THE USE OF SNIPERS in combat has had mixed approval over the centuries. In the 18th century, it was considered ungentlemanly to allow a soldier to purposefully target officers or other high ranking officials. It simply didn’t fit in with the rules of war at that time. Even in modern times they are often seen as assassins and on the level of saboteurs rather than soldiers.
While there is still debate in some circles about the ethics of sniping, one thing cannot be denied: those who do the job, do it well—very well. They have to, or they wouldn’t have survived themselves.
Here’s a look at some of history’s most effective snipers, in no particular order:
Capt. Vasily Zaytsev (1915-1991) – Soviet Red Army
RIFLE: Mosin Nagant M91/30 Sniper Rifle in 7.62×54mmR with a Soviet 4x scope
Vasily Grigoryevich Zaytsev was a Soviet sniper during World War II. Prior to 10 November 1942, he had killed 32 Axis soldiers with a standard-issue rifle, however between 10 November 1942 and 17 December 1942 during the Battle of Stalingrad he killed 225 enemy soldiers, including 11 snipers.
If this name sounds familiar, it’s probably because you saw Jude Law play him in Enemy at the Gates (2001). The multi-day, long-range duel with an enemy German sniper that plays out in the film was first relayed in Vasily Zaytsev’s personal memoir after the war.
Vasily was a clerk who volunteered for front line service during the Battle of Stalingrad.
Astoundingly, he tallied 242 confirmed kills during his military service for the Red Army, many made at more than 1,000 meters.
Before Stalingrad, he killed 32 Axis soldiers with a standard-issue Mosin rifle.
In 1942, between November 10 and December 17, during the battle, he killed 225 enemy soldiers, including 11 snipers. In January, 1943, his eyes were injured in a mortar attack but he retained his sight. He became a heroic figure during the war and was later named “Hero of the Soviet Union.”
The Soviets used the sniper version of the Mosin Nagant rifle during the war, which was the standard bolt action 1891/30 infantry rifle, however, guns destined for snipers were hand selected for quality and accuracy. They were topped with 4x scopes. The PE scope, which is most likely what Vasily would have used, was a copy of a German Zeiss scope made by Emil Busch AG.
The Red Army used the Mosin to fill its sniper roll until 1962 when it was replaced by the semi-auto SVD Dragunov rifle.
After the war, Zaytsev settled in Kiev and studied at university before becoming an engineer. He became the director of a textile factory and remained in Kiev until he died on December 15, 1991 at the age of 76—just 11 days before the Soviet Union was dissolved.
Maj. Erwin König (???? – 1942) – German Army
RIFLE: (likely) Karabiner 98k in 7.92x57mm Mauser with Zeiss ZF42 scope
Like Zaytsev, if König’s name sounds familiar, it’s because he, too, was a character in Enemy at the Gates (2001), played by Ed Harris—the aforementioned German sniper that allegedly battled Zaytsev during the Battle of Stalingrad.
Specific details about König are sparse, and the vast majority we know about him comes from Zaytsev’s memoirs. As such, some of it may be true and some of it may be fiction. It’s also possible that König never actually existed. There are no historical documentation, other than the memoirs, or any secondary source that confirm the events in Zaytsev’s story.
In his memoirs, the Soviet sniper refers to König as being a German sniper named Herr Koning (“koning” is Dutch for king, and would be spelled as König in German), and was identified as the leader of a sniper school based in Berlin via documents taken from his dead body. Unfortunately, no discovered German personnel records make a mention a sniper named König or Koning.
In any case, Erwin König is included here on the chance that he really was Zaytsev’s foil during the battle of Stalingrad, and because he represents a memorable piece of sniper lore. And, after all, it could all be true.
GySgt. Carlos Hathcock (1942 – 1999) – U.S. Marine Corps
RIFLE: Winchester Model 70 in .30-06 with 8x Unerti scope
Known as “Long Tr’ang” — or “White Feather” — because he kept one in his hat band at (almost) all times while in country, Carlos Hathcock’s skill as a USMC sniper quickly made him a prime target for the Vietnamese. They even went so far as to offer a bounty on his head worth a staggering equivalent of $30,000. Normally, bounties rarely got higher than a few thousand dollars.
