By an interesting coincidence, both the Finnish Defence Forces’ official podcast Radio Kipinä as well as Sweidsh author/historian Lars Gyllenhaal’s Militärt med Gyllenhaal-podcast dealt with today’s snipers in their respective defence forces. As such, this felt like a good opportunity to compare and contrast the training, equipment, and employment of these.
A short note on the podcasts. The links above go to their respective iTunes-pages, but they are also found e.g. on YouTube. The language is Finnish for Radio Kipinä and Swedish for Militärt med Gyllenhaal. For their sniper episodes, both interviewed an officer who has a long background as a sniping instructor, Major Tapio Saarelainen of the Finnish Army Academy and Captain Håkan Jorsell of the Swedish Army Ranger Battalion (AJB).
Let’s first get Simo Häyhä out of the way before continuing on towards the modern day. Arguably a prime contender for the title of best known Finnish soldier, Häyhä fought as a sniper at the Kollaa front during the Winter War, and is widely credited with being the most lethal sniper throughout history. Needless to say, there is quite a lot of legends surrounding Häyhä’s short but spectacular career. Saarelainen addresses quite a number of these during the podcast, and has also written a brand new biography on Häyhä. Having met Häyhä “roughly two dozen times”, Saarelainen notes that Häyhä usually aimed for the target centre and scored most of his kills at around 150 meter range, downplaying the importance of his longer shots (his longest record hit was at 450 meter), and that he never fired from up in trees. The experiences gathered by Häyhä still influences Finnish army snipers today, and much of the basic trade remains the same. However, some specific parts of Häyhä’s tactics have become obsolete, such as using iron sights to keep a lower profile. Saarelainen notes that optics gives a decisive advantage in speed, while Jorsell agrees that while learning to employ iron sights is an importance step and a good foundation for becoming a proficient marksman, out in the field optics still take the price.
The road to becoming a sniper is vastly different in the Swedish and Finnish defence forces, due to the basic difference of Sweden fielding a professional all-volunteer force compared to Finland’s model based on general conscription followed by reservist duty. It should also be noted that the Finnish force does not differentiate between snipers and designated marksmen, instead only using the term tarkka-ampuja (literally ‘sharpshooter’) for both, while Sweden differentiates between skarpskytt (designated marksman) and prickskytt (sniper). The Swedish designated marksmen are found in infantry squads, where they provide accurate supporting fire at ranges out to 300 meters. The Swedish snipers are on the other hand part of the Swedish elite units, such as the marines, army rangers, the air force’s base security units, and the special forces. Here, the snipers are trained to operate in independent pairs at ranges up to and including 1,000 meters, during all weather conditions and all times of the year. Both the spotter and the shooter in the sniper team are trained snipers, with Jorsell noting that roles may change depending on who has the better capacity that day. For Finnish snipers, while they also always operate with a pair, he may or may not be a trained sniper.
To get into sniper training, the soldier must first accepted into the basic units, after which he (or she) can volunteer to receive sniper training. This means that to e.g. become one of Jorsell’s army snipers, one must first pass the basic (but demanding) tests to be accepted into the Army Ranger Battalion, followed by a 11 month long basic military training held in Arvidsjaur, in the northernmost parts of Sweden. After this, one can volunteer for sniper training, which requires slightly higher physical and psychological marks than a normal ranger (or jaeger, as the Swedish army calls them). On this follows an eight to ten week long sniper course, followed by a grand exam being held out in the field and lasting a few days. The test covers all aspects of sniper training, and if the sniper passes he is allowed to wear the sniper badge as proof that he is a qualified sniper.
Amongst the Finnish soldiers, all units training conscripts offer sniper training. The prospective sniper starts out with the normal eight week basic course, which trains basic soldier skills (including use of standard issue assault rifles). Following this, the snipers are trained in their particular field for nine weeks, with the final seven weeks focusing on the soldiers role as part of the greater unit.
Needless to say, the Finnish sniper being sent into the reserve is not up to par with a professional soldier such as the Swedish ones, something that Saarelainen readily admits. While the Swedish sniper fires approximately 1,000 rounds during a service year, a Finnish conscript fires approximately 300 7.62 mm rounds, and even less if employing a larger calibre. This is purely due to a lack of funds, and Saarelainen states that the bare minimum a sniper would need is 500 rounds.
