier shot Haya in the face, removing his lower jaw and half of his face. When he regained consciousness a week later, Finland and the USSR had signed a peace treaty, and Haya was promoted to Second Lieutenant.
Following the war, Simo went on to become a successful moose hunter and dog breeder, having several medals and distinctions for his contributions to Finland for his efforts during the war, including the Cross of Liberty and the Medal of Liberty. When asked how he’d become such an incomparable shot, his answer was at once simple and all inclusive– “Practice.”