Rifles of Simo Häyhä: The World’s Greatest Sniper (w/ 9 Hole Reviews)

In light of the approaching Finnish Brutality: The Winter War match, I though we could take a look at the two rifles associated with the world’s most successful sniper: Simo Häyhä. Häyhä was born in 1905, joined the Civil Guard at the age of 17, and did his mandatory military service from 1925 to 1927. He was first issued an American-made New England Westinghouse M91 Mosin as a Guardsman. After being discharged form the Army in 1927, he returned to active Civil Guard membership while living and working on his family farm in Karelia. He developed a reputation as an excellent marksman, both in competitive shooting and as a hunter.

When the Civil Guard developed the M28-30 pattern of Mosin, Häyhä was once of many who opted to pay a part of the cost to have his own personal rifle to keep at home, and it is with his personal M28-30 (serial number 60974) that he went to war when the Soviet Union attacked in November 1939, starting the Winter War. The 28-30 featured a new style of sights to replace the Russian Konovalov pattern. Henry Chan from 9 Hole Reviews will give us some insight into why these sights were so excellent. In addition, the barrels were free-floated and the stocks made from two spliced pieces of wood to prevent changing temperatures and humidity from impacting rifle zero.

In his 95 days of active service during the Winter War, Simo Häyhä was credited with 542 enemy soldiers killed – mostly with his M28-30 Mosin Nagant (although he did also use the Suomi SMG and LS-26 LMG at times). He finally ran out of luck on March 6, 1940 when he was hit in the face by a Soviet exploding bullet. He was in a coma for 6 days, and spent several months in hospital, where some 26 surgeries were necessary to reconstruct his jaw – and he was permanently disfigured. His name is permanently linked to snipers worldwide, and also to the Winter War legacy “Kollaa kestää” – “Kollaa holds”. He lived a quiet bachelor life as a farmer after the war, breeding hunting dogs and occasionally doing things like taking the President of Finland moose hunting. He passed away peacefully in 2002 at the age of 96.

For much more detail on Häyhä’s life and practical shooting advice, I recommend “The White Sniper: Simo Häyhä” by Tapio Saarelainen:


  1. This is a perfect illustration of the old dictum that it’s not the tool, it’s the man using it.

    I wager that while Simo Hayha probably benefited from all the minor tweaks that were performed on his Winter War rifle, he’d have been just as deadly with a bog-standard rifle that he’d had time to “learn”. It’s the man, not the mechanism.

    That said, I do wonder what stock he really had on his rifle. The one Ian shows is a straight stock; the ones I’ve always seen associated with Hayha have been pistol-gripped. Did I get that wrong?

    It’s also not that insignificant a difference, either–The pistol grip is better for shooting, while the straight stock is what you want for a bayonet fight. The Finns notably did not go much in for the bayonet, preferring to get even more up-close-and-personal with the puuko knives they all seem to have about their persons at all times…

    The one genuine backwoods Finnish girl that I knew? Casually produced a puuko from somewhere on her person that had a blade about six inches long on it, and which was razor-sharp. No idea where the hell she was keeping it, either–Was wearing shorts and a t-shirt, so there weren’t too many options. This was while she was on vacation here in the US, and out camping in the mountains. It’s about like the Nepalese Gurkha and their signature knives, only with less warning. You ain’t hiding a khukri anywhere under shorts and a t-shirt…

    Finns. Invade at own risk.

    • Puukko (with two k’s) knives really used to be part of the everyday attire of Finnish men in the countryside, more so in some parts of the country than others. Puukko knives were basic tools rather than weapons, although you could of course use one for self-defense in a pinch. Whether they had anything to do with Finnish soldier’s dislike of mounted bayonet use is another matter. Probably more important was relatively little bayonet combat training for conscripts and not much emphasis on it in the infantry combat doctrine. Officers just didn’t order fix bayonets all that much. One reason for that might have been the large percentage of long M91 Mosin rifles used by the Finnish army throughout the war(s) despite domestic developments of the Mosin-Nagant; the long rifle with a bayonet was just too clumsy for trench fighting.