Hathcock says he only once removed the white feather form his booney hat while deployed in Vietnam. He volunteered for a dangerous mission at the end of his first deployment, only being given the details after he’d accepted. It required him to crawl over 1,500 yards through a field of low brush to shoot a PAVN general.
The effort took him four days and three nights, without sleep, crawling inch-by-inch on his belly while remaining concealed. Hathcock says he was almost stepped on by an enemy soldier while laying camouflaged with vegetation from his surroundings in a meadow, he was also almost bitten by a bamboo viper, but avoided the snake and giving up his position.
When the General exited his encampment, Hathcock fired a single shot that hit him in the chest.
This is just one story that made him a USMC sniper legend.
Another is the record he set for the longest sniper kill in 1967, which stood for decades. He used an M2 .50 Cal. Browning machine gun mounted with a telescopic sight to kill a Vietcong guerilla at a range of 2,500 yards. The record stood until it was broken in 2002 by Canadian snipers Rob Furlong and Arron Perry from the third battalion of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry during the War in Afghanistan. Hatchcock’s shot, in part, led to the use and development of the .50 BMG as a sniper rifle cartridge.
By far, the most impressive shot he ever made was when he took out an enemy sniper who had been dispatched to kill him. While lying in wait, Carlos caught a glimpse of light that flashed off of the enemy’s scope in the dense jungle and fired at it. After making the shot, it was discovered that Hathcock’s round went right down the center of the scope and struck the enemy sniper in the eye, killing him instantly. That also means the enemy sniper nearly had him in his crosshairs, but Hathcock was just a little faster.
This event has become an integral part of sniper lore and legend, having been depicted a number of times in pop culture. It was even the subject of several episodes of the show Mythbusters where they attempted to see if the miraculous shot was actually possible. The second time they tested it out with a period accurate scope and ammunition, they determined that the shot was “plausible” with “armor piercing” .30-06 ammunition, which Hathcock would likely have been using.
Regardless of the details, the sniper Hathcock shot was known only as The Cobra. He’d killed several Marines in the area and it was believed he was sent specifically to kill Hathcock. After the incredible shot, Hatchcock took The Cobra’s rifle, hoping to keep it as a trophy, but it was stolen from the armory after he turned it in.
However, Hathcock’s spotter, John Roland Burke observed the incident and the scene afterward and documented it with a photograph.
Hathcock’s storied military career ended in September, 1969 when he was severely burned on his face, arms, and legs while rescuing seven Marines from the burning vehicle he’d been riding in after it was hit by an anti-tank mine. He received a Purple Heart for his wounds and 30 years later he received a Silver Star for his actions.
Despite his severe injuries, Hathcock established the Marine Corps Scout Sniper School after the war at the Marine base in Quantico, Virginia. Despite being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 1975, he stayed in the Marines until being medically discharged later that year.
He later provided sniper training to police departments and select military units like SEAL Team Six.
A variant of the M21 rifle, dubbed the Springfield Armory M25 White Feather was created to honor Hathcock and was given to him by the North Vietnamese People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN).
Hatcock died in February, 1999 from complications from MS.
Hathcock’s confirmed kills come in at 93, but he claims the number to actually be somewhere between 300 and 400. He was known to go into the jungle on his own for days to hunt the enemy.
“It was the hunt, not the killing.” Hathcock said in a biography about his sniper career. “I like shooting, and I love hunting. But I never did enjoy killing anybody. It’s my job. If I don’t get those bastards, then they’re gonna kill a lot of these kids dressed up like Marines. That’s the way I look at it.”
2nd Lt. Simo Häyhä (1925–1940) – Finnish Army
RIFLE: Finnish M/28-30 in 7.62×53mmR with Iron Signs and a Suomi KP/-31 submachine gun.
Snipers tend to get nicknames, and Simo Häyhä’s has got to be one of the best in history. Called “White Death” by the Red Army and in propaganda because he wore all-white camouflage, the Finnish sniper claims to have killed more than 500 men during the Winter War of 1939-40, which is the highest number of sniper kills in any major war.
