Michael T. Griffith
@All Rights Reserved
The Warren Commission concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, shot
and killed President Kennedy, firing three shots and hitting Kennedy with two
of them. The Commission leaned toward the view that Oswald fired the three
shots in less than 6 seconds. Most lone-gunman theorists now claim that Oswald
fired three shots in 8.4 seconds. They assert that he fired and missed at right
around frame 160 of the Zapruder film. However, in order to accept this claim,
we would have to believe that for his first and closest shot Oswald completely missed, not only Kennedy, but the entire limousine. This
would have been a truly staggering miss from Oswald's alleged position in the
sixth-floor southeast corner window of the
However, even assuming that Oswald fired and missed at around frame 160, this would mean that he fired his next two shots in less than 5.6 seconds and hit Kennedy with both of them, which still would have been a skillful performance, especially since the FBI and the Army established that the alleged murder weapon, a Mannlicher-Carcano rifle, could not be fired faster than 2.3 seconds per shot, even in the hands of experienced, expert riflemen. Lone-gunman theorists claim that subsequent Carcano rifle tests proved that the weapon could be fired in around 1.6 seconds per shot, but these tests did not use the same Carcano that Oswald allegedly fired. The FBI and the Army found that that Carcano could not be fired faster than 2.3 seconds per shot, even when used by expert shooters. For years the "traditional" lone-gunman scenario was that Oswald scored two hits out of three shots in less than 6 seconds. This is really the only plausible shooting scenario if one assumes that there was only one assassin and that he fired from the sixth-floor window.
Could Oswald have shot Kennedy? What kind of a marksman was he? Was he known as a skilled rifleman by those who saw him shoot? Or, was Oswald in fact a rather poor shot who was incapable of doing what the Commission claimed he did, as many researchers have concluded? Let us now answer these questions.
Oswald’s Marine Rifle Scores
Even after weeks of practice and intensive training, Oswald barely managed to qualify at the level of "Sharpshooter," the middle of three rifle qualification levels in the Marines. He obtained a score of 212, two points above the minimum for the "Sharpshooter" level. In other words, even after extensive training and practice, and even though he was firing at stationary targets with a semi-automatic rifle and had plenty of time to shoot (even during the so-called "rapid-fire" phase), Oswald narrowly missed scoring at the lowest possible qualification level.
The next time Oswald fired for record in the Marines, he barely managed to qualify at all, obtaining a score of 191, which was one point above the minimum needed for the lowest qualification level, "Marksman." To put it another way, he came within two points of failing to qualify.
Three Marine Colleagues
Nelson Delgado, Sherman Cooley, and James R. Persons served with Oswald in the Marines and saw him shoot. Here is some of what they had to say about his marksmanship ability:
* Nelson Delgado
Q. Did you fire with Oswald?
DELGADO. Right; I was in the same line. By that I mean we were on line together, the same time, but not firing at the same position, but at the same time, and I remember seeing his [shooting]. It was a pretty big joke, because he got a lot of "Maggie's drawers," you know, a lot of misses, but he didn't give a darn.
Q. Missed the target completely?
DELGADO. He just qualified, that's it. He wasn't as enthusiastic as the rest of us. We all loved--liked, you know going to the range. (8 H 235)
In a filmed interview with attorney
LANE. Sergeant, prior to your Warren Commission testimony, were you interviewed by agents of the FBI?
DELGADO. Yes, they came to my home
LANE. When did you first meet Oswald?
DELGADO. Just prior to the Christmas of 1958, Lee Oswald reported into our unit. Oswald and I got along really good together. We were, like I say, working in the same job, involving aircraft and radar. We controlled them from the ground, and ran intercepts. We were about forty enlisted men who participated in this job.
All of us knew Lee, and he knew all of us. We got along fine. We had discussions, and, uh [stops].
LANE. Was Oswald interested in guns?
DELGADO. They [the Warren Commission] say he was a gun enthusiast, but I recall many instances where we stood inspections, and he was constantly being gigged for having a dirty weapon and for taking improper care of his weapon. He was always reminded when he had to clean the weapon. He never took it upon himself to do so.
LANE. Do you have personal knowledge of Oswald's ability with a rifle?
DELGADO. At the range he couldn't prove by me that he was a good shot.
As any person who has ever served in the armed forces could tell you, there's a part in the qualification that calls for rapid firing. This is done with ten shots, eight in the clip and two that you load by hand. They give you forty-five seconds to fire these ten rounds. Well, when you fire these, then you stand you stand away from your firing position, till everyone has finished firing. Then the targets are brought down and scored. The targets are run back up, and there are disks for the number that you have hit--fives, fours, threes, or misses.
Well, in Oswald's particular case, it was quite funny to look at, because he would get a couple of disks. Maybe out of a possible ten he'll get two or three Maggie's drawers. Now, these [the Maggie's drawers] are a red flag that's on a long pole, and this is running from left to right on the target itself. And, you don't see this on a firing line too often--not a Marine firing line. You can't help but noticing when you're seeing disks, round cylinder things, coming up and down, and farther on down the line you see a flag waving [i.e., a Maggie's drawer]. Well, that was gonna catch your eye anyway. And we thought it was funny that Oswald was getting these Maggie's drawers so rapidly, one after the other. And this is why I can't think that he could be a good shot, because a good shot doesn't pull this. He'll pull a three, but he won't pull a Maggie's drawer-- that's a complete miss.
