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.

Zaytsev’s rifle in the museum in Stalingrad.

A few weeks later, he was awarded a medal for bravery and given a sniper rifle with a simple 4-power optic sight. The weapon was an M1891 Mosin Nagant rifle, a five-shot, bolt action rifle, chambered in the ubiquitous Russian 7.62 x 54mm, known for its accuracy. 

That simple act changed Zaytsev’s life forever and had a great effect on the outcome of the battle. Zaytsev and his spotter, Nikolai Kulikov, quickly became well known on both sides of the battlefield. 

During their time together, in late 1942, Zaytsev and Kulikov’s expert sniper tactics resulted in the pair killing another 225 Germans. 

As Zaytsev’s sniper legend grew, so did the Germans’ fear of him and their desire to eliminate him.

In January 1943, with the battle turning into a disaster for the German forces, Zaytsev was wounded by mortar fragments that injured his eyes, although his doctor saved his eyesight.

A month later Zaytsev was awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union medal and was assigned to train the next batch of Soviet snipers. He later returned to the front with the rank of captain and took part in the Battle of Seelow Heights in Germany in mid-April 1945. 

Duel With Major Erwin König: Real or Propaganda?

Much has been written about the duel between Zaytsev and the head of the German sniper school, reportedly, Major Erwin König. (Other sources claim the German officer was named Heinz Torwald.)

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In his later years, Zaytsev recalled facing off against what he called a German “super sniper.” In fact, among his 225 kills were 11 German snipers. As he said,

“I knew the handwriting of German snipers. I distinguished easily more experienced shooters from the beginners, cowards from stubborn and firm ones by the fire and their ability to mask. As for the character of a leader of an enemy sniper’s school, it remained a puzzle for me. Observing our comrades every day didn’t show any particular result. It was hard to say where the fascist was. 

“But there was one story. My friend, a sniper, Morozov, got his optical sight broken by the enemy, and soldier Shaikin was wounded. Morozov and Shaikin were considered experienced snipers, they often came out as winners in difficult and hard fights with the enemy. There was no doubt: they faced a fascist ‘super sniper’ that I had been looking for.”

Legendary Stalingrad Sniper Vasily Zaytsev Still Teaches Russian Snipers
Zaytsev and Kulikov in a firing position in Stalingrad.

The pair of talented snipers danced around each other for several days. Then the Russian pair recognized the location that they believed the German was using as a shooting position. Kulikov raised a helmet for just a few inches, as a trained sniper might do. The German fired and the helmet fell. In the book Enemy at the Gates, it was written that Kulikov screamed. The German then raised his head just a bit to see and that’s when Vasily Zaytsev shot him between the eyes. 

However, English historian Sir Antony Beevor firmly believes that the Russian Ministry of Defence archives contradict this and the duel between the two “super snipers” was a product of Soviet propaganda.

Sniper Tactics Used by Vasily Zaytsev and Nikolai Kulikov

The favored tactic developed and used by Zaytsev was called the “sixes.” The tactic is still used by Russian forces and was observed during the Russian intervention in Chechnya.

This tactic calls for three sniper teams, totaling six soldiers. Each team’s firing position should overlap each other in order to give them the ability to cover a wide area. 

Military Times magazine published a piece on Zaytsev’s memoir and his tactics about being an effective sniper. According to Zaytsev:

  1. “Do not create a basecamp or fixed positions:
    A sniper is a nomad. You must pop up where least expected. Never remain long in one position: it might be observed.
  2. Be meticulous about gathering intelligence:
    Where, when, and under what circumstances are our own soldiers being killed by enemy snipers? Then reconnoiter the ground and work out how the enemy snipers may be operating.
  3. Work closely with ordinary soldiers deployed nearby:
    They can provide intelligence, decoys, and distractions. They have awareness of events around them.
  4. Always use a trench periscope for scouting and surveillance:
    Never assume it is safe to expose yourself to gather intelligence. Always assume [that] apparent quiet harbors danger. Work slowly, cautiously, and methodically. The successful sniper ‘measures seven times and cuts once.’
  5. When you must expose yourself, you should expose the barest minimum, be totally camouflaged, and as still as possible:
    Lie like a stone and merely observe. Aim to be completely invisible, even to the trained eye.
  6. Yours is a war of nerves, concentration, and endurance:
    Create distractions, exasperate him with diversionary movements, and exhaust his ability to concentrate.
  7. Use a dummy close to your own position:
    The dummy is designed to draw the attention and fire of an enemy sniper so that he reveals his position.
  8. Alternatively, allow the enemy sniper to get used to a dummy until he becomes careless about it:
    Then take its position, and get the enemy sniper in your cross-hairs.
  9. Do not fire until you are absolutely certain of a kill:
    If you fire without a clear target, you reveal your own position.
  10. Everything depends upon exhaustive intelligence, meticulous preparation, careful attention to detail, and endless patience:
    Impatience is death.”

Vasily Zaytsev died in 1991 at the age of 76. He had asked to be buried in Stalingrad but was buried in Kyiv. Yet, on January 31, 2006, he was reburied with full military honors in Stalingrad as per his wishes.