In December 1939 alone, he recorded 138 kills in just 22 days. Operating in temperatures as low as -40, Häyhä often kept snow in his mouth to prevent his breath from giving away his position and packed snow densely around himself to prevent his muzzle flash from disrupting the snow around him. His white camo was actually a great advantage, especially since Soviet soldiers weren’t issued winter camo at the time and were easy to spot against the white snow.
On top of that, he didn’t use a scope of any kind. He used his issued Civil Guard rifle, an early series SAKO M/28-30 rifle, a Finnish-made variant of the Soviet Mosin-Nagant. Häyhä’s rifle was only topped with iron sights, though it was issued with a scope.
He reportedly said in interviews that the scope and mount designed for the Mosin clone required the shooter to expose himself too much and raise his head too high, so he ditched it and stuck with irons—an indication that we was very good at getting up close to the enemy without being detected.
Additionally, scopes of the era tended to fog up in extreme cold or fail completely, risked giving away a sniper’s position via sunlight glinting off the lens (as we learned from Carlos Hathcock’s story above), and Häyhä had never been trained with a scope and was more comfortable with irons anyway.
But that wasn’t his only go to gun during the war. In his diary, military chaplain Antti Rantama, credits Häyhä with 259 confirmed kills by rifle and an equal number made with his Suomi KP/-31 submachine gun, further evidence that Häyhä was good at getting really, really close.
On December 21, 1939, he killed 25 enemy soldiers in a single day, a personal record.
In March 1940, Häyhä was struck in the jaw by an enemy’s exploding rifle round, disfiguring him severely, but not killing him.
It took him years to recover from the wound, which crushed his jaw and removed most of his left cheek—however, he did recover and became a successful moose hunter and dog breeder after the war.
In 1998 he was asked how be’d become such a good sniper. He replied, “Practice.”
Häyhä died in 2002 at the age of 96 in a war veteran’s nursing home.
Maj. Ivan Sidorenko (1939–1945) – Soviet Red Army
RIFLE: Mosin-Nagant M1891/30 in 7.62×54mmR with a PU scope
During World War II, Maj. Ivan Sidorenko was regarded as one of the best snipers in the Red Army. He dropped out of art school in 1939 and trained himself to be a sniper once he was conscripted.
During the Battle of Moscow in 1941, he spent time teaching himself how to snipe, successfully hunting down the enemy. His superiors took note of his shooting skills and turned him into a sniper instructor to teach men chosen for their eyesight, firearms knowledge, and endurance. He taught the men and then went on missions along with them. This prompted the Germans to begin fielding snipers of their own in the area.
Even while teaching over 250 snipers during the war, Sidorenko is credited with 500 kills of his own. When his kills are combined with theirs, the number of enemy deaths that can be linked to him and his training is staggering.
On one excursion with one of his trainees, Sidorenko destroyed a tank and three tractors with incendiary bullets. He was wounded several times, the most seriously in Estonia in 1944. As a result, he was hospitalized until the end of the war. He was awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union that same year and was prohibited from seeing more combat.
After the war, he retired from the army and worked as the foreman of a coal mine. He died in 1994 in Kizlyar, Dagestan.
Company Sgt. Maj. Francis Pegahmagabow (1891 – 1952) – Canadian Forces
RIFLE: Ross Rifle in .303 British with a Winchester A5 telescopic scope
Born in Ontario, Canada, Francis Pegahmagabow was a member of the indigenous First Nations. He enlisted in 1914 and went to Europe in 1915 to fight in WWI, where he was present at the Second Battle of Ypres. That battle is notable as being the first time the Germans used chlorine gas.
Pegahmagabow also saw combat during the Somme and the Second Battle of Passchendaele.
His skills as a sniper were impressive; he’s credited with 378 German kills, making him Canada’s most effective sniper during World War I. In addition to his sniping, he also took prisoner an astounding 300 German soldiers. His actions made him one of just 39 Canadians to ever have a second Bar added to his Military Medal.
