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Rifles of the White Death – A Collector’s Guide to Finnish Military Rifles 1918-1944

While not dealing specifically with sniping, Rifles of the White Death does provide an interesting look at one of the world’s most accurate military service rifles. Without a doubt, the rifles of Finland have long held a reputation for high quality and accuracy. In a day when the best a person might expect of a typical military rifle was a 4 inch group at 100 yards, the Finns would not accept a rifle into service unless it could fire three shots in a 1.5″ circle at 100 meters. By today’s standard, that may not seem like a great achievement, but when you consider that the Finns were basing their rifle on the Mosin-Nagant action first designed in 1891, one must sit up and take notice.

Rifles of the White Death traces the interesting history of Finnish arms development as well as Finland’s amazing national history. While the book is geared toward the firearms collector, it does have merit for the non-collector interested in world history. The story of Finland is greatly unknown to the modern day shooter, which is sad. The history of Finland is one filled with determination, a continual fight for freedom, ingenuity and incredible military feats against terrible odds. I would not call this a gripping read — after all, the book is mainly about the variations in specific collectable arms. Still, the facts presented within the pages are valuable and interesting enough to help change your world view. Finland is probably the only nation in the world to be invaded by the Soviet Union and remain sovereign. During two separate wars, the Finns bloodied the Russian forces to the extent that the Soviets had to except a less-than-ideal victory. Expecting an easy rollover, Stalin invaded Finland in November of 1939. The prognosis was a 16-day victory. As the war rolled on past that optimistic deadline, the Finn forces managed a kill ratio of 40 Soviets for every Finn soldier killed. Of the 1,500,000 man invading army, the Russians lost 1,000,000. In total, the Finns lost 25,000 men. The bravery and determination of the Finnish soldier should be a continual lesson to anyone who values freedom. Their fighting skill and excellent marksmanship decimated their enemy. After the Winter War of 1939 and 1940, a Russian general was quoted as having said, “We gained 22,000 miles of new territory. Just enough to bury our dead”.

It is disappointing that so few Westerners know about the history of Finland. Their battle against invasion and tyranny is inspiring and deserving of recounting. Rifles of the White Death went a long way toward whetting my appetite for more. Examples of individual bravery during the Winter War are the things of which true heroes are made. In one accounting, 32 Finn soldiers held off 4000 Russian infantrymen. By the end of the failed communist attack, 400 Soviets lay dead and the rest in retreat. Only 4 Finns survived, but they held the line. You cannot help but be amazed by this kind of sacrifice and bravery.

As an historical aside, the success of Finland in dealing with the Russian invader had an unexpected but world changing consequence. When Hitler saw how ineffective the Russian juggernaut was in dealing with so small a nation as Finland, he and his generals assumed that the highly professional and thus far undefeated German military would roll over the Soviet Union in a matter of weeks. Like so many leaders before him, he did not pay enough attention to detail and failed to notice how badly the Russians were prepared for the frigid winter in Finland. Thinking his vision of conquest was easily within his grasp, he invaded the Soviet Union and suffered a similar defeat at the hands of the harsh Russian winter. Unfortunately for him, the Russians HAD learned the lesson and were better prepared for the cold! In the end, the decision to invade Russia sealed the fate of the National Socialist movement. Had Hitler not invaded Russia, the world today would certainly be a very different place.

The main goal of the book is to familiarize the collector with the seemingly endless variation of the Mosin-Nagant rifle as adopted by Finland. The Finns never made a rifle action themselves. They instead chose to purchase or recycle captured rifles into some of the finest military bolt actions in the world. These efforts culminated in the M39. So successful was this rifle that it remained in Finland’s reserve until the 1970s. Today their sniper rifle is still based upon it. Think about that… one hundred and eight years after its invention, the Mosin-Nagant action is still serving somewhere in the world as a military rifle! With 77 years experience at modifying this action to suit its purposes, it is no wonder that Finland chose to adopt it once again for its sniper weapon.

The book also includes an interesting segment of sniper rifle development and military history. Again, the historian in me was intrigued to learn of the various modifications to the original M-N 91 design to make it an efficient long-range sniper rifle. While we are usually caught up in new developments within the sniper industry, it is always interesting for me personally to delve into the history of the art. I particularly enjoy comparing the old with the new. It is often eye opening to realize the feats individual soldiers have achieved with equipment that we today would consider less than obsolete! Today we talk of mil-dots, high power scopes, IR, Starlight, and Laser Range finding. Yet in the 1930s and 1940s, a sniper was expected to do his job with little more than an iron sighted rifle. A Finn farmer turned civil guardsman still holds the highest kill record of any sniper in history. Simo Häyhä, as recounted in the book, was responsible for the demise of 505 Russian soldiers! (Editor’s note: Some sources say as many as 542 kills in this three month period.) Another Finn tallied 400 Russians as a sniper and another 200 with a submachine gun. What truly amazes me is that these two gentlemen plied their trade at ranges sometimes in excess of 600 yards – with IRON sights! Equally amazing is how quickly they managed to do this. The Winter War lasted from November 30, 1939 until the Finn’s surrender in March of 1940. When referring to the human wave assault favored by the soviets, one Finn soldier was quoted in the book as saying, “I like fighting Russians, they fight standing up”.

While I would like to claim this book is for everyone, I cannot. If you have no interest in history or in the collection of historical firearms, you probably should save your money. The most exciting portions of the book deal with the individual heroism of the Finn soldier, but the book is not exclusively about these feats. It is, after all, a collector’s guide. If you are a collector of historically significant firearms, you owe it to yourself to purchase this work. It is very detailed in the finer points of the different marks, and it has enough history tossed in to make you really appreciate what you are collecting. The history of the many Finnish variations of the Mosin-Nagant rifle is pretty interesting. The weapons themselves hold a wide range of markings, and a collector could go broke trying to find them all. The Finn rifles are virtually unknown to the western collector yet they represent one of the finest and most accurate military bolt actions ever created. If you are serious about your collection, buy the book. It will open up a whole new area of interest for you.

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