Native Snipers Among the World’s Most DeadlyThe life and tragic death of the US soldier Chris Kyle, along with the release of the biographical film “American Sniper”, has attracted much interest into the role of these concealed and proficient long range killers. The word “sniper” comes from the snipe bird. Noted for its erratic flight it took considerable skill to shoot a snipe, particularly with the smooth bore muskets and flintlock rifles used by British sportsmen in India where the term was first used. By the 20th century it was used to describe soldiers who were able to use stealth, concealment and accuracy to shoot and kill their opponents. Prior to “sniper” long range shoots were called either sharpshooters or marksmen. Their origins as distinct components of an organized military unit is rooted among the Native nations of the northeast. Noted for their ability use camouflage along with their skills at striking targets at a distance Native fighters were assigned specific victims, particularly officers. The Native sharpshooter was able to disrupt field movements and cut the chain of command among the European trained armies with their bright uniformed and glittering metal rank adornments. Killing officers was dissuaded in Europe as the rigid brigade formations and highly orchestrated troop movements would have degenerated into chaos without the strict controls of the officer corps.
Pegahmagabow tracked his prey alone for no one else was brave or crazy enough to follow him over the top and into “no man’s land”. He had the incredible ability to control his fears sufficient to enable him to creep into the German trenches and remove uniform insignias and other souvenirs without being detected. The Germans knew he had been there and was out hunting them and used every devise, including heavy artillery, to stop him but Pegahmagabow could not be stopped. Not only did he set the record for the entire war he captured over 300 Germans in the highly dangerous “midnight raids” favoured by the allies. Other natives who recorded numerous kills were Johnson Paudash, Anishnabe, with 88; Henry Norwest, Cree, with a tally of 115 and Philip McDonald, Akwesasne Mohawk, with a mark of 70 before he died in combat. By World War II the Germans and Soviets made extremely effective use of snipers with both sides establishing schools to train marksmen. The Soviets were shocked into doing so when they lost over 505 men, and possibly far more, to the Finnish sniper Simo Hayha. In less than 100 days Hayha used his 7.62X 53 (similar to a .308) caliber Mosin-Naganat rifle to kill hundreds of the enemy in temperatures of -40 degrees Celsius and without using a scope. Carefully hidden in snowdrifts Hayhda used only an open sight while remaining invisible in his white camouflage. He was called the “White Death” by the Soviets and was stopped only after being severely wounded by a Russian sniper in 1940. Hayha holds the world record for recorded kills as a sniper, far eclipsing any American. He is followed by Nikolay Yakovlevich Illyin was 469 kills and the female sniper Lyudmila Pavlichenko with 309. The most famous is Vasily Zaytsev portrayed in the movie ‘Enemy at the Gates” with 225 confirmed kills and as many as 275 more unconfirmed but probables. Zaytsev played a vital role in stopping the German advance at Stalingrad, the turning point of WWII. Most Soviet snipers were armed with the Mosin-Nagant bolt action rifle but Pavlichenko preferred the Tokarev SVT-40, a semi-automatic rifle capped with a weak 3X scope. The battle conditions of the snipers in both world wars were far more demanding than in contemporary conflicts. There were no quick extractions, no spy drones, air cover or satellite communications. Field hospitals, if any, were far behind the clash sites as the soldiers fought in conditions which drove many to insanity. Being a sniper during any of the above eras demanded almost super human patience and the mastering of the most lethal of military skills. It was both intimate and supernatural as it was impossible not to see the victim being targeted as a human being soon to die with the simple application of 2.5 pounds of pressure (about what it takes to shake a child’s hand). Doug George-Kanentiio, Akwesasne Mohawk, is the former editor of the journal Akwesasne Notes. A founding member of the Native American Journalists Association he served on the Board of Trustees for the National Museum of the American Indian. He is the author of many books and articles about aboriginal people including "Iroquois on Fire". He may be reached via e-mail: Kanentiio@aol or by calling 315-415-7288.
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