TOCWOC – A Civil War Blog

White Death

A quick look at the world’s most successful sniper, Simo Häyhä of Finland. During the brief Russo-Finnish “Winter War” of 1939-40, Häyhä was credited with killing an astounding 500 Russian soldiers before he was wounded. In spite of being hit in the jaw with an explosive round he survived the war and lived into his 90s, dying in 2001.

What I thought most interesting about Häyhä was, like many Civil War sharpshooters, he had no special training as a sniper or even anything beyond basic marksmanship. Although given a fancy scoped Swedish hunting rifle, he preferred a standard iron sighted Mosin Nagant service rifle, and on a number of occasions used a Suomi submachinegun firing a 9mm pistol cartidge.

What distinguished Häyhä, like many Civil War sharpshooters, was his skill as a hunter. Like American hero Alvin York, Häyhä came into the army already knowing how to shoot. What was even more helpful was his knowledge of woodcraft, which often gets ignored in discussion of sniping and sharpshooting. If you look at the programs on the Army and Marine sniper schools, you will see that a great deal of their time is spent learning to hide, stalk and move quietly through the woods. Häyhä and many Civil War sharpshooters, especially those raised in the rural South, already knew how to do this. Häyhä, for instance, packed the snow in front of his position so that the muzzle blast would not kick up snow and give away his position, and kept a mouthful of snow to keep his breath from showing.

Häyhä was not a long range killer. Most of his kills were under 400 yards and many were much closer, well within the ranges of the Civil War. As in the Civil War, much of Finland was forested, which limited sight ranges, and Häyhä used his stalking skills to get close to his quarry, which made for an easier shot.

Overall, I think there’s been too much emphasis on weapons and long range shooting, and not enough on woodcraft, which was a bigger factor in the effectiveness of the sharpshooters in the Civil War.

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One response to “White Death”

  1. Dean West Avatar

    Very interesting post amplifying on a point Mr. Ray made in his terrific book on Lee’s sharpshooter battalions.

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