The Ross Rifle he used as a sniper was a very finicky gun. It was pulled rom military service as it’s tight tolerances wouldn’t allow it to operate in the dirty and muddy conditions of trench warfare. The rifle continued to be used by Allied snipers because of its long range accuracy that let it reach out to 600 yards and beyond. But it would only accept completely clean cartridges totally free of dirt and grit. Otherwise, the gun would almost certainly jam.
After serving almost the entirety of WWI, he returned to Canada and continued to serve in the Algonquin Regiment militia. Later, following in his father and grandfather’s footsteps, he was elected chief of the Parry Island Band in 1921 and entered a controversial political period in his life.
Pegahmagabow died on the Parry Island reserve in 1952 at the age of 61
CPO Chris Kyle (1974 – 2013) – U.S. Navy SEALs
RIFLES: Mk 11 Sniper Rifle; Mk 12 Designated Marksman Rifle with M4A1 lower receiver; .M-24 Sniper Weapon System in .300 Win Mag; Magnum Accuracy International in .300 Win Mag; various rifles in .338 Lapua Magnum including the McMillan TAC-338 with a Nightforce 32x scope
A Navy SEAL sniper born in Texas, Chris Kyle is probably the best known person this list because of his 2012 autobiography, American Sniper and the subsequent 2015 film of the same title directed by Clint Eastwood in which Kyle was played by Bradley Cooper, and because of the tragic circumstances of his death.
The exact number of confirmed kills he made in Iraq has been debated, but it stands somewhere around 150; he estimates having made another 100 unconfirmed kills. Either way, it was more than enough to break the previously held record of 109.
He was awarded the Silver Star, four Bronze Stars with “V” devices, a Navy and Marine Cops Achievement Medal, and many unit and personal awards.
Like Hathcock, the enemy had a nickname for Kyle. They called him “Al-Shaitan Ramadi,” which means “The Devil of Ramadi.” They placed a bounty on his head that kept increasing until it reached $80,000.
Among the U.S. military, including the Marines he was tasked with protecting, he became known simply as “The Legend.” The nickname started among Kyle’s fellow SEALs after he took a sabatical to train snipers in Fallujah. and famously took a 2,100 yard shot that killed an insurgent sniper aiming at U.S. military personnell outside Sadr City in 2008. Kyle said it was “a straight-up luck shot” from his McMillan TAC-338 rifle.
In his book he writes, “A close-up of my Lapua .338, the gun I made my longest kill with. You can see my ‘dope’ card—the placard on the side contains my come-ups (adjustments) needed for long-range targets. My 2,100 yard shot exceeded the card’s range, and I had to eyeball it.”
After four tours of duty in Iraq, he’d been shot twice and survived six separate IED attacks.
“The Navy credits me with more kills as a sniper than any other American service member, past or present. I guess that’s true,” Kyle said of his sniper career. “They go back and forth on what the number is. One week, it’s 160 (the ‘official’ number as of this writing, for what that’s worth), then it’s way higher, then it’s somewhere in between. If you want a number, ask the Navy—you may even get the truth if you catch them on the right day.”
Kyle used a number of rifles during his military career, which are listed above. His favorite caliber was the .300 Win Mag, though he said if he’d had a .338 Lapua rifle earlier, he would have used it more.
Of the 300, he wrote in his book, “I used the .300 Win Mag for most of my kills. It’s an excellent all-around cartridge, whose performance allows for superb accuracy as well as stopping power. The .300 is a little heavier gun by design. It shoots like a laser. Anything from 1,000 yards and out, you’re just plain nailing it. And on closer targets, you don’t have to worry about too much correction for your come-ups. You can dial in your 500-yard dope and still hit a target from 100-700 yards without worrying too much about making minute adjustments.”
In 2009, Kyle left the Navy and moved to Midlothian, Texas with his wife and two children. He became president of Craft International, a tactical training company for the U.S. military and LEO communities.
After his book was a smash bestseller, he paired with FITCO Cares Foundation, a nonprofit that created the Heroes Project to provide free in-home fitness aid for veterans with disabilities, Gold Star families, or those suffering from PTSD.
In 2013, Kyle was tragically murdered along with his friend, Chad Littlefield, at the Rough Creek Lodge shooting range near Chalk Mountain, Texas. The man who killed them, Eddie Ray Routh, was a U.S. Marine with PTSD. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole for the murders.
