The modern sniper showed up some time around the late nineteenth century, especially during the American Civil War. While still not known as ‘snipers’, sharpshooters were used by both Union and Confederate forces throughout the conflict, even if in a limited capacity. Their role would be vastly expanded by the turn of the century, when improvements in firepower and tactics allowed these highly-trained soldiers to do much more than they previously could.
Over time, the sniper has turned into a lethal force on the modern battlefield, with kill counts comparable to much heavier units like artillery or tanks. As they usually go for high-profile, crucial targets, the deadliest snipers in history have had a huge impact on almost every major conflict of the past century – from the gritty war on WW2’s eastern front to the recent large-scale battles against ISIS.
10. Charles Mawhinney, 103 Kills
Charles Mawhinney is credited with 103 kills in the Vietnam War – the highest in the history of the U.S. Marine Corps. According to accounts by his peers, however, that number could be higher than 300, making him one of the top snipers in the history of warfare.
Born in 1949 in Lakeview, Oregon, Mawhinney got his sniping training at the Scout Sniper School at Camp Pendleton, California. He was posted in the Vietnam War during its most intense phase in 1968, where he spent three months as a scout sniper for different units, before signing up with the Delta Company. It was here that Charles Mawhinney made most of his kills – in one instance, he killed 16 North Vietnamese Army soldiers with clean headshots in a span of 30 seconds.
9. Billy Sing, 200+ kills
When Willian “Billy” Sing signed up to fight in the First World War, little did he know that he’d end up being one of the top snipers of the entire conflict – possibly even all time. He was a part of the Australian Imperial Force and deployed on the infamous Gallipoli front in May, 1915, where Turkish snipers were wreaking havoc on allied soldiers from New Zealand and Australia, given their extensive knowledge of their home terrain.
Billy was one of the sharpshooters chosen and trained to counter them. Born in 1886 in rural Queensland, Australia, he had grown up around guns and horses, getting quite good at both by the time of his enlistment. By October 1915, Billy had shot down at least 201 Ottoman soldiers, and that number could be way higher. He was so effective that ANZAC soldiers gave him multiple nicknames, like ‘the assassin’ and ‘the murderer’.
8. Vasily Zaytsev, 225+ kills
The Battle of Stalingrad on WW2’s Eastern Front was one of the largest and bloodiest battles ever fought. Its dense, urban setting proved to be a playground for well-trained and experienced snipers from Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, as both the sides sent millions of reinforcements into the city over the course of the five-month-long battle. It was, however, Russian snipers that really dominated the battlefield, with some of the USSR’s best sharpshooters playing a role in the ultimate German defeat at Stalingrad.
Vasily Grigoryevich Zaytsev was one of them. With over 225 kills in less than five weeks in Stalingrad – including 11 elite German snipers – Zaytsev was one of the top Nazi killers of the entire war. Some records place his total kill count around 400, for which he was awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union medal. Zaytsev would continue to be a revered figure in Soviet Russia after the war, and many of the techniques he developed are still studied and used by Russian sniper units in active combat.
7. Josef Allerberger, 257 kills
Josef Allerberger was first posted as a German machine-gunner on the Eastern Front in September 1943, though he quickly realized that he was much better with sniper rifles. The war in the east wasn’t going too well for the Germans after the defeat at Stalingrad in January, and Soviet snipers were exacting a heavy toll on the retreating German army. While Allerberger couldn’t turn that around – as we all know how the war ended – he did manage to slow down the Red Army’s advance in that particular sector.
With at least 257 confirmed kills, Josef Allerberger was one of the deadliest Wehrmacht soldiers on the front. He came up with many different techniques to have the maximum impact on the field, like shooting the soldiers in the rear to create confusion and slow down a Soviet attack. He was famous for camouflaging with an umbrella made of local foliage – an effective, easily-deployable technique that allowed him to work deep behind enemy lines.
6. Lyudmila Pavlichenko, 309 kills
When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June, 1941, Lyudmila Pavlichenko was one of many Soviet citizens that voluntarily signed up to defend their country. While she was studying to be a scholar and teacher at Kiev University, Pavlichenko was good with the rifle due to her time at the local sniper school. She’d further hone her skills on the battlefield, eventually getting so good that the Germans gave her the nickname ‘Lady Death’.
Throughout the war, Lyudmila Pavlichenko killed at least 309 Axis soldiers; 36 of them snipers. She was initially posted in the Odessa region, though the rapidly shifting front soon brought her to Sevastopol on the Crimean Peninsula, where the invading German army vastly outnumbered the besieged defenders. Regardless, Pavlichenko would claim most of her kills during this battle. While the city fell after 250 days of bitter fighting – even if for a relatively-brief time – the efforts of Pavlichenko and other prominent Soviet fighters at Sevastopol severely weakened the German war effort in the east.
5. Matthäus Hetzenauer, 345 kills
Matthäus Hetzenauer was deployed in Central Europe in 1944 as a part of the Wehrmacht’s 3rd Mountain Division. All German efforts at this time focussed on slowing down the rapid Soviet advance towards Berlin, as Hitler mobilized some of his best units to stabilize the front in the east.
While Hetzenauer first trained as a mountain infantryman, his commanders soon recognized his talent for sniping and started training him as a sniper. He’d prove to be the deadliest of all German snipers on the Eastern front, killing at least 345 Red Army soldiers in a span of a few months, before he was sent off due to a head injury. He was even awarded the Iron Cross for his contribution to the German war effort, though as that’s now considered a hateful neo-Nazi symbol in most places, that would mean little in the larger scheme of things. Regardless, Matthäus Hetzenauer did his job as well as he could, before being captured by Soviet forces in May, 1945.
4. Francis Pegahmagabow, 378 kills
While sharpshooters existed before the First World War, the modern sniper really came into his own in the gritty fighting of the Great War. Armed with new, improved weapons like the bolt action rifle and telescopic sights, these early snipers were extremely effective in the trenches – especially in the early phases of the war, when no one knew how to counter them.
By far the deadliest them was an indigenous Canadian soldier called Francis Pegahmagabow. Born in the First Nations Ojibwa clan on Parry Island, Ontario, Pegahmagabow entered the war as a part of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. He fought as a scout and sniper, often operating in the dangerous No Man’s Land between the two sides. Despite facing a severe chlorine attack at the Second Battle of Ypres that permanently damaged his lungs, Pegahmagabow killed 378 enemy soldiers in the war, before he was hospitalized due to pneumonia in 1917.
3. Ivan Sidorenko, 500 kills
Ivan Sidorenko’s fighting career started in 1939, when he – like many others across Russia – enlisted in the Red Army to defend against the German invasion. In 1941, he was sent to fight in the crucial Battle of Moscow as a part of a mortar unit that loaded and reloaded long-range artillery shells.
In his off time, however, Sidorenko would practice his sniping skills by picking off unsuspecting German soldiers wherever he could find them – all with a standard-issue Mosin-Nagant rifle. In three years, his kill count swelled to 500, making him one of the deadliest snipers in history. He was so good at it that he was soon relieved from his position in the mortar team and tasked with training new snipers on the front. Until he was seriously wounded in 1944, Ivan Sidorenko trained more than 250 Red Army snipers on the Eastern Front.
2. Vasily Shalvovich, 534 kills
Before the German invasion of Soviet Russia, Vasily Shalvovich worked on a collective farm in the Georgian SSR. While he had served in the Red Army for a brief period between 1932 and 1933, it wasn’t until the Second World War that he really found his way with the sniper rifle. By June, 1942, Shalvovich’s skills had earned him a place as a sniper in the 138th Infantry Division fighting at Stalingrad.
By the end of the war, Shalvovich had killed at least 534 Nazis, making him the most succesful Soviet sniper of the war. About 215 of them were made between June and December, 1944, as he fought in places across the front like Kerch, Stalingrad, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, and Germany.
1. Simo Hayha, 542 kills
The Soviet Union invaded Finland in November, 1939, beginning the bloody Winter War that claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. While the USSR ended up with a few territorial gains by the end of it in March, 1940, the conflict is remembered for the stern resistance shown by the Finns, killing more than 126,000 Soviet soldiers for a loss of around 26,000 of their own.
One of the faces of that resistance was Simo Hayha – a farmer-turned-soldier credited with the highest number of sniper kills in the history of modern warfare. In 98 days, Hayha would kill 542 Soviet soldiers, earning him the nickname ‘The White Death’. Unlike the other names on this list, Häyhä worked with a regular M/28-30 rifle without telescopic sights. While it was a basic weapon – even for that time – Häyhä had mastered it over years of hunting in the Finnish wilderness.