LANE. How did the FBI react to your statement that Oswald was a poor shot?
DELGADO. They tried to disprove it. They did not like the idea when I came up with the statement that Oswald, as far as I knew, was a very poor shot.
LANE. Do you feel that the agents of the FBI actually tried to get you to change your statement that Oswald was a poor shot.
DELGADO. Yes, sir, I definitely do. (From the 1966 documentary Rush to Judgment, produced by Mark Lane and Emile de Antonio)
Some lone-gunman theorists point out that Delgado was not a very good shot himself, as if somehow this discredits his observations about Oswald’s marksmanship. Delgado’s rifle skills have nothing to do with what he reported about Oswald’s shooting ability. Suppose you were the worst shot in the world and you saw a friend several times on the rifle range and you observed that he was a poor shot. Your poor marksmanship would not mean that your observations about your friend’s poor shooting ability were invalid.
Cooley said the following in an interview with former Rockefeller Foundation fellow Henry Hurt:
If I had to pick one man in the
* James R. Persons
Hurt reported on what Persons said about Oswald's coordination and shooting ability:
He [Persons] also remembers that Oswald possessed a lack of coordination that contributed to his being very poor in rifle marksmanship. (Reasonable Doubt, photo page 14, caption)
Other Interviews and Statements
In addition to Sherman Cooley, Henry Hurt interviewed over 50 other former Marine colleagues of Oswald's. Hurt reported the results of those interviews:
On the subject of Oswald's shooting ability, there was virtually no exception to Delgado's opinion that it was laughable. . . .
Many of the Marines mentioned that Oswald had a certain lack of coordination that, they felt, was responsible for the fact that he had difficulty learning to shoot. They believed it was the same deficiency in coordination responsible for his reported inability to drive a car. (Reasonable Doubt, pp. 99-100)
The 12/2/63 edition of the New York Times contained an interview with a Mr. Felde, who had served with Oswald in the Marines. Among other things, the article reported the following:
Mr. Felde . . . said he did not recall that Oswald had been an exceptionally good shot on the rifle range. (Mark North, Act of Treason, New York: Carroll and Graf Publishers, 1993, p. 455)
Oswald was in the
Members of the club reported that Oswald had been considered a poor shot. (G. Robert Blakey and Richard Billings, Fatal Hour, New York: Berkley Books, 1992, p. 139).
Recent press releases out of the former
Ignoring all the evidence, lone-gunman theorists often are heard to claim that the Warren Commission's shooting scenario would have been an "easy" feat of marksmanship, that it would not have been very difficult. Yet, the facts prove otherwise. No one has ever duplicated Oswald's alleged shooting performance; not even world-class or Master-rated marksmen have done so. For that matter, no rifle test has ever actually simulated all of the factors under which Oswald would have fired. FBI rifleman and ballistics expert Robert Frazier admitted in 1969 during the Clay Shaw trial that no FBI reenactment had duplicated Oswald's alleged performance. Monty Lutz, an expert rifleman and ballistics expert who served on the firearms panel of the House Select Committee on Assassinations, conceded during a 1986 mock Oswald trial that to his knowledge no marksman had duplicated Oswald's supposed shooting feat. Lutz made this admission when he was cross-examined by leading trial attorney Gerry Spence:
Spence: Would it be true that in the history of the whole world, to your knowledge, nobody has ever duplicated what Lee Harvey Oswald is supposed to have done with that supposed rifle from the sixth floor of the Texas Book Depository? That's true, isn't it?
Lutz: I don't know of any test that has been done from the School Book Depository in an attempt to duplicate it.
Spence: You don't know of anybody that's even duplicated that anywhere, do you? School Book Depository or elsewhere. You didn't, did you?
Prosecutor: Wait a minute, he didn't answer your first question.
Judge: We've got two questions.
Spence: Let's do this right. You don't of anybody that has ever duplicated what Lee was supposed to have done, do you?
Lutz: I do not.
Spence: Not even master marksmen. Isn't that true?
Lutz: I do not.
Lutz, an expert shot himself, also testified that he conducted his own rifle test but that he failed to duplicate Oswald's supposed shooting feat.
Some lone-gunman theorists will assert that Oswald's alleged shooting performance was duplicated by several expert marksmen in the CBS rifle test. However, the CBS test did not simulate all of the factors under which Oswald allegedly fired. Furthermore, the four riflemen who managed to score at least two hits out of three shots in less than 6 seconds failed to do so on their first attempts, yet Oswald would have had only one attempt. And, needless to say, all of these men were experienced, expert riflemen. Seven of the eleven CBS shooters failed to score at least two hits on any of their attempts. The best shot in the group, Howard Donahue, took three attempts to score at least two hits out of three shots in under 6 seconds. In addition, the CBS shooters did not use the alleged murder weapon, with its difficult bolt and odd trigger--they used a different Carcano.
