March is international women’s month, and what better way for GunLove to celebrate it than to recall the greatest women shooters of our time? When Americans think of “badass women shooters” their minds conjure images of Annie Oakley, the legendary trick shooter of the old west or Lena Miculek, the extremely talented IPSC shooter who has never failed to bring home a gold medal. However, outside the United States and far back into history, there was a woman named Lyudmila Pavlichenko who was so deadly that she’s considered one of the most dangerous snipers to have ever picked up a rifle. With 309 confirmed kills, this battle-hardened warrioress has a higher body count than Carlos Hathcock (90) and Chris Kyle (160) put together, although this may be attributed to the fact she was always fighting in a target-rich environment.
Regardless, Pavlichenko was a talented sniper, and despite what some western media outlets will say, she was not Russian but Ukrainian. Born in Bila Tserkva near Kiev, she was described as a tomboy in her youth and was naturally competitive. When a neighbor’s kid bragged about how good of a shot she was, she joined the prestigious Soviet paramilitary sport organization called OSOAVIAKhIM, which, in English, is translated as the “Society for the Assistance of Defense, Aircraft and Chemical Construction.” This “sports club” existed to prepare Soviet children for the realities of war. Students could specialize in a wide variety of fields including horseback riding, service dog training, radio communications, chemical defense, or Pavlichenko’s personal choice – rifle marksmanship.
In those days, all school-aged Soviet children were instructed in rifle marksmanship at school in the name of “defense of the motherland” and were issued the TOZ-8 .22LR (which she called 5.6x16mm rimfire) single shot bolt action rifle with open sights. The best shooters would be awarded the Voroshilov sharpshooter’s badge.
In fact, the Voroshilov sharpshooters were so good that when they met the American Portsmouth Shooting Club in a 1934 competition, they annihilated the US team with a 207 point lead.
Pavlichenko earned that badge and forever proved to her neighbor’s kid that girls could shoot just as well as boys. However, her training didn’t stop there. She went on to sniper school, where her training consisted of 220 hours of firearms training, 60 hours of tactics, 30 hours of military engineering, 20 hours of hand to hand fighting, and 20 hours of Communist politics. It was here where she was first introduced to the Mosin Nagant 91/30. It was love at first sight.
Pavlichenko’s marksmanship teacher, Sergeant Potapov, was a World War I veteran who had previously served as a sniper in the Czar’s Imperial Army. He was quoted as saying “a good marksman is not a sniper.” The much-decorated Potapov built on her foundation in tactical training and taught her that a good sniper would not only need to be a good shot but also need to possess a special character. To him, a sniper was “calm, balanced, even phlegmatic, and not subject to fits of anger, merriment, despair or – even worse – hysteria. A sniper is a patient hunter.” In fact, he believed that women were “better suited to sniper operations. They were hardy and observant, and they were given an enhanced intuition by nature itself.”
The snipers were so talented they would play a game called “bottle base.” A bottle would be laid down with the mouth facing the shooter and students would try to shoot a round through the opening in such a way that they would shatter the base without damaging any other part of the bottle. This game was played at 30 meters with a 4x PE scope. Although this might seem like an advantage, the tip of the PE scope’s black reticle blended with the dark mouth of the bottle, adding a degree of difficulty.
(If you want to play this game on your home range, the Core TX 4×32 has a simple illuminated dot at the center of its BDC reticle, making the game a lot easier. By contrast, the Core HX 4-16x44AOVHR does not have an illuminated reticle, mimicking the original challenge of the game.)
The fun and games could not last forever though. Hitler’s Nazis and their Romanian allies invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, and Pavlichenko quit school to enlist in the Red Army. Naturally, she wanted to go straight into the army’s sniper program, but since she was a woman, her recruiters pushed for her to be a nurse. Ultimately, after she submitted evidence of her previous shooting experience, her recruiters relented and sent her to serve with the 25th Rifle Division.
Unfortunately, just like in the movie “Enemy at the Gates,” the Soviets suffered from massive logistics problems and lacked weapons for their troops. When she was deployed to Odessa, Pavlichenko was issued a single grenade as her weapon and relegated to trench-digging detail, making her a sniper in name only. Everything changed when one of her comrades was injured by an enemy artillery shell.
Too injured to use his own rifle, he offered it to Pavlichenko. Only a few days later, she was able to kill two Romanian soldiers from a defensive position on top of a hill from a distance of 440 yards. After her baptism of fire, Pavlichenko continued to fight on the front lines against both German and Romanian troops. In just two and a half months in Odessa, she recorded 187 kills and was promoted to senior sergeant (the Soviet equivalent of a sergeant major). When the Romanians overran Odessa, Pavlichenko’s unit pulled back to Sevastopol, where her kill count rose even higher.
In Dec. 1941 she targeted some Germans firing a machine gun from a halftrack traveling at 15mph. She calculated that her bullet would travel 220 yards to the target in 0.25 seconds and estimated that the vehicle would travel just over 4 yards in the same amount of time. After making the windage adjustments on her PE scope, a primitive 4x optic which had no subtension lines. In just seconds, she had taken out both the front and rear gunners of the halftrack and slipped away into the shadows.
In January 1942, Pavlichenko was pitted against a German sniper who had assassinated the battalion commander. To get the sniper to reveal himself, she ordered a mannequin tied to a tree. When the German took the bait, she fired at his muzzle flash and hit him between the eyes. After retrieving his documents, she found that he had been dueling a German sniper ace, who had 215 kills to her 227. By May 1942, Pavlichenko recorded 257 kills, which garnered her another promotion to lieutenant.
The more Nazis she killed, the more dangerous her assignments became. In the summer of 1942, shrapnel hit her in the face and she had to be evacuated from the front. The Red Army considered her so valuable they sent a submarine from the Red Navy to secret her away to safety. Stavka, the Soviet high command, had other plans for her, and used her as a propaganda tool to garner support from the west.
When her wounds were healed, Pavlichenko traveled to the US in an attempt to get Americans to send more troops to Europe. She became dear friends with Eleanor Roosevelt and traveled around the country on a publicity tour, regaling audiences with her stories about combat on the eastern front.
The American press, however, could not take her seriously and saw her as more of a curiosity instead of a war hero. She was able to brush aside questions from female journalists in Chicago asked her about what kind of makeup and nail polish she used at the front, and when a group of male journalists in Chicago essentially treated her as a “girl in a soldier costume” she chided them by saying, “I am 25 years old and I have killed 309 fascist occupants by now, don’t you think, gentlemen, that you have been hiding behind my back for too long?”
Soon, she briefly became a media sensation. Woody Guthrie, of “This Land is Your Land” fame, wrote the eponymous song “Miss Pavlichenko” singing her praises.
She returned to the Soviet Union and worked as a sniper instructor and later as a historian for the Red Navy, but battled PTSD and alcoholism for the rest of her life. She died in 1974 at age 58, but still holds the record of being the deadliest female marksman in the history of the world.