American Sniper; Shooter; Enemy at the Gates; the public’s fascination with sniper movies is both old and well-documented. Of course, this is not without reason. From old Jack Hinson to more well-known figures like Vasily Zaytsev, men and women who can hit targets at fantastic distances have gained a mythic status, even amongst other shooters, who attribute an almost black-magic ethos to practitioners of the art. This being America however, the home of competitive spirit, we’ve decided to take our admiration one step further on this Throwback Thursday. Of four of the best-known snipers—Chris Kyle, Carlos Hathcock, Simo Häyhä and Lyudmila Pavlichenko—who would come out on top in a friendly, but realistic, shoot-off?
To properly hold a contest of course, we’ll need some basic parameters by which to judge our contestants. So why not mimic the current real-world test of sniping skill, the International Sniper Competition, held annually at Fort Benning, Georgia? Not simply a test of shooting prowess, the International Sniper Competition tests mental and physical endurance, as well as the ability to evade detection. Thus we will use anecdotes from the careers of our contestants to roughly evaluate the following three parameters: accuracy; endurance; and stealth.
Fourth Place-Chris Kyle
The protagonist of American Sniper, Chief Petty Officer Chris Kyle is undoubtedly the most well-known sniper of recent years. With a Silver Star and four Bronze Stars with valor (among other awards), it’s not hard to see why. Kyle grew up hunting the Texas countryside with his father, before becoming a rodeo rider and attending several years of college. Having already lived more in 25 years than most have in 60, Kyle then joined the Navy SEALS, where he was assigned to SEAL Team-3, sniper element, Platoon “Charlie.”
Serving in many of the major battles of the Iraq war, Kyle stacked up more than 150 confirmed kills, earning him a bounty on his head that started at $20,000, and was later increased to $80,000. His most impressive was what he described as a “straight-up luck shot” from 2,100 yards, using his McMillan TAC-338 sniper rifle. Chris served four tours of duty in the Iraq War, which he survived despite being shot twice, and being involved in six IED detonations.
All of the above means Kyle was one impressive shooter, but on this list that’s almost a prerequisite. For endurance, the man served four tours despite being wounded multiple times, so he earns some definite points there. As far as stealth is concerned, however, there are no reported instances (at least, not available to us civilians) which attest to any particular ability to stay hidden. In fact, given that he often served as overwatch for teams of door-kickers, it’s reasonable to assume that concealing himself was never something of especial concern (relative to the other snipers we will come to, who often worked alone and behind enemy lines). Thus, Chief Petty Officer Kyle occupies position four on this list.
Third Place- Lyudmila Pavlichenko
The infamous “Lady Death,” bane of Nazi existence, comes next. Lyudmila Pavilchenko was born in Bila Tserkva, in what is now Ukraine. He early shooting skills were molded in the local OSOAVIAKhIM paramilitary youth program, where she achieved the “Voroshilov Marksman” badge, second degree, entailing not just sharpshooting, but also but also navigation, grenade throwing and physical training. While she left the program in her early adulthood, she returned to it as the clouds of war formed over Europe, enrolling in the two-year OSOAVIAKhIM sniper course in Kiev which familiarized her with the Mosin model 1891/1930 she was later to carry.
When Pavilchenko first attempted to enlist in the armed forces in 1941, she was turned away with an admonishment to try nursing. Luckily for the USSR, she was far too persistent to listen, and enrolled the next day in the 25th Chapayev Rifle Division. When she finally got her hands on an old Mosin (she had to take it from a fallen comrade), Lyudmila already knew its intricacies and weaknesses. She removed wood from the forend allowing her to better bed the barrel, filed the gunstock tip, padded where the receiver and magazine join and filed the bolt mechanism to ensure reliability.
Once the rifle was up and running, Pavilchenko wreaked a line of havoc across Odessa, Moldavia and Sevastopol. In just 11 months, she notched 309 confirmed kills, 36 of which were enemy snipers she stalked and dispatched. The most famous instance of this saw a three-day cat-and-mouse battle between her and an enemy sniper. When she felled him on the third day, Pavilchenko simply remarked, “he made one move too many.” Pavilchenko became such a thorn in the Germans’ side that they attempted to affect her defection by offering her chocolate and an officer’s rank over loudspeakers. When that didn’t work, they turned their rhetoric to naked threats, warning she would be torn to shreds. The Russians however, as ecstatic with her performance as the Germans were annoyed, promoted her all the way to Junior Lieutenant.
Unfortunately, this increased attention eventually caught up with Junior Lieutenant Pavilchenko. In June 1942, she was grievously wounded when an artillery barrage blew off half her right ear. She spent the rest of the war touring the USSR and the USA, in an attempt to inspire morale, and convince America to open a second front in Europe.
Junior Lieutenant Pavilchenko’s marksmanship, not to mention her technical know-how in reconstructing her rifle, are quite impressive. Staying hidden from a sniper on her trail for three days, ultimately besting him, is even more so. For these reasons alone, Junior Lieutenant Pavilchenko arrives at third place on our list.
Second Place-Carlos Hathcock
I can hear the angry Marines at my door already. Please keep in mind that second-best among some of the most legendary combat shooters in history is still rarified air by any stretch of the imagination, and Gunnery Sergeant Hathcock certainly has the lungs to breathe it. Utilizing a self-converted M21 Springfield variant he dubbed the M25 “White Feather”, after the nickname given him by the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) for the tall feather he wore in his bush hat, Hathcock made his presence well known in-country. Already an experienced shooter prior to combat service, Hathcock grew up hunting on visits to his relatives in Mississippi, and later shot competitively. This culminated in his winning the Wimbledon Cup at Camp Perry in 1965.
