The world’s deadliest sniper: Simo Häyhä

With at least 505 confirmed kills during the Winter War of 1939–40, Simo Häyhä has been labelled the deadliest sniper in history. Here, Tapio Saarelainen explains how he achieved his nickname ‘White Death’…

Simo Häyhä pictured after being awarded with the honorary rifle model 28.

According to an American study, an average of 7,000 rifle-caliber shots were required to achieve one combat kill during the First World War. During the Vietnam War this number had increased to more than 25,000. These figures are startling when you consider that a professionally-trained sniper only requires an average of 1.3 shots to attain the same outcome. So, for Simo Häyhä’s more than 505 kills, more than 13,550,000 bullets would have been used in Vietnam to kill an equal number. He remains the deadliest sniper who ever lived.

Simo Häyhä was born on December 17 1905 to Juho and Katriina (née Vilkko) Häyhä in the hamlet of Kiiskinen in Rautjärvi municipality. This area was in the old Finnish region of Karelia, which is now Russian territory. He was a farmer by profession and enjoyed several different hobbies during his lifetime, the most important of which were snow-skiing, hunting and shooting.

Häyhä fought for Finland against the Soviet Union in what history refers to as the ‘Winter War,’ the conflict that occurred in the winter of 1939-40. The Winter War broke out when he was 33 years old, and on December 17 1939, he celebrated his 34th birthday on the Kollaa battlefield. He served a total of 98 days with 6th Battalion, Infantry Regiment 34. The Winter War lasted only 105 days, but Simo Häyhä did not see its end – he was wounded and hospitalized during the last week of the conflict.

During his 98-day reign of terror, Häyhä was unseen and unheard, yet was all the while targeting Russian soldiers with deadly accuracy, once even killing 25 men in one day. With snipers presenting such a high-value targets on the battlefield, Simo’s reputation as a marksman soon reached the Russian front lines; they referred to him as “The White Death”.


Häyhä shows his method of shooting from a covered foxhole. Note the way he has placed his gloves; they are used to reduce the jolt of the weapon. The supporting hand is behind the trigger guard to give the best possible position. (© Tapio Saarelainen)

On one occasion, after Häyhä had once again killed an enemy sniper with a single shot, the Russians in turn tried to kill him by shooting indirect fire, a mortar bombardment, at the vicinity of his firing position. Incredibly, Simo was not wounded or killed, making it out without a scratch. On another occasion, an artillery shell landed near his firing position and tore apart the back of his greatcoat. Häyhä survived this with only a minor scratch to his back.

Yet for a soldier who spent so much time on the front line, Häyhä reported that he was never scared. He treated his job like he treated hunting and was always thinking of new ways to remain hidden and fool the enemy. He developed clever techniques, such as pouring water into the snow in front of him so that the muzzle blast would not expose his location by disturbing the light snow. He also became a master of using sounds, smoke and artillery fire to cover his movements when changing positions. With maps very scarce during the war, Häyhä relied on his memory to find the best hiding positions.

 

Preparation and tactics

Häyhä’s skill was compounded with his extensive preparations for shooting. During the night, he would often visit his ‘favorite’ firing positions, making whatever preparations and improvements he felt necessary. His behavior might be described as obsessive, because of his dedication to the job at hand. He would clean his weapon much more often than most soldiers, and perform both maintenance operations before and after a completing a mission. Especially in the -20°C temperatures of the Finnish winter, proper gun maintenance was essential to avoid it jamming.

His gun was an M/28-30, one that he had owned before the war, without even a telescopic sight. This rifle was the standard issued one for Finnish infantry in the late 1930s and Häyhä preferred the reliability of the model and the consistency of its shot. It was a basic weapon but one he had mastered from years of experience with it. His weapon was zeroed for the most common combat distance of the time, 150 meters. He kept the sights adjusted at 150 meters as it enabled him to rapidly adjust to the proper setting as needed.


