Snipers in History

A true sniper is an operative who gathers intelligence for the command structure (law enforcement or military) and occasionally takes the one, well-aimed shot that, if done properly, will save lives.

Since the invention of the firearm, skilled individuals with specialized equipment have influenced the tide of battle. At times, this effect has been so great as to turn the tide of history. From Leonardo da Vinci to present, the long range rifleman has had a telling effect on the direction, drive and scope of battle. By his discriminatory nature, he has felled the command structure of his enemies, rendered their equipment useless and driven fear into the hearts of their fighting men. The sniper is one of the most effective weapons on the field of battle. He is frugal, and precise. He is not a superman, capable of incredible feats, but he is skilled in ways that many misunderstand.

This section is devoted to the marksmen of history who have, by their actions, changed the face of battle to favor their nation of origin. No political judgments will be made on their leadership. Bravery and skill cross territorial borders. Look here often for a continuing source of historical figures.

If you would like to add information or names to this section of the page, or have any comments, questions or concerns, please send E-mail to Marius Ferreira, our ( South African ) Webmaster, or any one of the other staff members, Garry Blosser, Pete Reiff and Scott Powers

Snipers in History

  • Col. Patrick Ferguson, British Army
  • Timothy Murphy, Battle of Saratoga, Morgan's Kentucky Riflemen

  • Col. Hiram Berdan, Union Army
  • Sgt. Grace. 4th Georgia Infantry
  • Captain John T Metcalf, US Army Engineers
  • Unknown Confederate Sniper

  • Alvin C. York. US Infantry

  • Simo Häyhä. Finland
  • Sulo Kolkka. Finland
  • Zaitsev versus Thorvald

  • Gunnery Sergeant Carlos N. Hathcock II
  • Sgt. Gary Gordon, Sgt. Randy Shughart, Delta Force

  • Col. Patrick Ferguson, British Army

    Patrick Ferguson was a leading developer of breech loading firearms. The Ferguson Rifle was considered at the time to be one of the most deadly weapons in the British inventory. Ferguson's second claim to fame was the "Shot Never Taken." As a Major, Ferguson found himself in position to make a shot on an unidentified Continental officer near Germantown Pennsylvania. When the man turned away at approximately 125 yards, the good major chose not to shoot him in the back. That man turned out to be none other than General George Washington. Had Ferguson taken the shot one can assume that the entire history of what is today the United States would have been affected. Recall it was Washington who turned down the offer to be King of the Colonies after the successful resolution of the War for Independence. Had he not been in charge of the Colonial forces, not only would the outcome of the war have been in question, but so would the very nature of the Republic which rose from that conflict. Ironically, Patrick Ferguson was later killed on 7 October of 1780 when a member of Morgan's Kentucky Riflemen shot him at approximately 450 yards. As a result, Ferguson's unit surrendered which forced Gen. Cornwallis to abandon his invasion of North Carolina. The loss was doubly hurtful to the British cause, since they had lost one of their premier weapons designers.


    Timothy Murphy, Battle of Saratoga. Morgan's Kentucky Riflemen

    On 7 October, 1777, Timothy Murphy, a rifleman in Morgan's Kentucky Riflemen shot and killed General Simon Fraser of the British army. Murphy was said to have taken the shot at roughly 500 yards. He was using the renowned Kentucky rifle. Fraser was leading a recon in force against the rebellious colonists at Bemis Heights in New York. As a result of Fraser's death, the recon failed. This had a direct impact on the overall battle, leading to the British defeat. The Battle of Saratoga was considered one of the turning points of the War for Independence.


    Col. Hiram Berdan, Union Army

    Col. Berdan was the commanding officer of the 1st and 2nd US Sharpshooters. Himself a controversial figure, under his tutelage, skilled Union marksmen were trained and equipped with the 52 caliber Sharps Rifle. It has been claimed that Berdan's units were responsible for killing more enemy than any unit in the Union Army.


    Sergeant Grace, 4th Georgia Infantry

    On 9 May, 1864 a confederate sniper took what was to be considered an incredible shot at that time. During the Battle of Spotsylvania, Sgt. Grace of the 4th Georgia Infantry, took aim and fired at a distant Union officer. Grace was using a British Whitworth target rifle and the distance was 800 yards. Grace's target, Major General John Sedgwick, fell dead after uttering the words "Why, they couldn't hit an elephant at this dist...". Sedgwick's death resulted in a delay of the Union attack which in turn gave General Robert E. Lee the edge he needed to win the day at Spotsylvania.


    Captain John T Metcalf, US Army Engineers

    During Red River Campaign in 1864. Using a heavy, 50-caliber muzzle-loading rifle - one authority states it weighed between 23 to 27kg - fitted with a 24x scope, Metcalf fired at and hit a Confederate officer at a distance of 1666 meters. The officer was standing in front of a tent on a distant hillside and Metcalf had previously established the range with a surveyor's transit. The bullet took approximately five seconds to reach the target.