Sgt. Chuck Mawhinney (1949 – ) – U.S. Marine Corps
RIFLE: M40 Sniper Rifle in 7.62×51mm NATO with a Redfield 3-9x Accurange variable power scope
Though Carlos Hathcock is the more well-known U.S. Marine sniper of the Vietnam War, he does not hold the record for most kills in country. That distinction goes to Chuck Mawhinney with 103 confirmed and another 216 probable in just 16 months.
That total number works out to 5 kills a week, every week, for 64 weeks. Of course, that’s just an average and wasn’t always the case.
On Valentine’s Day 1969 alone, he took out 16 enemy soldiers, each with headshots. Mawhinney’s record still stands as the Marine record for sniper kills.
“It was the ultimate hunting trip: a man hunting another man who was hunting me,” Mawhinney told the Los Angeles Times in 2000. “Don’t talk to me about hunting lions or elephants; they don’t fight back with rifles and scopes. I just loved it.”
Mawhinney wanted to change the public perception of snipers and maintained that they save lives by sapping the enemy’s will to fight.
“My rules of engagement were simple: If they had a weapon, they were going down. Except for an NVA paymaster I hit at 900 yards, everyone I killed had a weapon,” he said.
He used the M40 sniper rifle, which was built from a Remington 700 bolt-action rifle action chambered in 7.62 NATO and modified by USMC armorers at Marine Corps Base Quantico using components from various suppliers. Today, M40A5 rifles are being built and earlier models are being upgraded. The original M40 that Mawhinney used had a one piece wood stock, but after the M40A3, the rifle included synthetic furniture.
However, the USMC plans to soon replace the M40 with the Mk 13 Mod 7 rifle in 300 Win Mag. One of Mawhinney’s M40 rifles is on display at the National Museum of the Marine Corps and has been shown since the museum opened in 2006.
In 1969, a chaplain declared Mawhinney to be “combat fatigued.” He returned to the U.S. and served briefly as a marksmanship instructor at Camp Pendleton.
Then, he faded into obscurity after leaving the service in 1970. He returned home to Lakeview, Oregon, got married, and worked for the U.S. Forest Service until he retire din the late 1990s.
He didn’t tell anyone about his service in Vietnam or his role as a sniper, not even to his wife, for over 20 years. Even he didn’t know how his record compared to his peers. That all changed in 1991 when a book written by fellow Marine sniper Joseph Ward credited Mawhinney with 101 confirmed kills. This was controversial at the time, as it was generally accepted that Hathcock held the record for U.S. sniper kills at 93.
But, after researchers did a deep dive, they discovered that was all wrong. U.S. Army sniper Adelbert Waldron actually held the record with 109 confirmed kills. Mawhinney had 103 confirmed kills, and a third Marine sniper, Eric R. England, had 98 confirmed kills.
Mawhinney was then recognized as the USMC sniper with the most confirmed kills, and the second most of any U.S. service member. He then slowly increased his public profile and began speaking at conventions and public events as well as attending national sniper shooting competitions.
Today, he is a spokesman for Strider Knives, which makes a model bearing his signature on the blade. One is awarded to the top graduate of each class from the USMC Scout Sniper School in Camp Pendleton, a school which Hathcock established.
Cpl. Rob Furlong (1976 – ) – Canadian Forces
RIFLE: McMillan Tac-50 in .50 BMG
A corporal in the Canadian Army, Rob Furlong set the new record for a long-distance kill shot in 2002 while on his first tour of duty.
The shot was made at a distance of 2,657 yards with a .50 caliber McMillan Tac-50 rifle loaded with Hornady A-MAC 750 grain very-low-drag bullets. When he began firing at an enemy fighter with an RPK machine gun, his first shot missed. His second shot hit the backpack the target was wearing. The third struck the target in the torso, killing him.
Because of the shot’s distance, it took four seconds to reach the target. At that distance and with a muzzle velocity of 2,700 ft/s, it took each bullet nearly 4 seconds to reach the target after being fired.
Th shot became the longest sniper kill in history at the time, surpassing a previous record set by his teammate Master-Corporal Arron Perry by 130 yards. Perry’s shot broke Hathcock’s record from Vietnam.
