In the annuals of renowned military sniperdom, many names stand out. Carlos Hathcock, Chris Kyle, John Plaster, Vasily Zaytsev, Simo Hayha, and so forth. Wait, Simo who? Well, pull up a chair and lets talk about that.
Who was Simo Hayha?
Born in the small village of Rautjärvi in what was then part of Imperial Russia (Finland did not become independent until 1918), Simo Hayha was a pretty normal man. He wasn’t very tall or robust, standing just 5′ 3″. In 1925, at age 19, he did his mandatory 350 days of active service in the Finnish army but was otherwise an unremarkable soldier at the time. He remained a member of the Civil Guard (much like the US National Guard) and drilled with his reserve unit until 1939. It was in that year that the 33-year old part time soldier and full time farmer picked up his rifle and went to war to repulse a Soviet invasion of his country.
In November 1939 over 400,000 Soviet Red Army troops invaded tiny Finland, whose own Army of some 80,000 was grossly outnumbered in what was later known as the Winter War. Hayha reported to duty and having extensive experience in hunting and target shooting was selected to be a sniper. The rest, as they say, is history.
He was nicknamed “Belaya Smert” (White Death) by the Soviet troops he stalked, and sent no less than 505 walking on their way to the light at the end of the tunnel in less than 100 days. Infantry that he was working to support verified all these kills while another 200 kills that he took with a submachine gun at shorter range remain unofficially confirmed.
In all, he accounted for taking nearly a whole battalion of Red Army troops out of the fight. The only thing that prevented his number from climbing higher was the fact that the war ended in March 1940 after just 105 days. Simo spent the last week of the war in the hospital, his face nearly shot off by a Soviet counter-sniper. This Soviet sniper did not go home either—as a wounded Simo returned fire and took his would be assassin out.
Hayha compared to today’s snipers
The standard military sniper of today has a few advantages that the pint-sized Simo did not. Today Simo and his tactics wouldn’t be that much out of place on a modern battlefield, but his equipment would certainly be better and he would have more training.
Common practice today is for teams of military marksman who have qualified through special scout/sniper schools to work together in two to three man teams, with a spotter, a trigger puller, and sometimes a third shooter for security. These modern teams have dedicated sniper weapon systems made from the finest and most high tech components, high power optics, passive night vision and match ammunition.
Hayha, a product of 1939 military thinking, operated alone, used a standard bolt-action Finnish-made Sako Mosin-Nagant Model 28-30 rifle with iron sights, and standard issue ball ammunition some of which dated back to the Tsarist times. The 28-30 was a Finn redesign of the old school WWI Russian Mosin 91, made shorter and with better sights. He had been offered a Swedish Mauser with optics but turned it down, preferring the Mosin he had trained with.
How could this happen?
So how did he accomplish his mission? The answers lay in field craft, a target rich environment, and his talent. He was a master of camouflage (after all you can’t hit what you can’t see) and would
disappear after each shot, often spending the majority of the day just moving into or out of a position—one millimeter at a time. Consequently, the Soviets had to counter unseen and accurate sniper fire with massive artillery fire, targeted over the whole area that they thought the Finn sharpshooter could be hiding, which proved to be quite ineffective.
The front along the Mannerheim line was a mass of Soviet troops. With poor leadership amounting to the trench warfare mindset of World War 1, the Red Army crowded along the Finn trenches and battered their way into the country over a 3-month period, regardless of their losses. Along some parts of this battlefront, the Soviet Army outnumbered the defenders in ratios as high as 100:1, which gave Hayha a cornucopia of targets to choose from everyday. Like many snipers before and since, he concentrated on officers, crew served weapons operators, and senior NCOs (hand wavers), to make his shots count.
The last essential ingredient was that, Hayha was a great natural shot. When asked in later years how he fine-tuned his shooting skill, he simply said ‘practice.’
After their encounters with Finnish snipers, the Soviets revisited their stance on sniper training and equipment. Although the Russkies had made moves to build a sniper corps as early as 1928, their encounters with Hayha and his fellow Finn marksmen was a ‘come to Jesus’ meeting and they started immediately increasing the number of snipers and introducing new sniper systems like the Mosin 91/30 accurized with a PU and later PEM scope. It was these legions of Red snipers that helped turn back the German invasion on the Soviet Eastern front after 1941 in places like Stalingrad, Leningrad, and Kursk.
The Soviet propaganda machine claimed that three shooters, Mihail Surkov, Vladimir Salbiev, and Vasiliy Kvachantiradze, all had more kills than Hayha, as many as 700 each , but their scores are thought by many to be inflated. Nevertheless, what can be assured is that tens of thousands of Soviet snipers (including some 2000 females) brought their lessons learned to the Germans with a vengeance. The hordes of Soviet snipers led to increases in the numbers, training, and better equipping of the German snipers, which led to increases by the British and Americans, which…led to what we have today.
Hayha himself survived the war, returned to farming, and died quietly as a retiree at age 96 in 2002. His service rifle, serial number 60974, was until his death on display at the museum of the Northern Karelia Brigade, and then moved to an undisclosed location. Rumors were that the Finns buried him with it, but this cannot be confirmed.
Today, every modern military has specialized schools, selection processes, and training for snipers that includes the heavy use of field craft and camouflage.
They are all, in their own way, a hat tip to the little Finn named Simo.