    Capt. Metcalf purportedly shot Confederate General Lainhardt at one mile's distance. Bill Edwards in "Civil War Guns" (Stackpole, 1962) proved that Metcalf did not receive his medal for sharpshooting. Second, there was no General Lainhardt and the Mr. Edwards traces the story to Charles Sawyers who started the fiction.

    This information is put here as a correction, thus trying to correct the myth, rather than just removing the reference.


    Unknown Confederate Sniper.

    On September 19, 1863, a confederate sniper armed with a Whitworth .45 caliber percussion rifle, most likely shooting a 530 grain bullet, mortally wounded Union General William H. Lytle, during the battle of Chicamauga. General Lytle was leading a charge at the time. He died the following day. The Confederate army relied heavily on these marksmen to make up for their lack of heavy weapons and war fighting material. They were quite effective at harrying Union troops, artillery units and specialized in the taking of union officers. They were certainly one of the most effective forces on the battlefield and the Union was hard pressed to match their skill. Unfortunately for the south, these sharpshooters were neither numerous enough or effective enough to halt the tide of the well equipped Union forces.


    Alvin C. York. US Infantry. 1917 - 1919

    In Germany in 1918, with the rank opf corporal, he took part in the Argonne-Meuse offense as a member of the 82nd division. His platoon realised they could not take the German machine-gun posts with a frontal attack and decided to take them from the rear to allow the rest of the Allied forces to be able to advance. When his commanding officer was wounded and most of his compatriats were killed or wounded, York began to fight the Germans single-handed. He killed about 25 Germans, knocked out 35 machine guns, and captured 132 prisoners almost single-handed.

    Read more:


    Simo Häyhä. Finland. 1939 - 1940.

    A member of the 34th Infantry Regiment and a farmer by trade, Simo Häyhä became a most feared sniper during the 1939-40 (30 November 1939 14 March 1940) Winter invasion of Finland by the Soviet Union. Using nothing more than an iron sighted Mosin-Nagant Model 28, Simo is credited with killing 505 Russians during a three month period - a feat still unmatched today by any sniper in any conflict. (Editor's note: Some sources say as many as 542 kills in this period.) The impact of Simo and men like him forced the Soviets to pay dearly for their transgressions. While Finland lost the Winter war, it cost the Soviets 1,000,000 men killed out of the 1,500,000 man invading force*. The Finns lost a total of 25,000 men in that conflict. A testament to their bravery and determination in the face of amazing odds.

    He passed away on April 1st 2002 at the age of 96

    *Information gleaned from Rifles of the White Death. Doug Bowser. Camellia City Military Publications.


    Sulo Kolkka. Finland, 1939 - 1940.

    During 105 days of combat Sulo was credited with 400+ enemy kills as a sniper in the Winter War (30 November 1939 14 March 1940). He used an iron sighted Mosin-Nagant rifle. He often took the war to the rear of the Soviet lines, causing much fear and frustration as this area was supposedly safe. In addition to the kills he made as a sniper, Kolkka also was apparently quite fond of the submachine gun as he made an additional 200 kills with it during this same time frame. Hunted often by the Soviets, he outlasted them all, killing the sniper sent to hunt him at 600 yards with a single shot after a running duel of several days. Like Simo Häyhä, Sulo Kolkka exhibited the hard determination and skill that kept Finland a sovereign nation even after its inevitable defeat. At the end of the Winter War a Soviet General is said to have quipped, "We gained 22,000 square miles of territory. Just enough to bury our dead".*

    NOTE: Often the name is given "Suko" - as was done here as well. We have received numerous corrections from Finnish people stating very specifically that this name is wrong, and that the name is "Sulo". One email stated:
    I just wanted to mention that Suko Kolkka is actually Sulo Kolkka. Apparently this error was already in the book since I have noticed in quite many sites using same book as a source.

    *Information gleaned from Rifles of the White Death. Doug Bowser. Camellia City Military Publications.


    Zaitsev versus Thorvald

    Chief Master Sergeant Vasily Zaitsev (and all the Russian Snipers of Stalingrad)

    The name of Zaitsev has become synonymous with snipers at Stalingrad.  While many of the German soldiers did not know his name, he set fear and dread into the hearts of those who did and outright desperation in those who only knew of his work.  While the political commissars of his time went out of their way to turn him into a hero of the people, his record withstands their propaganda efforts.  He is credited with killing 242 German soldiers during the late 1942 siege at Stalingrad.  His final count tallied 400 by the end of his service in WWII.  His impact on the history of battle can only be surmised but his deeds had to certainly have affected the way his enemy operated.  Fear can paralyze and no fear is worse for the average grunt than that of being shot while doing nothing.  To the Germans in that cauldron city, Zaitsev represented their doom.  Unseen, but certain.  Just raise your head above the trench and meet your maker.