This difference is also seen in the emphasise placed on prior knowledge. While Saarelainen wants snipers who are both hunters and have some basic competition results to show (air rifle, rimfire, …), Jorsell has trained skater boys from downtown Stockholm, although he also confirms that a solid hunting background naturally helps. Both officers agree that no-one is born a crack shot, but it takes hard and determined work to become one, and it is a skill that requires consistent training if it is to be maintained. For the Finnish snipers, this creates an additional challenge. In practice, for the reservist to maintain his proficiency, he has to acquire his own rifle and put his own time and effort into making sure he trains adequately. The big issue here is firing ranges, as firing ranges over 100 meters long are few and far between, especially those where a civilian can stop by to fire off a few rounds. MPK arranges a few courses each year, which gives access to the defence force’s own ranges. Also, Tarkka-ampujakilta, the snipers’ guild, provides a framework for those reservists that wish to maintain their know-how. Still, it is by no means a cheap hobby, and while both officers note that no amount of equipment and technology can replace the basic skill of marksmanship, long-range shooting certainly is a practice that rewards the use of high-end equipment. The current Finnish gun laws places very little restrictions on the ownership of medium-bore bolt-action rifles and their accessories, so as long as you aren’t looking for your personal Barrett M82 you should be good to go. And, yes, you are allowed to bring your own sniper rifle to war, as long as you make sure you bring the ammunition as well (or use army standard rounds).
When it comes to equipment, the standard Finnish sniper rifles are the 7.62 TKIV 85 and the 7.62 TKIV Dragunov, both chambered in the 7.62x54r, a rimmed cartridge dating back to Czarist-Russia and the Mosin-Nagant M91 (as in 1891). The M91 was adopted in different locally modified versions as the Finnish army’s standard rifle up until the introduction of the AKM in the early 60’s. The TKIV 85 is the last of this line, and is based on refurbished receivers. The exact age of the receivers employed is unknown, but the rifles very likely have a shot at the title of oldest operational small arm still in active service. The rest of the rifle is completely reworked, including using the somewhat tighter tolerances of the 7.62x53r standard (a Finnish version of the 7.62x54r developed during the interwar years). The Dragunov is the ubiquitous Soviet semi-automatic designated marksman rifle, and doesn’t require any further introduction. The most modern design in use is the 8.6 TKIV 2000, a Sako TRG-42 chambered in .338LM, with a Zeiss Diavari V 3-12 x 56 T mounted on top. For anti-material work, the Barrett M82 in .50 BMG is found. This highly-specialised rifle is known as the 12.7 RSTKIV 2000. The effective range increases with the calibre, with snipers equipped with 7.62 mm weapons being seen as having an effective max range of 5-600 meters, .338LM being able to achieve max ranges of up to 1,000 meters, and the .50 being effective beyond 1,500 meters if the conditions allow. However, due to the Finnish geography (read: forests), in practice shots above 350 meters are rare.
For the Swedish forces, there is basically two rifles in use. The larger is the Barrett, which the Swedish forces call the Ag 90. While the Barrett is today widely found in western forces around the world, it was in fact the Swedish Army which was the launch customer, narrowly beating the US Marine Corps with their order. The current Swedish version is the Ag 90C, which features a number of modifications to improve the overall quality of the weapon. Besides its use in the anti-material role using armour-piercing bullets at ranges up to and including 1,000 meters, the rifle is also used by the engineering corps for clearing explosives. The other rifle is the Psg 90, a locally modified version of Accuracy International’s Arctic Warfare, chambered in 7.62×51 mm NATO. The weapon is also commonly known by its British designations L96 or L118A1. The ballistics of the round very closely match those of the slightly longer round used by the Finnish weapons, something which further shows the demands placed on the Swedish snipers who are trained to use their Psg’s out to the 1,000 meter distance. For self-defence, the snipers are also equipped with Ak 5 (FN FNC) assault rifles. All snipers are trained on all weapons, but naturally the exact load-out is mission specific.
When it comes to additional equipment, the Swedish snipers are better off than their Finnish compatriots. Most Finnish snipers lack such basic equipment as range-finders and wind gauges, tools which are standard issue for Swedish snipers. Still, both countries place emphasis on the snipers being able to function with the bare necessities, going back to mildot charts, maps, home-made ghillie suits, and open sights if the need arise. When it comes to their employment in combat, the Finnish snipers are subordinated to the company commander. The company commander then sets the mission (destroy, disrupt, gather intelligence, …), with the sniper deciding how the mission is to be performed. This usually places geographic restrictions on the sniper (i.e. he can’t wander off into the neighbouring company’s zone of responsibility), but otherwise he has a high degree of freedom. For the Swedish snipers, my understanding is that as the jaeger units themselves often operate in front of their own lines, their snipers more often operate as part of and subordinated to their squad compared to the Finnish ones.