Legendary Sniper Duels
Sniper duels are the stuff of which legends are created and movies are produced. But from a historical perspective, it’s often hard to differentiate between fact and myth. There are more than a few entertaining films—JFK and The Untouchables come to mind quickly—that are fun to watch but bear only a slight resemblance to the historical reality that inspired them.
So, what about two movies that are arguably the greatest sniper films ever made: Enemy at the Gates and American Sniper? Is there more than just a grain of truth in them or has Hollywood followed a long tradition of not letting the facts get in the way of a good story?
Here’s a look at some five of history’s greatest duels. All of them are factual but with at least a sprinkling of fiction to add flavor. The first of these occurred at the Battle of Stalingrad, one of the most brutal confrontations of World War II.
Vassili Zaytsev vs. Major Erwin König (Enemy at the Gates)
The Battle for Stalingrad pitted the invading German army against Soviet soldiers defending their homeland. Soviet sniper Vassili Zaytsev, who already had over 200 confirmed kills, was wreaking havoc and destroying morale among the Nazis. The Germans also had their own super-sniper, Major Erwin König, whom they sent to Stalingrad to kill Zaitsev.
For a week the two marksmen played a deadly cat-and-mouse game until Zaytsev caught a glimpse of light under a piece of metal. When another Soviet soldier baited König by lifting a helmet on a stick, the German sniper fired and exposed his position. When König peeked from beneath the metal to see if he had killed his target, Zaytsev shot him in the head.
Zaytsev mentioned König in his memoir, Notes of a Sniper, as does William Craig in his 1973 non-fiction book Enemy at the Gates: The Battle for Stalingrad. Yet, there are no records in the archives to indicate that a Major Erwin König ever fought for the Germans in World War II.
Some believe that the sniper’s real name was Heinz Thorvald, while others surmise that the German military might have destroyed records of König to cover up his death at the hands of a “subhuman” Russian.
To add some credibility to the existence of König, however, during a visit to Berlin after the war, Zaytsev was allegedly confronted by a woman who claimed she was König’s daughter. Authorities quickly removed Zaytsev to avoid a confrontation.
Carlos Hathcock vs. NVA Sniper Hunters
Marine Gunnery Sgt. Carlos Hathcock never had a movie made about his life, but he fought a few sniper battles during his two tours in Vietnam. For the record, Hathcock had 93 confirmed kills during his service in Vietnam. Each of these was confirmed by an officer, but there were many others at which no officer was present, so the unofficial count is more like between 300 and 400 enemies killed, according to Hathcock’s estimates.
It’s little wonder that the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) had a bounty of $30,000 on his head, and why one NVA sniper after another was sent to kill him. One of those, a sniper named “Cobra,” was looking for the cash prize. He got more than he had bargained for. Hathcock picked up the sniper’s trail and began hunting him. While following the sniper, Hathcock tripped over a tree and gave away his position. The NVA sniper shot but missed Hathcock and hit his partner’s canteen.
As the men maneuvered against each other, the gunnery sergeant spotted a glint in the brush and fired. Just as Hathcock had suspected, the glint was light reflecting from the sniper’s scope. Hathcock’s shot had traveled through the enemy’s scope and into his eye!
Simo Häyhä vs. Soviet Sniper Squad
Simo Häyhä was likely the greatest sniper of all time. As the Soviet Union was invading Finland starting in November of 1939, Finnish sniper Häyhä began picking off Russian soldiers for a total of over 542 kills by the time the invasion ended just four months later–all of these with a bolt-action M/28 rifle without a scope!
In addition to those 542 confirmed kills, he is also credited with another two hundred or so kills with a Suomi 9mm machine gun, which brings his total to well over 700 kills.
After Häyhä took down twenty-five Soviet soldiers in a single day, the Russians had had enough. They sent their own snipers to try to get rid of their nemesis. Although he got the best of the snipers sent against him, Häyhä was eventually shot in the jaw with an exploding bullet. His fellow soldiers took him off the battlefield, one of them claiming “half his head was missing.”
Remarkably, Simo Häyhä survived his wounds, although it took him years to recuperate, and he lived until 2002 when he died at the age of 96!
Lyudmila Pavlichenko vs. Nazi Snipers
Lyudmila Pavlichenko has the distinction of being the deadliest female sniper in history. A feminist long before the term came into fashion, Pavlichenko is credited with killing at least 309 Nazis, 36 of whom had been enemy snipers. And while rumors persist that Pavlichenko was mostly a propaganda myth, she had been wounded four times by 1942 and had become a menace to German soldiers on the Eastern front. The Germans even resorted to addressing her over their loudspeakers, offering her comfort and candy to switch sides and join their ranks.
Suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder, Pavlichenko became a spokesperson for the war effort in Europe. She toured the United States with first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, another strong, no-nonsense woman, with whom she would forge a lifetime bond.
Lyudmila Pavlichenko’s wounds never healed completely, and she died in her son’s arms at the age of 58. Because the USSR did not have adequate palliative care programs for its veterans, her death was a painful one. According to Pavlichenko’s daughter-in-law, the former sniper swore like a sailor, said goodbye to her son, and passed away.
Chris Kyle vs. Iraqi Sniper Mustafa (American Sniper)
The antagonist in the 2014 Hollywood blockbuster American Sniper is an Arab sniper known as “Mustafa.” He kills the friend of US SEAL sniper Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper), and he picks off US troops one after another. Kyle feels he can’t leave his US comrades until he kills Mustafa. It’s a wonderful movie with a riveting plot.
But how much of this movie is historically accurate? Well, Chris Kyle is the real deal, with 160 confirmed kills, one Silver Star, and four Bronze Stars in four tours of duty during the Iraq War. Mustafa, on the other hand, is a shadowy figure at best.
Kyle writes little about Mustafa in his memoir, saying only that “From the reports we heard, Mustafa was an Olympics marksman who was using his skills against Americans and Iraqi police and soldiers. Several videos had been made and posted, boasting of his ability. I never saw him, but other snipers later killed an Iraqi sniper we think was him.”
Kyle survived his exploits in Iraq, only to be shot and killed on a gun range by a 25-year-old U.S. Marine Corps veteran who suffered from schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder. Chris Kyle was 38 years old.