Anyone who has seen the Hollywood epic about the Battle of Stalingrad, Enemy at the Gates knows the famous Soviet sniper Vasily Zaytsev. Although the film took artistic liberties with some of the characters, Zaytsev was as deadly as portrayed. 

While numerous snipers during World War II tallied up many more sniper kills than Zaytsev, what was amazing about him was that he accrued his more than 250 confirmed kills in just a four-month period. This averages out to an incredible 2.04 kills per day!

As a result, some of the tactics used and perfected by Vasily Zaytsev still form part of the Russian sniper playbook.

Vasily Zaytsev with his Mosin Nagant sniper rifle.
Vasily Zaytsev with his Mosin Nagant sniper rifle.

Early Life and Military Beginnings

Vasily Zaytsev was born on March 15, 1915, in Yeleninskoye, Orenburg Governorate in a peasant family. He grew up in the Ural Mountains, where, as portrayed in the film, he learned to hunt at a young age. He bagged his first wolf at the age of 12 with a .20 gauge shotgun given to him by his grandfather when he was barely able to carry it on his back. 

Zaytsev joined the Soviet military during the great purges of 1937. He first served as a clerk in an artillery unit. Selected for further military training, he was assigned as the chief of finance for the Pacific Fleet and attained the rank of a warrant officer. 

Once Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Zaytsev applied for service in a front-line unit five times. When the Germans moved on Stalingrad during the summer of 1942, his sixth request was granted and he was transferred to the 284th Rifle (infantry) Division which was part of General Chuikov’s 62nd Army defending Stalingrad. 

The Crucible of Stalingrad

“For us, soldiers and commanders of the 62nd Army, there’s no land beyond the Volga. We stood and will stand to death!” Zaytsev later recounted.

At first, Vasily Zaytsev wasn’t made a sniper but an ordinary rifleman. Nevertheless, his extraordinary talent was apparent. Once, he spotted a German officer from over 800 meters away. Using iron sights, he took down the German officer and his two subordinates who came to his aid. He was credited with 32 confirmed kills with iron sights.