      • Any idea why the “traditional” Ostrobothnian Puukko so often had a horse head on the end/pommel? I’d often wondered about that.

        Note that approximately 1/3rd of the Red Army kills attributed to the farmer Simo Häyhä were carried out with the kp/31 Suomi SMG.

        His rifles used the straight no-pistol-grip version of the Mosin-Nagant rifle. The m/39 service rifle was adopted in 1939, but there were only five finished by the time of the Soviet invasion. Also recall that at the time of the Soviet-Finnish war, that Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia were actually allied with each other via the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with its secret clause dividing the Baltic States, Poland, etc. into respective spheres of influence. The m/39 has the pistol-grip stock, and while it is the creme de la creme of Mosin-Nagant service rifles, only 120k were ever made, and many of those post-WWII. The M91, M91/30, and Finnish civil guard and army rifles M28, M28-30, M27, etc. carried the burden of rifle tasks during the 1939-1940 Talvisota and the 1941-1944 Continuation War, particularly in the former.

        Apparently the Puukko in Russia is the “Finnka.”

        • The horse head motif on the pommel is a fairly common but far from universal on South Ostrobothnian puukko knives. I do not know if it had any specific significance, but my guess would be that horses and owning several horses were an important status symbols in the agrarian culture of the 19th century (and earlier, and not only in Finland). Southern Ostrobothnia was traditionally a wealthy area (albeit with mixed fortunes in the late 19th century) and the owner of such a knife probably just wanted to show his status with an appropriate decoration on the pommel of his puukko. In the 19th century, unlike today, all puukko knives were still more or less custom made, either by local blacksmiths, or in the centers of puukko culture like Ostrobothnia by specialized puukko smiths.

          • The horsehead was originated in Kauhava by Iisakki Järvenpää and his cousin Juho Lammi and is a de facto trade mark for knives from Kauhava. The inspiration is said to come from a horsewhip seen by Lammi during military service as a dragoon in the 1880s

          • Thank you for the correction and additional information. It’s always nice when someone has actual certain knowledge instead of suppositions. I don’t pretend to be any kind of expert when it comes to the various puukko knife traditions of Finland.

      • I think there might be something of a cultural aspect to it all, as well. The Prussian Jager movement did not “do” bayonets very much, either–It was all, as near as I can tell, either rifle fire or dire, desperate hand-to-hand with improvised weapons. And, since the Finns drew a lot of their military culture and tradition from the Jager movement, well… Yeah.

        There’s a wealth of information that’s just been totally lost or ignored, when it comes to the influence of things like the Jager or their equivalents in other European countries. All of the late 19th Century “light infantry movements” sought to create forces that were more flexible and hard-hitting for their weight than the regular “square infantry” line formations. Most of these elements eschewed the traditional “fire once and charge with the bayonet” techniques of the line infantry, and I suspect that the residual of that may be what influences the Finns to this day.

        Friend of mine who is a bit of a fanatic about that era has referred to the Finns as the last real Jagers in the world. The rest of the European forces have abandoned the philosophy wholesale, or taken up only bits and pieces of it all. The Soviets found out the hard way how effective the Jager way of war can be, and they did it the hard way.

        I’m still waiting for someone to do a decent survey of all that “stuff”, from the Italian Bersagliere to all the rest. I think Garibaldi was the source for much of the popularity of the idea, but there were an awful lot of others involved in the whole movement across Europe.

  2. A couple of years ago a member of the Häyhä family did put a Lahti-35 up for sale. I was tempted, but the price ended up out of my modest reach …

  3. People tend to forget, if they even knew in the first place, that Prince/Grand Duke(?)(can’t remember which title applies)Paul, brought the Imperial Army Rifle team to Camp Perry shortly before WWI. And they, with M95’s set some Team Records that still stand!!