    Known to the world for his famous and ultimately victorious sniper duel with SS sniper Colonel Heinz Thorvald in the Ninth of January Square in the southern end of the city, Zaitsev has earned a special note in history if for no other reason than to have been known so well by his enemy and survived.  But his deeds go far beyond that single duel.  His success deprived the Nazis the freedom of movement so needed to take and hold ground.  To the average grunt, it reduced the war to animal survival and nothing more.

    The duel between Zaitsev and Thorvald (also refered to as Koenig in other reports) has long been contested as to its historical accuracy.  One such comment is well worth repeating and I have agreed to add it to Sniper Country as it does have merit.


    Addendum by Martin Pegler
    Curator of Weapons, The Royal Armouries, Leeds, UK

    While researching for a book on sniping, I used some contacts at Russian museums to look into the veracity of the much reported fight between Zeitsev and Koenig [Thorvald].  Despite the fact that Russian company and regimental records were faithfully kept even throughout the worst days of the Stalingrad seige, nowhere is this duel reported in war diaries.  This would seem to be an odd omission, particularly in the face of the cult of 'Sniperism' that the Soviet press were so keen to extoll.

    I tend to agree with Anthony Beevor's opinion that the shooting match never actually happened and was the result of propoganda reporting by the press who were always keen to promote new 'Heroes of the Soviet Union'.  Apparently Zeitsev himself never confirmed or denied the event, an odd attitude in view of its apparent historical importance.

    Addendum by David L. Robbins
    Author of "War of the Rats"

    The only light I can shed on your Thorvald/Koenig question is this: In an interview on the phone with me, I asked Zaitsev that question. He said he had always felt that the Germans claimed someone named Koenig had been shot in the duel and not Thorvald because the Germans didn't want to admit their ace was down. He opined that Koenig was very close to the German word for king, as in a chess analogy; you win the chess game when you take your opponent's king. Z was sure the papers he took from the body said Thorvald, and that's the way he wrote it in his memoirs. So, true or not, I went with it because the man told me so.


    Gunnery Sergeant Carlos N. Hathcock II - United States Marine Corps. 93 confirmed.

    Probably the name most associated with modern military sniping in the United States, Carlos Hathcock has become legend in that nation for his exploits during and after the Vietnam war. The lessons learned by Hathcock and others during the Vietnam conflict were used to rebuild and revitalize sniping within the US military. His influence on the development of the military sniper cannot be exaggerated. Even today, some 30 years later, his name is still well known wherever sniper training is taking place. After his retirement from the Marine Corps, he took a very active role in developing snipers within the law enforcement community. Due to the extraordinary nature of several of his wartime missions, it is hard to single one out for listing on this page. Four stand out most.

    1. The destruction of an entire NVA company over the span of 5 days. Hathcock and corporal John Burke pinned down a fresh company of NVA regulars in what was known as the Elephant valley. Craftily facing amazing but unskilled odds, the two snipers forced the company to sit in place while they slowly decimated the enemy, one by one. Interestingly, few if any of these kills are counted in either snipers' tally. At the end of the fifth day Hathcock and Burke called down artillery fire which in effect took every man left alive.

    2. The longest recorded kill with a .50 BMG mounting a telescopic sight.  Hathcock was one of several individuals to utilize the Browning .50 caliber heavy machine gun in the sniping role. This success has led to the adoption of the .50 caliber cartridge as a viable anti-personnel and anti-equipment sniper round.

    3. The sniping of a Vietnamese general under conditions that can only be described as impossible. Displaying the ultimate in patience and field craft, Hathcock crawled approximately 1000 yards across an open field for four days to get into a position enabling him to take this particular general. Under constant threat of discovery from walking dog patrols, he persevered on nothing more than will power and a single canteen of water. He successfully completed the mission with a 700 yard killing shot. This mission was a true double edged sword. While the goal was met, the reaction on the part of the enemy indicated that it may have been in vain. If anything, the shooting strengthened their resolve. Nonetheless, it was an incredible feat of field craft.

    4. Last and probably most impacting to Carlos personally: his actions on the day he pulled wounded fellow marines from a burning AMTRAC and received burns over the majority of his body. The damage he sustained while repeatedly going back into the fire put paid to his career as a sniper and competitive shooter. Not one to be defeated, he turned his effect toward training others, both in the military and Law Enforcement.