Furlong is one of five Canadians to receive the U.S. Bronze Star, along with Perry, for his actions during 2002’s Operation Anaconda, during which he made his record-setting shot.
He joined the Edmonton Police Service in 2004 after leaving the military. In 2012, he became embroiled in some controversy involving a fellow officer and was dismissed.
Furlong now operates his own marksmanship academy in Alberta, Canada.
Maj. Lyudmila Pavlichenko (1916 – 1974) – Soviet Red Army
RIFLE: Mosin-Nagant Model 1891 in 7.62×54mmR with 4x PE scope
With 309 confirmed kills during World War II, Lyudmila Pavlichenko is considered to be the best female sniper in history. For a woman who had a master’s degree in history, I’m sure that historic factoid delighted her.
In June, 1941, Pavlichenko was 24 and in her fourth year studying history at Kiev University. Germany began its invasion of the Soviety Union and she was among the first round of volunteers at the Odessa recruiting office. She requested to join the infantry, despite being given the option of serving as a nurse, and was assigned to the Red army’s 25th Rifle Division. She became one of 2,000 female snipers in the Red army, of whom about 500 survived the war.
Pavlichenko fought the Germans for just about two and a half months near Odessa. She recorded 187 kills there and was promoted to Senior Sergeant in August, 1941 when she passed the 100-kill mark. Romanian forces gained control of Odessa in October that year and her unit was withdrawn via ship.
She fought for eight more months on the Crimean Peninsula. In May, 1942, she was promote to Lieutenant and cited for killing 257 German soldiers. Her total kill count includes a stunning 36 enemy snipers.
She was wounded by mortar fire in June, 1942 and was withdrawn from combat a month later due to her growing public profile and fame.
In an interesting historic episode, Pavlichencko was sent to Canada and the United States in 1942 for a publicity visit. She became the first Soviet citizen to be received by a U.S. President. Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt welcomed her to the White House and she toured America with Eleanor. She appeared before the International Student Assembly in D.C. and later attended meetings of the Congress of Industrial Organizations. She made appearances and spoke in New York and Chicago.
During her visit, the United States gave her a Colt semi-automatic pistol, and in Canada, she was presented with a sighted Winchester rifle now on display at the Central Armed Forces Museum in Moscow.
In 1943, she was awarded the Gold Star of the Hero of the Soviet Union and was even commemorated on a Soviet postage stamp.
After the war, she put her degree to work and became a historian. Pavlichenko died from a stroke in October, 1974 at age 58 and was buried in Moscow.
Adelbert Waldron (1933 – 1995) – U.S. Army and Navy
RIFLE: M-21 semi-auto in 7.62 NATO with a Leatherwood 3-9x ART scope graduated to 600 yards
Before going to Vietnam in 1968 as a soldier in the U.S. Army, Adelbert Waldron had spent 12 years in the U.S. Navy.
As a member of the 9th Infantry in Vietnam, he was assigned to PBR boats patrolling the Mekong Delta where he once made a confirmed kill firing a shot from a moving boat at a 900 yard target!
In just 8 months, Waldron tallied 109 confirmed kills.
Until 2011, he held the record for the most confirmed kills by any U.S. sniper in history, though it wasn’t discovered until records were sifted by researchers in the 1990s mentioned above. The record was broken by Chris Kyle.
After leaving Vietnam, Waldron was assigned as a marksmanship instructor at Ft. Benning and left the service in 1970. He has the distinction of being one of the few two-time recipients of the Distinguished Service Cross, which were awarded for separate actions in 1969. He was also awarded the Silver Star, multiple Bronze Stars, and a Presidential Unit Citation.
He died in 1995 at the age of 62 and is buried at Riverside National Cemetery in California.
Unknown Corporal in the British Royal Marines
According to British military officials, this corporal has 173 confirmed kills fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, and is known to have taken down 90 enemy combatants in a single day of fighting.
The corporal remains unnamed, as the British military fears that he would become a Taliban target if his identity were revealed.
Whoever he is, it is widely accepted that this corporal is the world’s deadliest sniper currently living.