The sniper has often captivated and intrigued people. In desperate times, particularly during the early stages of World War II in the Soviet Union, when the country faced the possibility of defeat, they would often be held up as examples of the Soviet forces’ ability to strike back at the invading German Army, giving hope to the population and boosting the morale of the Russian armed forces.
In popular culture, the 2001 film ‘Enemy at the Gates’ based on the real life Soviet sniper Vasily Zaitsev (225 confirmed enemy soldiers killed including 11 snipers), starring Jude Law, Joseph Fiennes, Ed Harris and Rachel Weisz, has popularised a largely dangerous profession. However, the work of the sniper created legends out of the marksman, frequently creating a myth of invincibility amongst enemy troops, the effects of which cannot be underestimated. Their contribution to the Soviet war effort was considerable.
The sniper is predominantly associated with male soldiers, however the Russian Army frequently used female snipers, Lyudmila Pavlichenko was credited with 309 kills and Natalya Kovshova is estimated to have killed over 300 German soldiers during the battle of Moscow.
The top scoring male Soviet sniper of World War II was Nikolay Yakovlevich Kiselyov of the 50th Guards Rifle Regiment, with an impressive kill ratio of 494 (often cited as 497). Nikolay Yakovlevich Kiselyov led a detachment of the Soviet Partisan Movement in Belarus during 1942 and despite his distinguished success as a sniper, his greatest achievement must be considered his work in saving the lives of more than two hundred Jews endangered by the Nazi occupation of Belarus, for which he was posthumously recognized as one of the Russian Federation‘s Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, Israel‘s national Holocaust memorial, in 2005.
The sniper would often be expected to conceal themselves for long periods of time, often hours and in some cases days waiting for their quarry to appear. The job, especially on the Soviet front was often extremely cold, wet during the winter and hot in the summer months.
Snipers often worked alone as a highly trained marksmen or in a pair with the observer selecting targets and sharing the burden of watching the objective’s location by range-finding with telescopic sights and visual identification using binoculars or target acquisition using eyes on target.
Snipers were true specialists. In addition to their marksmanship skills they were also experts in camouflage, field craft, infiltration, special reconnaissance and observation, surveillance and target acquisition. Russian marksmen were particularly efficient in the urban environment.
The weapon of choice for the Russian sniper was the Mosin–Nagant Model 1891/30. This was a modified version of the Mosin–Nagant 91/30, which was the standard issue weapon of the Soviet infantryman. The Mosin–Nagant Model 1891/30 was modified and adapted as a sniper rifle from 1932 onwards with mounts and scopes from Germany at first and subsequently with domestic designs PE and PEM which stands for “unified model” and “unified model modern” respectively.
The difference between the two is significant as the early PE allowed for focus adjustment whereas the PEM did not. The move away from the focus ring was to simplify production and to attempt to stem reported problems with the scopes “leaking” due to poor seals. From 1942 the PEM was issued with 3.5-power PU fixed focus scopes to Soviet snipers. The range of the Mosin–Nagant Model 1891/30 was estimated to be 800 meters + with optics.
The rifles captured by Finland were given a special code designation of TJ34 to hide their use from enemy spies. The number of rifles that were captured during the Winter War was rather small, however, those that were captured were used effectively, particularly by the top scoring sniper of the war Simo Häyhä who was credited with 505 kills. These soldiers were not “normal” conscripts but highly trained professional soldiers and thus they did not tend to surrender easily.
The bulk of Finnish captured sniper rifles came from Soviet positions that were quickly overrun. Soviet snipers were trained to damage or destroy their equipment in the event of defeat or imminent capture.
The top 10 Soviet Snipers of World War II
Name Name/Unit Kills
- Nikolay Yakovlevich Kiselyov 50th Guards Rifle Regiment 494
- Ivan Mihailovich Sidorenko 1122nd Rifle Regiment <500
- Ivan Nicolayevich Kulbertinov 23rd Ski Brigade 489
- Vladimir N. Pchelintsev Not Listed 456
- Mihail Ivanovich Budenkov 59th Guards Rifle Regiment 437
- Fyodor Matveyevich Ohlopkov 1243rd and 234th Rifle Rgts. 429
- Fyodor Trofimovich Dyachenko 187th Rifle Regiment 425
- Vasiliy Ivanovich Golosov 81st Guards Rifle Regiment 422
- Stepan Vasilievich Petrenko 59th Guards Rifle Regiment 422
- Afanasiy Gordienko Not Listed 417
* Vladimir N. Pchelintsev’s 456 kills included 14 snipers.
** Vasiliy Ivanovich Golosov’s 422 kills included 70 snipers.
- Chuck Lewis, Military Heritage, October 2005, Volume 7, No. 2, pp. 26–27, pp. 70–71, ISSN 1524-8666.
- Lapin, T. W. (2003). The Mosin–Nagant Rifle, 3rd Edition. Tustin, California: North Cape Publications. ISBN 1-882391-21-7.
- Doug Bowser. Rifles of the White Death.
- Markku Palokangas. Sotilaskäsiaseet Suomessa 1918–1988.
- Kokalis, Peter G. (2003). “White Death”. The Shotgun News. Treasury Issue Volume 4. Primedia Publishing.
- http://molot.biz/product/ko91-30.php Current Mosin Nagant rifles being produced.