    Carlos N. Hathcock II exemplifies hard determination, self direction and skill. His actions put a serious dent in the free operation of the enemy in his area of operations, thereby saving many untold American lives. He is historically significant as his actions have affected and directed sniper training in the US ever since. For the first time, and by and large due to Carlos, Jim Land and several others, the military sniper has been looked upon as something more than a fluke of war. He is now a permanent fixture of the United States armed forces.

    As a final note, unbeknownst to the Gunny, he was experiencing the debilitating effects of Multiple Sclerosis as far back as the 1960s. This site proudly honors the dedication and determination of this individual, who under the most harrowing of conditions fought on to the end in quiet resolve.


    Team Sergeant Gary Gordon, 33, of Lincoln, ME, and Weapons Sergeant Randy Shughart, 35, of Blain, PA -- Medal of Honor recipients, both of Delta Force's C Squadron.

    On October 3, 1993, members of the Army's Rangers and SOCOM's Delta Force went on a mission to capture Gen. Mohammed Farah Aidid and to arrest his staff. The mission went awry when the soldiers ran into greater than expected opposition. The Somalis began shooting down U.S. helicopters. The helicopter containing Chief Warrant Officer Michael Durant went down.

    Riding in a Blackhawk flown by a pilot by the name of Goffena, call sign Super 62, was Randy, his team leader Gary Gordon and another sniper by the name of Hallings.  They heard about Durant's Blackhawk going down and there was no way a rescue team could be inserted in time.  The Somalis were closing in.  The Blackhawk crew didn't stand a chance.  Randy, Gordon and Hallings picked off numerous skinnies, but at the same time, the chopper took a lot of hits.  A couple of other gunships came in to help and they were successful in somewhat holding the crowds back.  Meanwhile, Randy and Gordon made their third request to go in.  They could provide first aid, set-up a small perimeter, and possibly hold back the armed crowd until a reaction force showed up.  Just maybe.  Randy knew it was one hell of a gamble.  But they were confident.  Both were good at killing.  They made a formidable team.

    Goffena braved the ground fire and hovered about two meters above the ground.  There was a small brown-out with sand and dirt blowing which made it hard to see.  Randy got wrapped up in his safety line at the last second and had to be cut free.  Gordon had a hard time seeing as he ran for cover and tripped and fell to the ground.  They made it to cover but weren't sure in the maze of huts which way to go.  Goeffna pointed the way.  Randy and Gordon worked their way through a maze of shanties following the smoke a crew chief and popped.  They got to Durant first and lifted him out of the wreckage.  Then they moved to the starboard side to help out the rest.  That's when the Somalis came in and started checking out the wreckage.  Durant shot at them with his MP-5.  He heard more firing on the other side of chopper.  About a hundred meters away was a Little Bird, OH-6, waiting to help load the wounded.  They were SO close.  But the Blackhawk crew were too badly wounded and couldn't be easily moved to the Little Bird.  Besides, the OH-6 was a sitting duck out there in the open and they were running low on fuel.  They left.

    Gordon shouted out that he was hit, and then nothing more.  Randy came around to Durant's side and asked if there were any more weapons onboard.  When Gordon got hit, Randy picked up his rifle and now gave it to Durant.  Then he asked for the frequency on the radio.  Randy made an urgent call and he was told to hang tight, that a reaction team was en-route.  The Somalis closed in by the dozens.  Randy grabbed his rifle and ran back to the opposite side of the wreckage to face the music.  At first there was only sporadic firing.  Then the Skinnies got organized and suddenly a heavy barrage of automatic fire opened up.  It sounded like a torrential downpour that lasted about a minute.  Randy, completely out of any ammo, was hit and fatally wounded.  It was all captured on video by the P3's flying overhead.

    They radioed to the command on the ground:
    "Indigenous personnel moving around the second crash site.  Over."
    "Indigenous?  Over."
    "Affirmative.  Over."

    That was it.

    Durant was captured and spent several days as a prisoner. He was the only survivor.  The CIA quietly negotiated for the release of the bodies of the dead American soldiers, including Shughart and Gordon.  Of those, Gordon's body was the most badly mutilated and was dropped off in a plastic garbage bag at the front of the U.S. mission.

    Throughout their involvement in the firefight, all who were around Gordon and Shughart commented on their composure and coolness.  No matter how hopeless it seemed (or was) the two commandos carried out their mission smoothly and without fear.  Said Geoffena, "anyone in their right mind would never have gone in."

    As a result of their actions, the United States Government awarded the two commandos the Medal of Honor for their honor and bravery against insurmountable odds.


    Additional Links to look at:
  • The Battle for Stalingrad - The Red Army Snipers
  • Sniper Legend: Eric England - The Phantom of Phu Bai! (Vietnam War)
  • SP4 Otto Majer's Bronze Star - Vietnam
  • Tpr William Edward (Billy) Sing - "The Assassin of Gallipoli"

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