On the battlefield, these skills served Hathcock well. He racked up a deadly reputation, with his fellow Marines dubbing him “the Legend” for countless incredible deeds. While his sheer number of downed enemy is certainly impressive, sitting at 93 confirmed (but more likely between 300 and 400, considering no third party was ever present to “confirm” things when he was behind enemy lines), his skill and tenacity is far more so. The PAVN themselves placed a $30,000 bounty on his head for killing so many of their own snipers. One of his most famous deeds occurred in just such a counter-sniping scenario, when seeing the glint off an enemy sniper’s scope, he shot him directly through the scope’s tube. While he claimed the damaged rifle, hoping to bring it home as a trophy, it was unfortunately stolen from the armory and lost to history. Another display of skill, not to mention sheer grit, came when he inched his way over 1,500 yards across a field, over four sleepless days and three nights, to eliminate a PAVN general. During this ordeal, he remained hidden despite almost being bitten by a bamboo viper, and stepped on by an enemy patrol
In 1969, Hathcock’s wartime career came to an unfortunate end when his LVT-5 struck an anti-tank mine. While the burns he sustained were too severe for him to return to combat, Hathcock continued his work on the home front, helping to establish the Marine Corps Scout Sniper School at the Marine base in Quantico, Virginia.
While he may never have made a shot at 2,100 yards like Chris Kyle, Hathcock’s skill with the old M21 was impressive. After all, placing a bullet through another’s scope, a feat so incredible it was officially “busted” on the Discovery Channel program Mythbusters, cannot be overstated. As far as mental and physical endurance is concerned … have you ever stayed awake for 84 hours to crawl across a field of snakes? Has ANYONE else, for that matter?? He also managed to stay fully hidden during this feat, earning him high marks across both our final two categories. Gunnery Sergeant Hathcock, therefore, sits at position two on our list.
First Place-Simo Häyhä
Simo Häyhä, the unassuming wintertime warrior from Finland, unquestionably wins this contest. Born in the rural Küskinen, Rautjärvi province (which is now Russian territory), Häyhä honed his skills from a young age, hunting in the Finish woods around his home. At the age of 17, he joined the Rautjärvi Civil Guard, and later served mandatory conscription in the Army from 1925-1927, in Bicycle Battalions 1 & 2. After being discharged, he continued on in the Civil Guard, winning numerous Viipuri Civil Guard regional competitions throughout the 1930s. Outside of the guard, his primary living was made as a hunter and trapper, meaning that in all areas of his life, a rifle rarely left Häyhä’s hands.
When the Winter War began, with Russia conducting a false-flag shelling of its own village of Manilla to initiate conflict, 450,000 Soviet troops poured over the Finnish border. His abilities quickly recognized, Häyhä was immediately relied upon to take out high-value targets others could not reach. Counter sniping, therefore, became his primary responsibility. This particular duty meant Häyhä conducted his business primarily with iron sights, an unthinkable method for a 20th century sharpshooter. He did this to prevent other snipers from spotting him in the snow, where the telltale glint of a scope could prove fatal. At one point, Häyhä even dislodged a well dug-in enemy sniper at 400 yards with such a setup. Eschewing any and all comforts in pursuit of his craft, Simo regularly removed his gloves to use them as a rifle rest, despite weather that dipped to -43 degrees Celsius, and filled his mouth with snow to eliminate the steam from his breath.
As the small ranks of the Finnish military required even snipers to pull double duty, Häyhä was sometimes called upon to fight in close. During one such occasion, he crawled silently with his comrades almost to the light of a Russian campfire, before opening fire on the unsuspecting soldiers and making off with their weaponry. All this technique, daring and skill led Häyhä to rack up 542 confirmed kills over just 98 days on the Kollaa front. The Soviets became so frustrated with the devastation he wreaked that they began to call down artillery strikes onto his suspected positions. But Häyhä always escaped into the safety of the forests, leading the Finnish media to bestow upon him the moniker of “White Death,” for his ability to materialize, kill, and vanish into the snow without a trace.
Finally, on March 6, 1940, Häyhä was grievously wounded in close-quarters combat in the forests of Ulismaa. A Russian infantryman hit Häyhä in the jaw with an exploding bullet, shattering the bone and half his face. Despite being taken for dead and thrown onto a pile of corpses (according to one story, anyway), Häyhä was recognized as alive when someone saw his boot twitching around, and was transported to the hospital on a sleigh. There Häyhä remained in a coma for seven days, until March 13. By the time he awoke, the war was over.
Häyhä ‘s prowess not just with a rifle, but with a fully unmagnified one, puts him atop our list for sharpshooting skill. The endurance displayed despite the bitter cold and long odds lend him high marks there as well, while finally, his total evasion of airstrikes and counter-snipers, only eventually being wounded when acting as infantry in a pitched battle, combine to thrust Second Lieutenant Häyhä to the top of our list.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this Throwback Thursday sniper shoot-off. For more on Simo Häyhä and Lyudmila Pavilchenko in particular, check out the following stories right here at nrafamily.org: