September 1, 2023
By Kurt Allemeier
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As weapons technology improved, the art of the sniper did too, notably in the American Civil War, the Boer War, and especially in World War 1.
It seemed as soon as sniper tactics were seen as important military tactics, their relevance seemed to slip away in the interwar years, except for in the Soviet Union.
The Soviets founded a sniper school and started manufacturing sniper rifles and optics in 1932, and the sniper became a squad-level position in the Red Army. The Winter War with Finland taught the Soviets lessons about equipment. They made changes to optical scopes and mounts affected by the bitter cold. The Soviets put their newfound expertise to use when the Germans invaded in 1941, as snipers demoralized the attackers. The more dynamic fighting of World War 2, with changing battlefield conditions and targets of opportunity, proved the Soviets’ sniper doctrine.
The tales of Russian sniper heroics during World War 2, truth intermingled with propaganda or outright fiction, spawned numerous articles, books, and movies that have made them legendary. Examples of the Russian sniper rifle, whether it is a Mosin-Nagantor an SVT-40 with or without scopes, are among the foreign military arms that will be available in Rock Island Auction Company’s Sporting & Collector Auction, Oct. 4-6.
During the American Civil War, Union Gen. Hiram Berdan organized the recruitment of companies of sharpshooters that faced rigorous requirements to qualify. A shooter firing from the shoulder had to place 10 consecutive shots in a target at 200 yards. The grouping could not exceed 5 inches.
Berdan’s sharpshooters, outfitted in green, received additional training in range estimation, observation, and camouflage. They also got superior weapons, using the breech loading Sharps New Model 1859. These special order rifles had 30 inch barrels, double set triggers, and sights marked for up to 700 yards. After the war Berdan, who was an engineer by training, developed his own rifle and went to Europe to find buyers.
Berdan's single shot, bolt action Berdan II Model 1870 was the Russian Army rifle until being replaced as the squad rifle by the Mosin-Nagant in 1892. Initially made by Birmingham Small Arms Company, the Berdan II was manufactured at Tula and Ishevsk arsenals.
Vasily Zaitsev is likely the most famous of World War 2 Soviet snipers and was portrayed by Jude Law in the 2001 movie “Enemy at the Gates.” In a scant two months during the Battle of Stalingrad he reportedly killed 225 German soldiers. His Russian sniper rifle of choice was a Mosin-Nagant. Awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union, he published his memoirs and included 10 sniper tactics. They are:
1. Don’t create a base camp or fixed position. Pop up where least expected.
2. Gather intelligence. Figure out other snipers and how they operate.
3. Work closely with ordinary soldiers deployed nearby who can provide intelligence and distractions.
4. Always assume danger is at hand so work slowly, cautiously, and methodically.
5. Expose yourself as little as possible, be totally camouflaged, and stay as still as possible.
6. Create distractions and diversions to weaken the enemy’s ability to concentrate.
7. Use a dummy close to your position to draw fire.
8. Allow the enemy to get used to that dummy until they are careless about it.
9. Do not fire until absolutely certain of a kill.
10. Have endless patience.
Zaitsev and a partner would take cover on high ground, in piles of rubble, or exposed pipes, collect a few kills then move to a new location. Another tactic Zaitsev used was for three sniper teams to take up positions that could cover a large area. With a sniper and spotter, the tactic became known as the “sixes” and was still in use by the Russians well after World War 2.
The sniper rifle of choice for the Red Army was a gun that was 49 years old when the Germans stormed into the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa. The Mosin-Nagant Model 1891 bolt action rifle had a five-round internal box magazine and went into service in 1892, serving in the Russo-Japanese War, World War 1, and World War 2. In 1930, the gun was shortened slightly, and the receiver made circular for easier manufacturing. It was was appropriately dubbed the M1891/30.
In 1932, the Red Army started modifying Mosin-Nagant rifles for sniper use, reconfiguring the bolt handle to accommodate a 3.5-4X telescopic sight -- the PE scope, raised the front sight, and lightened the trigger pull. That didn’t stop complaints by snipers about the gun’s length and weight as well as the poor quality of wood used in the stocks that warped when the weather changed. The 91/30 weighed in at nearly 9 lbs., and was 48.5 inches long. The Soviets started using the new, shorter PU scope in 1940.
