Carlos Hathcock is not a name that is widely known, even in military circles, but he is one of the most successful and prolific snipers in American military history. Hathcock boasted 93 confirmed kills during his time in the United States Marine Corps. With his longest official kill clocking in at 2,500 yards and longest unofficial kill being estimated at 2,800 yards, he is something of a legend. The M21 variant Springfield Armory M25 White Feather incorporated the nickname bestowed upon him by the North Vietnamese Army. They called him “White Feather,” because of a white feather that he kept in the band of his hat.
Carlos Norman Hathcock II was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1942, and grew up in the town of Wynne, which is about an hour and a half away. He lived with his grandmother during the first 12 years of his life, as his parents were separated.
It was during a trip to visit family in Mississippi that Hathcock first became interested in guns and hunting. Part of this was simply a necessity; his family was very poor and he needed to help feed them by bagging game in the forest. Hathcock greatly enjoyed his time in the woods, often pretending that he was an American soldier hunting down the Japanese during World War II using his father’s Mauser from the war.
Fulfilling his lifelong dream to serve in the Marine Corps, Hathcock enlisted in 1959, at the age of 17. He married his wife, Jo (nee Broughton) Winstead, on the Marine Corps’ birthday, November 10, 1962.
It wasn’t until 1966 that Hathcock deployed to Vietnam. Prior to deployment, he earned a name for himself as a top marksman by winning prestigious competitions, such as the Wimbledon Cup. Although Hathcock began his career in the Military Police Corps, Captain Edward James Land urged him to move into the sniper’s position to ensure that every platoon had their own sniper.
It’s worth taking a minute to consider what a “confirmed kill” is. For snipers, kills had to be confirmed by an independent source other than the sniper and his spotter. It was very rare for snipers to have an independent third party present, so the “confirmed kill” number is necessarily far lower than the number of enemy soldiers actually killed by a sniper.
Hathcock personally estimated killing somewhere between 300 and 400 Vietnamese communists. So incensed were the Vietnamese communists by Hathcock, that they put a bounty on his head – to the tune of $30,000, which is worth about a quarter million dollars in today’s money. It was also wildly above the bounties typically offered for snipers, which ranged from a princely $8 all the way up to $2,000. Hathcock’s bounty held the record for the highest of all time, and he capably disposed of every North Vietnamese agent sent out to collect the bounty.
During this period, soldiers in the region began wearing Hathcock’s iconic white feather in their hats to confuse the enemy.
Perhaps Hathcock’s greatest act of marksmanship was shooting a North Vietnamese sniper through his own scope. The counter-sniper was killed by the shot, which entered through his eye. The shot was so clean that it didn’t touch the sides of the scope. The sniper was known as “The Cobra” and has killed many American soldiers on his mission to neutralize Hathcock.
Indeed, The Cobra was known as the best sniper in the entire North Vietnamese Army. This became a matter of deep personal interest to Hathcock after he watched a Gunnery Sergeant die from one of The Cobra’s shots right outside of his hooch.
After catching a glint off of the scope, Hathcock fired and got his kill. He did this just before The Cobra would have had an opportunity to take his own shot. Hathcock retrieved the sniper’s rifle, hoping to keep it as a trophy, but it was stolen from the armory.
Hathcock was also responsible for killing a Vietnamese woman, known as “The Apache Woman,” who had a reputation for viciously torturing captured Marines.
Much like The Cobra, this was a personal mission. He couldn’t stand the idea of this woman operating in his backyard. On one occasion, he personally heard her severely torture a Marine Private – skinning him, cutting off his eyelids, removing his fingernails, and finally castrating him before releasing him. Hathcock rushed to his aid, but was unable to save the poor private, who was too far gone for medical attention.
This was a transformative event for Hathcock, who quickly made clapping The Apache Woman his top priority. He got her when she squatted to pee outside, which confirmed her identity as the woman in the platoon. He considered this the best shot of his entire Marine Corps career.
Another highlight of Hathcock’s career in Vietnam, was the time he took out an entire company of green recruits by dropping four of their officers as they walked through a rice paddy. He used a .50-cal gun, specifically designed for the Navy’s Seabees, to clear an area around a mountain that was crawling with communists. It took him three days to zero his rifle, but after he did, the communists were sitting ducks for the White Feather. Finally, there was the time that he dropped a Vietnamese sniper using a recoilless 105mm M40 rifle.This Vietnamese sniper had been harassing GIs in the area, but he was unwise and didn’t move his position, which meant he was firing from the same spot.
During his entire tour of duty in Vietnam, Hathcock only removed his feather once upon crawling two miles to kill a North Vietnamese general. Hathcock remained awake for four days straight, slowly inching his way through the jungle. During his two-mile crawl, he was attacked by a bamboo viper. Fortunately, he was able to avoid both the attack and keep his position hidden from the enemy. When the general exited the camp, Hathcock dropped the general with a single chest shot.
Hathcock then spent another three days slowly crawling out of the area as North Vietnamese soldiers searched for whoever had shot their general. They had precisely zero luck in doing so, perhaps because of Hathcock’s chameleon-like quality. His commanding officer, Edward Land, once commented that Hathcock “became part of the environment…he totally integrated himself into the environment. He had the patience, drive, and courage to do the job. He felt very strongly that he was saving Marine lives.”