    • Grand Duke is customary in English it seems. Grand Prince would be more appropriate stylistically, because originally it was a title for the first-among-equals independent sovereign among the Rurikids. But because by the time of the Empire it was merely a courtesy title given to the all sons of an Emperor customary translation seems to be based on what it actually represented and not what it literally meant.

  4. Excellent narrative by Ian!

    Personally I do not think it is necessary to subscribe Finns some sort of supernatural fighting capabilities. Yes, they can be stubborn opponents, but other than that are regular folks like anyone else. In any case, they have my respect for being able to stand up to much larger enemy. Small nation with big stamina.

    I recall reading a book (written by a Russian author) about Finnish tactics. They were masters of deception, constantly surprising Soviets with new and unusual styles of traps. It must have been ‘mentally unsettling’ for invading soldiers. Psychology is a strong weapon, more than anything.

    • Key thing that the Finns had, and which the Soviets lacked, was a bottom-up sort of approach to war. In the Finnish mentality, every man was a leader, and every soldier could potentially be a Field Marshall. So, lots of initiative and adaptability.

      Soviet system was very top-down, and if you showed initiative or tried to do things for yourself, you were going to suffer the consequences. Quite often, during the Winter War and the follow-on WWII experience, Soviet soldiers would continue to do things that they knew were stupid and likely to get them killed, simply because anything else would bring down the political officers and all that. As the phrase went, it took a brave man to be a coward in the Soviet Army. It also took a brave man to buck the system.

      The Finns were the exact opposite. They were trained to take care of themselves and live in the forest. The Soviets were not–They relied on someone else caring for them, as if they were domesticated animals. The results were the massive difference in casualty rates…

      • I concur with your take Kirk, the second paragraph specifically. That was the way the Soviets operated – e.i. top down. Due to my ethic background I had plenty of reference at hand. They also paid for that antiquated approach terribly by the losses and numbers of PoWs in first part of the war. They learned their lessons by the end however.

        • A Finnish friend of my estranged… said that the conscripts used for the invasion of the Winter War, were largely from the southern republics, Georgia, Armenia etc.

          Their equipment and training was perhaps suitable (or more likely marginal)for the winters in their home areas, but not for a winter that was exceptionally cold even by Finnish standards.

          They also had no experience of the depths of snow, and what might lie beneath that snow, things like big tree stumps, frozen lakes and large areas of deep peat bog.

          I that respect, the poverty and lack of mechanization on the Finnish side, was a advantage.

          They were used to cross country skis, snow shoes and getting around in a land of forests, lakes and peat bogs, with very few hard roads.

          Back to your point about the rigid hierarchy of the Soviet empire

          Was there something about Stalin keeping his more trusted and more effective troops near to Moscow and saint Petersburg, incase of civil unrest?

          • Yes, the winter really was colder than normal even by Finnish standards. When it came to winter clothing, the Finnish Army was actually sorely lacking, but the solution was simple, if far from perfect: soldiers were allowed to use their civilian winter clothes with minimal military markings, often just a leather belt and a cockade to be worn on their civilian hats. NCOs naturally had a bit more pieces of a proper uniform to show their rank. Anyone without any rank insignia was just assumed to be a private or lance corporal (which is not an NCO rank in the Finnish Army).

          • Leningrad, as St. Petersburg was called then… Actually Kliment Voroshilov, the most-trusted lackey in Stalin’s coterie was given the assignment of tackling Finland, with a puppet government under Otto Kuusinen waiting in the wings. He was to use only the resources of the Leningrad military district in the affair.

            By 1940, Semyon K. Timoshenko was substituted for Voroshilov, and the spring thaw was underway, so Finland had no choice but to capitulate to Soviet demands. The Soviets kept fighting after the cease-fire.

            It would seem that another nationality represented among the hapless Soviets flung at Finland’s forests and the Mannerheim line were Ukrainians.

