Marine Corps scout sniper Chuck Mawhinney is credited with 103 confirmed kills and an additional 216 probables. Composite by Coffee or Die Magazine.
It was Valentine’s Day, 1969. Marine scout sniper Charles “Chuck” Mawhinney clutched the walnut stock of his rifle, scanning the far riverbank for movement through his Starlight night vision scope. For this mission he had opted to trade in the trusty bolt-action M40 he usually carried for the semi-automatic M14 in anticipation of being immersed in an unusually target-rich environment. With the rest of his unit — the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines — at his rear, only Mawhinney and his spotter stood between the advancing platoon of North Vietnamese soldiers and friendly lines.
“When you fire, your senses start going into overtime: eyes, ears, smell, everything,” Mawhinney told the Los Angeles Times 31 years later. “Your vision widens out so you see everything, and you can smell things like you can’t at other times. My rules of engagement were simple: If they had a weapon, they were going down.”
Mawhinney's record was overshadowed by fellow scout sniper Gunnery Sgt. Carlos Hathcock until the 1990s. Screenshot from YouTube.
That night, 16 NVA soldiers went down, all of them dying within a 30-second span from head shots inflicted by Mawhinney’s rifle.
“It was the ultimate hunting trip: a man hunting another man who was hunting me,” Mawhinney said of his 16 months as a scout sniper in Vietnam. “Don’t talk to me about hunting lions or elephants; they don’t fight back with rifles and scopes. I just loved it.”
More than 50 years since Mawhinney single-handedly stopped that NVA platoon, he still holds the record for most kills in Marine Corps history — with 103 confirmed and an additional 216 probables. Despite Mawhinney’s long-standing distinction as the Marines’ deadliest sniper, his exploits in Vietnam remained largely unknown for decades. It wasn’t until 1991, when fellow scout sniper Joseph Ward published his memoir Dear Mom: A Sniper’s Vietnam that people outside of Mawhinney’s unit became aware of his staggering kill count. In the book, Ward credited Mawhinney with 101 kills, which caused skeptics — who believed Carlos Hathcock’s famous record of 93 confirmed kills to be the most in Marine Corps history — to dig into Mawhinney’s official record. They found he actually had two more confirmed kills than Ward purported in his book.
An unidentified Marine sniper in Vietnam. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
“You get to the point where you start living like an animal,” Mawhinney said in 2000. “You act like an animal, you work like an animal, you are an animal. All you think about is killing.”
Following his tour in Vietnam, Mawhinney served as a marksmanship instructor at Camp Pendleton, California. That’s when the mental toll of all the time he spent behind the scope began to reveal itself. Mawhinney suffered from nightmares, often dreaming he was trapped in a foxhole under heavy enemy fire. But when he left the Marine Corps in 1970, his psychological troubles were alleviated and he quietly began a career with the United States Forest Service, for which he worked as a road maintenance crew member for 28 years.
Mawhinney's M40 is now on display at the National Museum of the Marine Corps. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Today, Mawhinney is well known within the Marine Corps and sniper communities. His M40 rifle sits proudly displayed behind glass at the National Museum of the Marine Corps, and the Stone Bay rifle range at Camp Lejeune is nicknamed “Redfield” in honor of the Redfield scope he used in Vietnam. Years after his service ended, when giving lectures to Army and Marine Corps sniper students, Mawhinney passed to them his three simple rules for becoming a good sniper: practice, practice, and more practice.
Mac Caltrider is a senior staff writer for Coffee or Die Magazine. He served in the US Marine Corps and is a former police officer. Caltrider earned his bachelor’s degree in history and now reads anything he can get his hands on. He is also the creator of Pipes & Pages, a site intended to increase readership among enlisted troops. Caltrider spends most of his time reading, writing, and waging a one-man war against premature hair loss.
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