The highly skilled sharpshooters known as snipers (a term that originated in British India to describe hunters able to pick off the elusive “snipe” bird) became vitally important during the Second World War. Fighting on the Eastern Front, the Soviets, in particular, were expert marksmen — and noticeably dominate the following list.
The Soviet Union was the only country that had expressly trained sniper units in the decade leading up to the World War Two, and their superiority (with the obvious exception of the top-ranked sniper on this list) is clearly displayed by the numbers beside the names of its marksmen. Expert sharpshooters such as Vasily Zaytsev — who reputedly killed 225 soldiers during the Battle of Stalingrad — proved beyond all doubt their immense value to their military forces during the war. In the aftermath, their importance was never to be underestimated.
10. Stepan Vasilievich Petrenko: 422 kills
During World War II, the Soviet Union had more skilled snipers than any other country on Earth. Due to their ongoing training and development throughout the 1930s, while other nations dropped their specialist sniper teams, the USSR could boast the world’s best-trained marksmen. Stepan Vasilievich Petrenko was high up among the elite. His 422 confirmed kills are testament both to his individual marksmanship and the effectiveness of the Soviet training program — which enabled its sharpshooters to work seamlessly alongside regular forces in combat situations; more so than those of other nations.
9. Vasilij Ivanovich Golosov: 422 kills
As suggested, throughout the Second World War and the period preceding it, in terms of the sniping prowess of its troops, the Soviet Union was the world’s most advanced nation. Much military doctrine was devoted to the use of snipers, who were able to provide suppressive fire from long range and capable of eliminating enemy leaders on the battlefield. During the war, 261 Soviet marksmen — and women — each with over 50 kills — were awarded the title of distinguished sniper. Vasilij Ivanovich Golosov was one of those honored and makes this list with 422 confirmed kills, a figure thought to include 70 other snipers shot in battle.
8. Fyodor Trofimovich Dyachenko: 425 kills
As further proof of the scope of the Soviet war machine, during World War II 428,335 individuals are believed to have received Red Army sniper training, and of those 9,534 obtained higher-level qualifications in their deadly art (which so effectively targeted difficult-to-replace enemy officers in combat). Fyodor Trofimovich Dyachenko was one of those trainees who excelled. A Soviet hero with 425 confirmed kills, he received the Distinguished Service Cross for “extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations against an armed enemy.”
7. Fyodor Matveyevich Okhlopkov: 429 kills
Fyodor Matveyevich Okhlopkov, one of the USSR’s most feared and revered snipers, was an ethnic Yakut, born in the village of Krest-Khaldzhay in the Sakha Republic, on the fringes of the Soviet Union. The story goes that after he and his brother enlisted in the Red Army together, Fyodor’s brother was killed in combat. Fyodor swore to exact revenge on those who had taken his sibling’s life — and went on to notch up 429 kills as a sniper, plus more with a machine-gun. Among his country’s most valuable marksmen, Okhlopkov was decorated as a Hero of the Soviet Union in 1965 and was also given the Order of Lenin. A cargo ship was named after him in 1974.
6. Mikhail Ivanovich Budenkov: 437 kills
It’s hard to ignore just how invaluable a weapon the sniper was for the Soviet Army during World War II. So invaluable that, according to some sources, a minimum of one sniper could typically be found in both infantry and reconnaissance platoons. Mikhail Ivanovich Budenkov was among those sharpshooters who made a mark few others could aspire to. A remarkably successful sniper with 437 kills to his name — a figure not including the lives he claimed using a machine-gun — he is testament to the Soviets’ formidable training and commitment to the cause during the war.
5. Vladimir Nikolaevich Pchelintsev: 456 kills
Soviet snipers, as is evidenced on this list, dominate the statistics for kills during the Second World War. This can be ascribed not only to their skill and prowess with a rifle but also to their knowledge of the terrain in which they fought and ability to blend in with the landscape to hide themselves from the enemy (helped by the fact that the Germans were for much of the time advancing into areas with which the Soviets were more familiar). Among these skilled and savvy men, Vladimir Nikolaevich Pchelintsev was one of the elite, having dispatched 456 men during the fighting.
4. Ivan Nikolayevich Kulbertinov: 489 kills
Unlike most other countries during World War II, the Soviet Union had sniper units that could include women. In 1942, two half-year-long courses that exclusively trained females produced nearly 55,000 snipers, and in 1943, at the height of the war, it is estimated that there were 2,000 women active in this role. Of these, Lyudmila Lyudmila Pavlichenko was the foremost figure, having killed 309 soldiers during the war. Pavlichenko became a legend both in the USSR and worldwide, but some lesser-known men surpassed her exploits. Ivan Nikolayevich Kulbertinov was one such individual. While less celebrated than his female peer, he takes his place on this list by virtue of the 489 kills attributed to him.
3. Nikolay Yakovlevich Ilyin: 494 kills
A 2001 Hollywood movie called Enemy at the Gates was made about the famous Russian sniper Vasily Zaitsev. Starring Jude Law, Rachel Weisz and Ed Harris, the film depicts the events surrounding the Battle of Stalingrad from 1942–1943. A movie has never been made about Nikolay Yakovlevich Illyin, but his contribution to the Soviet war effort was just as, if not more, important. Killing 494 enemy soldiers (sometimes listed as 497), Ilyin was a deadly marksman and another tribute to Soviet sniping expertise.
2. Ivan Mihailovich Sidorenko: around 500 kills
Ivan Mihailovich Sidorenko, a college dropout from a peasant family, was conscripted in 1939 at the start of World War II. During the 1941 Battle of Moscow, he taught himself to snipe and became renowned as a gunman with a deadly aim. Sidorenko went on to become one of the Soviets’ prime sniping weapons, and his country made good use of him both as an expert marksman and as a teacher. One of his most famous exploits saw him destroy a tank and three other vehicles using incendiary ammunition. However, following an injury sustained in Estonia, his role in subsequent years was primarily as an instructor. In 1944 Sidorenko was awarded the prestigious title of Hero of the Soviet Union.
1. Simo Häyhä: 542 Kills (705 unconfirmed)
Simo Häyhä, a Finn, is the only non-Soviet soldier on this list. Nicknamed “White Death” by the troops of the Red Army — whom he tormented, dressed in his snow camouflage, during the bitterly cold Winter War of 1939-1940 — Häyhä is, according to statistics, the deadliest sniper in history. Before joining the war, he was a farmer and — in what would surely help for what was to come — a huntsman. Häyhä’s family home was filled with trophies that he received for his superlative marksmanship. Incredibly, he preferred to use iron rather than telescopic sights, which ensured he presented less of a target to enemy gunmen (though even so, he did suffer a disfigurement of his face after being hit by an enemy bullet). When he was asked in 1998 (shortly before the end of his long life; he died aged 96) how he had become such a good marksman, he answered simply, “practice.”