          • “puppet government under Otto Kuusinen waiting in the wings.”
            Actually Республика was crafted in March 1940 in Soviet Union which was supposed to incorporate Finnish land would everything went as planned – namely Karjalais-suomalainen sosialistinen neuvostotasavalta
            Interestingly this entity existed until 1956.

          • “By 1940, Semyon K. Timoshenko was substituted for Voroshilov, and the spring thaw was underway, so Finland had no choice but to capitulate to Soviet demands.”

            The spring thaw had not properly started yet. March is still a winter month for most of Finland. Much more important reason for the capitulation was that the Finnish Army was simply exhausted by March 1940. There were no reserves left on many critical sectors and in some cases logistical personnel had to be committed to fighting as infantry. Many units had been fighting for two months without any respite and without any chances to recuperate from physical exhaustion and sleep deprivation. Artillery was almost out of ammunition. Many field commanders evaluated that they could hold on for perhaps two weeks at the most and after that the lack of reserves would lead to a complete collapse of the defense.

            It was fortunate that Soviet intelligence was not able to deliver an accurate picture about the state of the Finnish Army in March 1940. If it had, the Soviets would probably not have agreed to a negotiated peace treaty, but continued to pressure on until total victory.

        • The top-down hierarchical “way of war” almost always meets with utter and absolute failure when it encounters its diametric opposite, which means that if it is going to prevail, it has to utterly destroy the other side before it achieves victory. Sometimes, this works. More often, it produces results like the Winter War.

          It’s almost like rigid hierarchy and the top-down control methodology/mentality that goes with it are simply not flexible enough to prevail in real-world conditions, or something… At least, not with human beings. Ants? Maybe.

      • I think the Russian army was much the same… The Red Army initially promoted all kinds of innovation and “outside the box” type thinking, but then Stalin had the purges, which returned everything to a sort of top-down-on-steroids-stasis and rewarded slavishly politically loyal incompetents.

        Not an original observation on my part, but one I’ve come to share: The incredibly lop-sided nature of the Talvisota/Winter War with Finland taking very heavy casualties–particularly in light of the size of population–but really chewing up the Red Army convinced many leaders of the greater powers, particularly A. Hitler, that the Soviet army was a “paper tiger” and that things like its performance against the Japanese in distant Khalkin Gol could be ignored.

        So this small chapter of WWII assumed greater significance in that it convinced the ideologues in the Nazi party that Russia would topple if a certain number of losses could be inflicted on them. After knocking France out by June 1940, this really became a fever dream… Why not the USSR too?

        As far as the origins of the jaeger/chausseur/cazador/light infantry paradigm goes, I might highly recommend the Balazs Nemeth book on early flintlock rifles that is part of Osprey’s “Weapon” series.

        • Thank you for that pointer…

          I’d still like to find more detailed information on the whole of the social movement that was the “light infantry” concept in Western military thought from the 1700s forward. Nobody seems all that interested in it, but with the fact that most of our modern infantry tactics come out of the various WWI expressions of that, like the Sturmtruppen and the Chassuers Alpins, it is more than a little puzzling that so little attention is paid to it.

          Ah, well–I suppose it’s a lot like the whole deal with Vegetius and his work; nobody at the time he was writing really realized how little of the really important details had been codified or written down, so we still don’t know the minutiae of whether or not the Roman legions marched in step, or what foot they stepped off on…

          Which is an issue that only we anally-retentive types give a rip about, I suppose.

  5. I took a Russian history class at UT Austin in the 70’s from Dr. Oliver Henry Radkey, a second generation German-Texan. He was a wonderful lecturer, salting his classes with asides on geography, national characteristics and, frequently, beer.
    The one I remember best is about Finns. He said that “they are a friendly, thrifty, hard working people with one defect: they like to get drunk and fight with knives.”

  6. It would be nice to understand what is meant by “World’s Greatest Sniper”?
    If only the number of kills, then this is no longer the case.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.