Simo Häyhä ( December 17, 1905 – April 1, 2002), nicknamed “White Death” by the Red Army, was a Finnish sniper. Using a modified Mosin–Nagant in the Winter War, he has 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 farmhouse was reportedly full of trophies for marksmanship.
Winter War service
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. Remarkably, all of Häyhä’s kills were accomplished in fewer than 100 days – in other words, approximately five kills per day – at a time of year with very few hours of daylight.
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 sight’s resemblance) chambered in 7.62x53R, the Finnish Mosin-Nagant cartridge, because it suited his small frame (5 ft 3 in/1.60 m). 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).
A “Swedish donation rifle” Simo later received as gift was a Finnish model M/28-30 but he did not use it in battle.
The Soviet’s efforts to kill Häyhä included counter-snipers and artillery strikes, but on March 6, 1940 Häyhä was shot in his lower left jaw by a Russian soldier. The bullet had an explosive charge which blew off his lower left cheek. 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. No one else has gained rank so quickly in Finland’s military history.
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.
In popular culture
Actor Steven Wiig was cast in the role of Häyhä in the 2012 HBO docudrama Hemingway & Gellhorn. However, the scene that included Häyhä was cut from the final version of the film to reduce the overall running time.
There is a unique sniper rifle named “White Death” in the popular FPS Borderlands 2, made by Gearbox Software and released on September 18th of 2012.
Swedish power metal band Sabaton wrote a song about Häyhä called “White Death” on their 2010 album Coat of Arms.