Häyhä checks the balance and the sights of the honorary rifle from the standing position. (© Tapio Saarelainen)

One strange myth that surrounds snipers is that they would climb trees to shoot the enemy. Häyhä would laugh when asked about this. Not only would it make it far more difficult to keep a steady aim at the enemy but if he was ever discovered, he would have no escape route. Instead, he used overhanging branches for cover, which provided better protection and allowed him to keep a steady aim.

Häyhä’s skills had been developed from a youth spent very close to nature, going on regular hunting trips in the forests. He had often hunted birds in clearings and pine forests. These birds were rather timid, reacting to even the slightest sound, reflection or sudden movement. A hunter must have sharp vision, and must be able to spot and recognise targets. Everything depends on the actual situation, target and terrain. There are no foolproof methods in hunting as each situation and condition is unique. When a hunter shoots at his target, he must be able to observe the impact, as any game will try to escape if the first shot is not lethal, unless the game is injured beyond movement. Any animal will try to defend itself until dead or unable to move. This also applies to humans on the battlefield. This is also the fundamental reason why throughout history the best snipers have been experienced hunters. Something else that Häyhä’s hunting experiences taught him was how to read and use the terrain. He was the ultimate master in exploiting the terrain of the battlefield to his advantage. 

In addition to these skills, Simo’s father taught him a very important hunter’s skill: the ability to estimate distances. This was not a skill he was born with – he had a lot of practice, first by estimating the distance to a target and then pacing out by steps. In most cases his estimate was almost perfect. When checking out his estimates a typical variation from the actual distance was one or two steps either way at distances of approximately 150 meters. As a young man, he also learned to estimate the effects of wind and rain on shooting and conditions in forest.


Field Marshal C. G. E. Mannerheim promoted Corporal Simo Häyhä to second lieutenant on August 28 1940. (© Tapio Saarelainen)

Battlefield experiences

With Simo’s unique character and a lifetime of preparation, he was a nightmare for the Soviet troops in the winter forests of Finland, until he was wounded on March 6 1940, in the forests of Ulismaa in the Kollaa region. He was hit by an explosive bullet during a Russian attack before lapsing into a coma in which he would not awake until one week later, by which time the armistice had already been signed. Häyhä suffered from lasting facial scarring and near-constant pain for many years. 

After the war had ended, Häyhä returned to his farm. His war exploits were legendary in Finland and he became something of a ‘celebrity’, but he preferred his own company. Kalevi Ikonen, a friend of Häyhä’s said that “Simo spoke more with animals in the forest than with other people.” Considering, however, that he underwent a total of 26 surgical operations on his jaw, and his speech was never fully restored, it is not difficult to understand why he may not have wanted to interact with others more than was necessary. Until he moved into the Kymi Institute for Disabled Veterans in 2001, he lived alone at his house. He passed away in 2002 aged 96.


This picture shows Simo supporting his weapon on a stump. His gloves are between the stump and the rifle to suppress the jump of the weapon giving the shot a better hitting probability. (© Tapio Saarelainen)

Simo Häyhä was the most successful sniper who ever lived because he understood everything going on around him. He was a skilled trekker and hunter who knew exactly how to stay hidden. His gun too was one he had used for years and he knew exactly how it would react in its environment, and his personality was ideally suited to sniping, with his willingness to be alone and ability to avoid the emotions many would attach to such a job. Considering his small stature, he was born to hunt and sniping lent itself to him well. During my many interviews with him in the twilight of his life, he was always keen to remind me of his most valuable insight. “War is not a pleasant experience,” he said, “but who else would protect this land unless we are willing to do it ourselves.”

Tapio Saarelainen is the author of The White Sniper, which is available now. Saarelainen is a career officer in the Finnish Army. He has spent two decades training snipers for the Finnish Army and contributed to the Finnish Army’s manual for snipers. In his youth he competed in rifle shooting. The author has spent much time investigating Simo Häyhä’s life and accomplishments and interviewed Simo dozens of times between 1997 and 2002.

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