Reportedly, German snipers preferred using captured Mosin-Nagants to their own Karabiner 98k rifles. About 5.9 million Model 91/30 were made between 1941 and 1943, with about 271,886 being sniper rifles. In all, Russia manufactured about 40 million Mosin-Nagant rifles, including some in shorter carbine versions. Though the SVT-40 was used as a sniper rifle it wasn't officially adopted by the Soviets and will be addressed later. The Mosin remained the Soviet sniper rifle until it was replaced by another Russian sniper rifle, the Dragunov SVD, in 1963.
Lyudmila Pavlichenko, known as “Lady Death,” may have been the Soviets’ next best known sniper and top female sniper, reportedly collecting 309 Nazi kills on the Eastern Front. She was an amateur sharpshooter before the war and attended the Red Army’s sniper school before fighting near Crimea where 29 enemy snipers were among her kills. She was wounded four times.
In 1942, Pavilchenko was sent to Washington, D.C., to try and drum up support for the western allies to invade Europe. She became the first Russian citizen to be welcomed to the White House and was befriended by Franklin Roosevelt’s wife, Eleanor, who invited her to tour the country with her. Several years later in 1957, Eleanor Roosevelt visited Moscow where she had a warm reunion with Pavilchenko.
The Soviets started developing a semi-automatic rifle to serve as a battle rifle to replace the Mosin-Nagant in the 1930s. The first effort was the Tokarev SVT-38, adopted in 1938 weighing 9 lbs. unloaded. It got put to the test in the Winter War with Finland during the winter of 1939-40 where it proved to be fragile and the magazine would fall out during action. An updated version, the SVT-40 was easier to manufacture, lighter, and had an improved magazine catch, among other minor improvements.
Though it was intended to replace the Mosin, the German invasion of 1941 prevented that. The Soviets had to resort to making cheaper and easier to produce guns like the Mosin, that cost hundreds of rubles less and fewer man hours to make, and the full auto PPSh-41 and DP-27.
Red Army leaders also learned that the SVT-40 was more difficult to maintain than the Mosin so was mostly issued to non-commissioned officers and also served as a sniper rifle, but not with the prevalence of the Mosin-Nagant. Only about 52,000 SVT-40 sniper rifles were made, while the Soviets produced 271,886 Mosin sniper rifles. The SVT-40 sniper rifle didn’t prove to be an improvement over the Mosin, nevertheless, there is a photo of Lady Death, Lyudmila Pavichenko, holding an SVT-40 in sniper configuration.
The gun came in slightly under the Mosin’s weight, at 8.5 lbs. and length of 48.3 inches. Although overshadowed by the Mosin-Nagant, about 1.6 million of the SVT-40 were produced.
Collectors looking to add a Mosin-Nagant or an SVT-40 to their collection can find variations to them. Not all are sniper rifles, but they may have been manufactured at different arsenals, with Tula and Izhevsk having different markings. Imperial Mosin-Nagants made before the 91/30 came into being can be found that have czarist markings on them. Another variation that isn’t really a variation is a Finnish capture Model 1891/30.
The scopes on a Russian sniper rifle may vary, too. The PU optic was smaller and more widely used, while the PE had greater magnification.
As the tide of war turned, production of the Mosin-Nagant stopped and after the war the Soviet Union looked to a new semi-automatic rifle. What was adopted was the SKS that matched the weight of the SVT-40 but was shorter than both of the World War 2 veterans. The SKS would be replaced by the venerable AK-47 but still see use with other armies around the world.
The SKS served as the successor to the Mosin-Nagant and the SVT-40 and was the predecessor of the AK-47. The gun served in arsenals around the world for decades. This SKS was manufactured at the Soviets' Tula Arsenal, is dated 1954 and bears a KBI import marking. It is accompanied by a folding knife bayonet and canvas sling.
An assortment of one of the most heavily manufactured guns in human history, the Mosin-Nagant, and the gun intended to replace it, the SVT-40, are available in the Oct. 4-6 Sporting & Collector Auction, offering a prime opportunity to start collecting Soviet, Russian, or just foreign military arms generally at an entry level price point.
How the Mosin-Nagant became the World’s Most Feared Rifle, by Jon Guttman, Military Times
Eleanor Roosevelt and the Soviet Sniper, by Gilbert King, Smithsonian Magazine
SVT-40: Soviet Semi-Automatic Rifle, Rock Island Auction Company
The Genesis of Sniping, Part 6: Soviet Sniping, 1939-1945, by Martin Pegler American Rifleman
Sharpshooting North & South: The Genesis of Sniping, by Martin Pegler, American Rifleman,
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