Simo Häyhä (Finnish pronunciation: December 17, 1905 – April 1, 2002), nicknamed “White Death” by the Red Army, was a Finnish marksman. Using a modified Mosin–Nagant in the Winter War, he acquired the highest recorded number of confirmed sniper kills – 505 – in any major war.
Häyhä was born in the municipality of Rautjärvi near the present-day border of Finland and Russia, and started his military service in 1925. Before entering combat, Häyhä was a farmer and hunter. At the age of 20, he joined the Finnish militia Suojeluskunta and succeeded with his sniping skills in shooting sports in Viipuri province. His home was reportedly full of trophies for marksmanship.
During the Winter War (1939–1940) between Finland and the Soviet Union, Häyhä served as a sniper for the Finnish Army against the Red Army in the 6th Company of JR 34 during the Battle of Kollaa. In temperatures between −40 °C (−40 °F) and −20 °C (−4 °F), dressed completely in white camouflage, Häyhä was credited with 505 confirmed kills of Soviet soldiers. A daily account of the kills at Kollaa was made for the Finnish snipers. All of Häyhä’s kills were accomplished in fewer than 100 days – an average of just over five kills per day – at a time of year with very few daylight hours.
Häyhä used a Finnish militia variant of the Russian-made Mosin-Nagant rifle, the White Guard M/28 early variant “Pystykorva” (literally Spitz, due to the front sight’s resemblance to the head of a spitz-type dog) chambered in 7.62x54R, the Finnish Mosin-Nagant cartridge, because it suited his small frame (1.6 m (5 ft 3 in)). He preferred to use iron sights rather than telescopic sights to present a smaller target for the enemy (a sniper must raise his head higher when using a telescopic sight), to increase accuracy (a telescopic sight’s glass can fog up easily in cold weather), and to aid in concealment (sunlight glare in telescopic sight lenses can reveal a sniper’s position). As well as these tactics, he was also known to keep snow in his mouth whilst sniping, to reduce steamy breaths giving away his position in the cold air.
The Soviets’ efforts to kill Häyhä included counter-snipers and artillery strikes, and on March 6, 1940, Häyhä was shot in his lower left jaw by a Russian soldier. He was picked up by fellow soldiers who said “half his cheek was missing”, but he did not die, regaining consciousness on March 13, the day peace was declared. Shortly after the war, Häyhä was promoted from Alikersantti (Corporal) to Vänrikki (Second Lieutenant)by Field Marshal Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim.
It took several years for Häyhä to recuperate from his wound. The bullet had crushed his jaw and blown off his left cheek. Nonetheless, he made a full recovery and became a successful moose hunter and dog breeder after World War II, and hunted with Finnish President Urho Kekkonen.
When asked in 1998 how he had become such a good shooter, Häyhä answered “Practice.” When asked if he regretted killing so many people, he said, “I only did my duty, and what I was told to do, as well as I could.” Simo Häyhä spent his last years in Ruokolahti, a small municipality located in southeastern Finland, near the Russian border. He died in 2002 at the age of 96.