According to an American study, an average of 7,000 rifle-calibre shots were required to achieve one combat kill during the First World War. During the Vietnam War this number had increased to 25,000.
Considering, however, that a professionally trained sniper only requires an average of 1.3 shots to attain the same outcome, these figures are startling.
So for Simo Häyhä’s 542 kills, 13,550,000 bullets would have been used in Vietnam to kill an equal number.
Häyhä’s count of 542 is an all-time record for a sniper in any conflict and was achieved in only 98 days of the Winter War, which took place in 1939-40 between Häyhä’s Finland and the Soviet Union.
For those 98 days, Häyhä conducted lone missions to the front lines, tormenting the Russians and picking off soldiers one by one, until he was shot and injured by an exploding bullet a few days prior to the war ending. But what made him the deadliest sniper ever and how was he able to achieve this?
Häyhä, in many ways, had the perfect preparation for becoming a sniper. He grew up on a rural farm and loved to hunt, feeling that you are only entitled to something from nature if you are willing to be part of it.
His specialty were foxes, one of the more difficult animals to hunt, due to their small stature, speed and ability to hide. He would test himself with birds which would flee at even the slightest sound, reflection or sudden movement.
He developed techniques so he could remain silent and hidden for long periods to ensure he got his target and learnt about how a gun would react to wind and rain. Also, from all his experiences, he grew very adept at estimating distances, so he could prepare his rifle suitably when attacking the target.
His attitude and personality to hunting was reflected in his approach to sniping. In my interviews with Häyhä, he told me that he had never been scared during the war, and that he felt no hatred for the enemy.
Instead, he only concentrated on ensuring his weapon was well supported and stable, and that his personal feelings and emotions would not impinge on his ability as a marksman. Häyhä did not mind spending hours upon hours on his own and would even go to his shooting ‘nests’ at night to ensure they were well hidden and strong.
His behavior might be described as obsessive, because of his dedication to the job at hand. He would clean his weapon more often than most soldiers. He would perform maintenance operations before starting a mission and immediately upon completing a mission.
Especially in the -20 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 Simo liked 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.
Häyhä, when conducting his operations, took every detail into account. He would even pour water into the snow in front of him so that the muzzle blast would not expose his location by disturbing the light snow.
He became a master of using sounds, smoke and artillery fire to cover his movements when changing positions. And when tracking the enemy, he would memorise the shapes of the terrain, depressions, shadows, tree trunks and such. If anything had changed in appearance, it was a possible sign of enemy activity.
One thing Simo never did was climb trees to shoot the enemy. In fact, he laughed when I asked him that question. He said he would have been exposed immediately and with no escape route. It is a persistent myth that snipers do this.
Another myth that Simo busted for me was that snipers aim for headshots. The head is a small size compared to the torso and for that reason Häyhä always fired at the centre of the torso. Shooting an enemy should only be done so when the probability of killing the enemy is at its highest, and if aiming at a head, a slight misjudgment leads to a miss which can give away your position with no gain taken.
Simo Häyhä was the best 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. The Russians nicknamed him ‘The White Death’ and it is not difficult to understand why. Simo Häyhä passed away in 2002 at the age of 96.
Tapio Saarelainen is the author of ‘The White Sniper’ published by Casemate. Available now from Casemate’s website or Amazon.