Once considered a pariah of battle by friend and foe alike, adopting camouflage to hide from, and then suddenly ambush, enemies - their methods were seen as sly and underhand. Snipers have evolved however, to become the ideal soldier for the modern battlefield, a specialist in 21st century combat. Highly dedicated and specially trained, a marksman's task is now seen as indispensable for the safety of their fellow soldiers in the field.
While there have been countless prolific snipers in military history, we've taken a look back at some of history's best. The following list expectedly includes those individuals with the longest confirmed distance in which enemies were taken down, the kill count for those caught between the crosshairs of the past's deadliest marksmen, but also those which offer unique stories and backgrounds.
In November 2009, Corporal of Horse Craig Harrison used the LL15A3 Long Range Rifle, pictured below, to break the record distance for a confirmed kill shot. The modest Harrison insists luck had a big part to play, citing the environmental conditions as critical for his two record-breaking kills.
“There was no wind, mild weather and clear visibility”
In a BBC interview Harrison outlined that it took nine shots to range find the target successfully, and to eventually relieve his fellow soldiers that were under heavy fire from the machine gun position. As soon as he found his range the first shot, described as “on target”, was a killing shot, this was quickly followed up with a second kill shot as the machine gun was taken over by a second insurgent. The engagement finally ended with a third shot which disabled the machine gun post.
Major Ivan Sidorenko’s achievements eclipsed the Red Army’s golden boy Vasily Zaytsev despite Jude Law’s portrayal of the wildly famous sniper in ‘Enemy at the Gates’. Zaytsev would claim over 400 kills, but was officially credited with 242 confirmed, due in no small part to the inherent risk in removing paperwork or dogtags from the bodies.
Despite Zaytsev’s fearsome reputation, in practice Ivan Sidorenko was the better trainer and facilitator. Credited with over 500 kills during WWII and training at least 250 other snipers Sidorenko was also awarded the title of ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’ alongside Zaytsev. We believe Ivan Sidorenko deserves his place in this list not for his portrayal in the media or his famed celebrity status, but for his efficiency as a soldier on the field of battle.
Widely-regarded as the greatest female sniper in history, Major Lyudmila Pavlichenko served with the Soviets and amassed 309 confirmed kills, including 36 enemy snipers - of the 2,000 female snipers recruited into the Red Army, Pavlichenko was one of only 500 that survived the war. Wounded by a mortar round in 1942 she was removed from the frontline due to her growing reputation and sent to teach and train new recruits.
Unlike many of her colleagues Pavlichenko was awarded the Gold Star of ‘The Hero of the Soviet Union’ and dispatched on a whirlwind propaganda tour of the USA, Canada and the UK during the war. She spent the rest of the war training other snipers and reached the rank of major.
Pegahmagabow was the most highly-decorated ‘First Nations’ soldier in Canadian military history and the most effective sniper of World War I despite never claiming the accolade or recognition of sniper. Throughout the war Pegahmagabow maintained communications links and was famed for his bravery at Ypres, the Somme, Passchendaele and the Battle of Scarpe.
He was awarded the Military Medal no less than three times and was seriously wounded on two separate occasions. He was an expert marksman and scout credited with killing 378 Germans although this led to some controversy given that he never used an observer.
Almost unknown in Western circles, Taofang served for a mere two years in the Chinese Army during the Korean War. In 1953 he was reported to have achieved 214 kills in just 32 days, despite starting the month with no sniper training and a near-miss encounter. He fired 12 shots, missing them all and attracting the full weight of enemy fire. Analysing his mistakes, Taofang learnt quickly and methodically ratcheted up his kills with his ratio standing at a terrifying 6.7 kills per day, shattering that of the world’s most prolific sniper (see below).
The most lethal sniper of all time, Häyhä is credited with 505 kills of Soviet soldiers, accomplished in fewer than 100 days - a ratio of 5.05 kills per day. ‘The White Death’ was often touted as the reason for, and inspiration behind, Russia’s eulogy of their own Vasily Zaytsev.
Häyhä was a Finnish sniper who holds the record for highest number of confirmed sniper kills. Plying his trade in the tundras of northern Finland, Häyhä’s involvement in the Winter War (1939-40) was nothing short of extraordinary. Häyhä went to great lengths to keep himself alive including using traditional iron sights rather than a scope in order to aid concealment; the telescopic sights can often glare in the sun to reveal a sniper's position or fog up in extreme cold. Using his environment to great effect, Häyhä would pack the snow in front of him so that when he shot none of the snow would waft up. As well as that he was also known to keep snow in his mouth whilst sniping in order to prevent vapour rising, giving away his position in the cold air.
Despite prolonged Soviet efforts to kill Häyhä including counter-sniper units and artillery strikes, Häyhä continued to kill until he suffered a facial wound from an explosive round shot by a Soviet sniper in 1940. He was picked up by fellow soldiers who claimed “half his face was missing” but managed to survive the attack, eventually regaining consciousness 13 days later on the day peace was declared. Simo Häyhä went on to live a long life, dying at the age of 96. He attributed his deadly sniping skills to “practice”.