While writing my latest police procedural, “The Black Minute”, which will be released in September, I did quite a bit of research on snipers. I recalled some of that research after hearing the remarkable account of the three Navy Seal snipers who simultaneously fired three shots, killing the three pirates who were holding Captain Richard Phillips hostage off the coast of Somalia.
Probably the most famous sniper in United States history was Carlos Hathcock. During the Vietnam War Hathcock had 93 confirmed kills. Confirmation of sniper kills was difficult at the time because all kills had to be confirmed by a third party. This was easier on a battlefield but problematic in a jungle setting. Also, snipers usually worked in pairs (shooter and spotter) and often didn’t have a third party present.
One of Hathcock's legendary accomplishments was shooting an enemy sniper through his scope, hitting him in the eye and killing him. This scene has played out in a number of Hollywood movies featuring snipers and can be directly attributed to Hathcock’s unbelievable accomplishment. Hathcock and his spotter were tracking the enemy sniper in the jungle near the firebase Hathcock was operating from. The sniper had already killed several Marines and was believed to be stalking Hathcock. When Hathcock saw a flash of light off the enemy sniper's scope in the bushes, he fired at it, shooting through the scope and killing the sniper. Hathcock concluded that the only possible way he could have put the bullet straight down the enemy's scope and through his eye would have been if both snipers were zeroing in on each other at the same time and Hathcock fired first. Given the flight time of rounds at long ranges, both snipers could easily have killed one another. The enemy rifle was recovered and the incident documented by a photograph. Hathcock also held the longest recorded sniper kill on record at 2,347 yards until March of 2002 when Master Corporal Rob Furlong, a sniper from Newfoundland, Canada, registered a confirmed kill of 2,657 yards or 1.51 miles during the war in Afghanistan.
Despite Hathcock’s notoriety, he ranks fourth in the number of kills behind U.S. Marine Corps snipers Eric R. England with 98 confirmed kills and Chuck Mawhinney with 103. Mawhinney had another 216 kills that are listed as "probables" by the U.S. Marine Corps. The rifle that he used during his service in Vietnam is now on display in the Vietnam Gallery of the National Museum of the Marine Corps. United States Army sniper Adelbert Waldron’s 109 confirmed kills are the highest for any American sniper in history.
But those numbers pale in comparison to Simo Hayha, the WWII sniper from Finland. Nicknamed “White Death” because of his white camouflage suit and his ability to shoot in sub-zero temperatures, Hayha was credited with 505 confirmed kills of Soviet soldiers and 542 if the unconfirmed deaths are counted. The unofficial Finnish figure from the battlefield places the number of Hayha’s sniper kills at over 800. Besides his sniper kills, Hayha was also credited with over two hundred kills with a submachine gun, bringing his credited kills to at least 705. Even more remarkable, all of his kills were accomplished in less than 100 days.
A Hollywood film called Enemy at the Gates was made about Vasily Zaitsev, the famous Soviet sniper, who fought in the Battle of Stalingrad. Zaitsev killed 242 Germans during the battle. The Soviet Union also used women for sniping duties, including Lyudmila Pavlichenko, who was credited with 309 confirmed kills. She was one of 2,000 women snipers trained by the Soviets during WWII, and one of the 500 who survived.
Senior Airman Jennifer Donaldson from the Illinois Air National Guard was the first woman to be trained at the only U.S. military sniper school open to females. She graduated April 14, 2001 from the National Guard Sniper School's first countersniper course for Air Guard security force personnel. Donaldson was eligible to attend the school because women belong to Air Guard and Air Force security forces. That is not the case in the Army and the Marines because snipers are part of those infantry forces, and women cannot be in the infantry.
Successful snipers are unique individuals who possess the skill and temperament to perform under extreme stress levels. We can be thankful for the training and skill exhibited by the Navy Seal snipers and for all those whose dedication and training have saved the lives of countless soldiers and non-military personnel like Captain Richard Phillips.