Practice Makes Perfect

It was 105 years ago today that Simo Häyhä was born?

“Simo Whøhä?”

Have a seat.

Simo Häyhä was a pretty typical Finnish farmer – the kind of guy you can find in any small town in rural Finland or, for that matter, the Iron Range.  He was born and grew up in Rautjärvi, a spot on the map off the west edge of Lake Ladoga, two miles west of the current Russo-Finnish border.  Like most Finns, he did his year of military service in the mid-twenties, and went back to his real life – farming in the summer, hunting moose in the winter.  He was, outwardly, a pretty unpreposessing man – he stood only 5’3, which is especially diminuitive among the statuesque Finns.

He was 34 when the Soviets invaded Finland.  Häyhä was recalled to service with the Finnish 12th Division.  The division held the Kollaa front, north of Lake Ladoga, and was quickly beset by four Soviet divisions and a tank brigade.

Kollaa was the Somme of the Winter War.  The Soviets would charge; they’d get through the Finnish lines; the Finns would cut them off and kill them, or drive them back. And so it went, back and forth, for three whole months – virtually the entire length of the war.

And one of the reasons was Häyhä.

Simo with rifle

Simo with rifle

Armed with a Moissin/Nagant M/28 – a World War 1-vintage Russian rifle that the Finns had reworked into a much more accurate piece (the Finns, a former Russian province, had retained the Russian-caliber, mostlhy Russian-surplus, weapons after independence) – and wearing homemade white camouflage, on his own cross-country skis, Häyhä stalked the forest.  Unlike most of history’s snipers, he used only his  rifle’s iron sights – he thought scopes forced the sniper to raise their heads too high, dangerously raising their profile.  He was thorough about concealment – when he had time to prepare a position, he would compact the snow in front of him to avoid raising a small blizzard with his muzzle blast.  He’d also keep snow in his mouth while stalking, to pre-cool his exhalation, avoiding the big clouds of steam that normally accompany heavy exertion in the extreme cold.

Did we mention the extreme cold?  The average temperature during the Battle of the Kollaa varied from “freaking cold” to “how the hell do humans live in this” – from -4 to -40, Fahrenheit.

In a three-month period – roughly 100 days – Häyhä had 505 confirmed kills.  542 if you count some unconfirmed ones.  Some Finnish sources say it was closer to 800.

And he wasn’t just a sniper; when the situation called for the Finns to close with with the Soviets, Häyhä would ski into hand-to-hand range with the rest of the troops for the close assault; he was credited with another 200 kills at point-blank range with his Suomi Model 31 submachine gun.

The Soviets called him “The White Death”.  They tried everything to get him; countersnipers (they didn’t last long), concentrated volleys of anti-tank rifle fire (gunnies will know what they are; to a non-gunny, think “really big rifle desigined to penetrate a quarter inch of armor”), and finally rolling artillery barrages.

A week before the war’s end, on March 6 1940, a lucky shot from a Soviet infantryman caught Häyhä in the jaw, wrecking it and blowing of his left cheek.  His comrades dragged him to the rear, where he began several years of recuperation.  He got one of the very few battlefield promotions ever issued in the Finnish army, from Corporal to Second Lieutenant, in honor of his achievements.

The Soviets suffered 8,000 dead in three months in Kollaa; Häyhä alone accounted for nearly 10% of the total (and at least one of Finland’s other great snipers,Sulo Kolkka, claimed another 400 at the Kollaa; the two men between them accounted for over 12% of the entire death toll).  On the list of the world’s greatest snipers, he’s not only the top of the list by a considerable margin, but he did it all in 100 days flat. 

Even John Woo or Quentin Tarantino couldn’t make him a bigger badass.

But Simo Häyhä was no movie action hero; he was a typical workadaddy hugamommy Finnish backwoodsman.  He survived the war, and lived until 2002 in rural Finland, hunting moose and breeding dogs.  He was bit of a national treasure in Finland.

Asked in the nineties what made him so successful as a sniper, he responded in Finnish “Pyytlikkonyykkeyynnkyypelaapetoonen“; “Practice”. [1]

This video tribute tells the story pretty well [2]

What can we take away from Häyhä’s story?  That a little guy with a rifle can make a disproportionate difference.  He stymied Stalin, just like a lot of American little guys with rifles (but whose preferred weapon is the ballot and the picket sign and the checkbook), outnumbered and outgunned and outspent, rhetorically stymie Nancy Pelosi and Richard Daley and the Democrats today. [3]

And so Simo Häyhä is every bit as much a hero for Real Americans for what he represents as he is for Finns for what he did.

Happy posthumous birthday, Simo Häyhä!

[1]What?   You think I speak Finnish?  Of course I made that up.  But I bet I’m not far off.

[2] I mean, the story. I’m not sure what the compulsion Youtube producers covering military subjects have to put some dreary heavy metal behind every single freaking video. As if an Air Supply or Asbury Jukes song would be any less appropriate.  Sorry.  I had to vent.

[3] Comment-bait?  Sure.  It’s my blog, and I’ll provoke if I want to.

12 thoughts on “Practice Makes Perfect

  1. Mitch Berg wrote:
    . . . hunting moose and breeding dogs

    Don’t you mean breeding moose and hunting dogs? The man was a Finn.

  2. Pingback: Bad. Ass(es). Finnish.First.

  3. Simo Hayha makes Carlos Hathcock look weak by comparison, although you could argue that Hathcock had much tougher opponents. Especially in his counter-sniper missions.

  4. I saw the film “Enemy at the gates” the other day. It’s about the duel between a Russian and a German sniper during the Battle of Stalingrad. Well done, and it does not pull punches in depicting the brutality the Commies inflicted on their patriotic troops.

  5. I saw that movie once (on a date, actually). And yeah, that opening scene in Stalingrad was pretty wrenching.

  6. you could argue that Hathcock had much tougher opponents.

    You certainly could. The Soviets were famously unprepared for sub-arctic warfare in 1939; they wore brown uniforms in the snow; their skis, when they had ’em, were useful only as firewood; they were heavily-mechanized enough that they had trouble fighting much off-road. I’d guess (and it’s just a guess) that Häyhä scored a goodly proportion of his kills earlier in the battle.

    But against that, there was the whole “outnumbered six to one” bit. Hathcock at least had numbers behind him.

  7. I was with you until..

    “What can we take away from Häyhä’s story? That a little guy with a rifle can make a disproportionate difference. He stymied Stalin, just like a lot of American little guys with rifles (but whose preferred weapon is the ballot and the picket sign and the checkbook), outnumbered and outgunned and outspent, rhetorically stymie Nancy Pelosi and Richard Daley and the Democrats today. [3]”

    Then you went off into hysteria-land.

    Outnumbered outgunned and outspent?? From where do you draw your figures? The insurance industry is spending tens of millions to derail a public option or an extension of medicare – the republicans are so obviously for sale it’s laughable – they want mandatory coverage a huge boon for the insurance industry – but oppose competition, please, tell me again who has all the money? What a joke.

  8. This is off-topic, but what the hey:

    but oppose competition


    Republicans – all the ones I know – favor allowing ALL insurance companies to market insurance in all states, both to broaden each company’s pool and to vastly increase competition.

    Going off-topic in my posts is one (grossly irritating) thing; doing it with “information” that is 180 degrees removed from actual fact is another.

  9. You mis-read him, Mitch.
    Peeve think:
    private insurance companies=one monolith entity.
    Public option=competition against the one monolith entity.

    See, the secret is to break yourself away from tying comments to things that make sense.

  10. Pingback: Shot in the Dark » Blog Archive » Comparisons

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