The WC's own rifle tests were very revealing: The commission hired three Master-rated riflemen to attempt to duplicate Oswald's alleged shooting feat. The three Master-rated shooters who participated in that test fired 18 rounds while using the scope and three rounds while using the iron sights. They used the alleged murder weapon, the Mannlicher-Carcano that was traced to Lee Harvey Oswald. Tellingly, they missed the head and neck area of the target board silhouettes 18 out of 18 times when they used the scope, and 2 out of 3 times when they used the iron sights. In other words, they missed the head and neck area of the target silhouettes 20 out of 21 times. Several of their misses were far apart on the boards. Some of their shots missed the silhouettes entirely. It's revealing that they shot so poorly even though they were allowed to take as long as they wanted for the first shot, even though two of them took longer than 6 seconds to fire, even though they were only firing from 30 feet up, and even though they were shooting at stationary--yes, stationary--target boards.
The three riflemen in the test were named Miller, Hendrix, and Staley. (Their first names were never given.) In the first series, Miller took 4.6 seconds to fire three shots, Staley took 6.75 seconds, and Hendrix took 8.25 seconds. In the next series, Miller took 5.15 seconds, Staley took 6.45 seconds, and Hendrix took 7 seconds. It bears repeating that Oswald would have had only one attempt, only one series. Oswald supposedly scored two hits out of three shots, yet Miller, Hendrix, and Staley—all Master-rated riflemen—missed the head and neck area of the target silhouettes 20 out of 21 times.
The impossibility of Oswald's alleged shooting feat was what led former Marine sniper Craig Roberts to reject the lone-gunman theory. Roberts explains as he recounts the first time he visited the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository:
I turned my attention to the window
in the southeast corner--the infamous Sniper's Nest. . . . I immediately felt
like I had been hit with a sledge hammer. The word that came to mind at what I
saw as I looked down through the window to
I knew instantly that Oswald could not have done it. . . . The reason I knew that Oswald could not have done it, was that I could not have done it. (Kill Zone: A Sniper Looks at Dealey Plaza, p. 5)
Retired Gunnery Sergeant Carlos Hathcock is likewise skeptical of Oswald's
alleged shooting feat. Hathcock is a former senior instructor at the U. S.
Marine Corps Sniper Instruction School at
Let me tell you what we did at
A Valid “Oswald” Rifle Test
As mentioned, no rifle test has ever included all of the factors under which Oswald would have fired. What would, therefore, constitute a valid "Oswald" rifle test? What would a test need to include in order to qualify as a genuine simulation of Oswald's alleged shooting feat? Such a test would include the following conditions:
* The riflemen cannot have scored above the level of "Sharpshooter" in the Marines (or in the Army).
* The riflemen must have little target practice during the forty days prior to the test.
* The riflemen must have been known to be somewhat uncoordinated while in the Marines (or in the Army).
* The riflemen cannot have any "practice shots" on the day of the test.
* The riflemen must use the alleged murder weapon itself, or another Carcano with a difficult bolt and an odd trigger pull.
* If a different Carcano is used, it must be established, by expert shooters who fire the rifle just to see how fast it can be operated (with or without minimal accuracy), that the weapon cannot be fired faster than 2.3 seconds per shot.
* The target silhouette must be mounted on a car.
* The car carrying the target must be the same size and shape as Kennedy's limousine.
* There must be a tree that is the same size as the oak tree in
* The riflemen must fire from a window that is open by no more than 15 inches.
* The window from which the riflemen shoot must have two pipes to its left on the inside. These pipes must be positioned so that they inhibit the riflemen from firing markedly to their right. To get an idea of the degree to which the pipes would have inhibited a sharply rightward shot, see Jim Marrs, Crossfire, New York: Carroll and Graf, 1989, seventh photo page, and Robert Groden, The Killing of a President, New York: Viking Studio Books, 1993, p. 125; cf. Harrison Livingstone, Killing the Truth, New York: Carroll and Graf, 1993, second page of second photo set.)
* The riflemen must fire from an elevation of 60 feet.
* The riflemen must score at least two hits out of three shots in less than 6 seconds on their first attempt.
* If the riflemen are given 8.4 seconds to fire, then they must so misaim their first shot that they completely miss the target car.
* If the riflemen are given 8.4 seconds to fire, not only must they completely miss the target car with their initial shot, but they must also score at least two hits out of their next two shots on their first attempt.
* If the riflemen are given 8.4 seconds to fire, they cannot deliberately miss the entire target car with their first shot (or with any shot, for that matter), but must miss the whole car without trying to do so.
* The target car must travel the same speeds that the limousine was traveling, and at the appropriate points, from frames 140-313 of the Zapruder film.
No "Oswald" rifle test has ever included all of these conditions. On this basis alone it can be said that no rifleman, no matter how skilled, has ever duplicated Oswald's supposed shooting feat.
The conditions listed above are entirely factual and will not be disputed by anyone familiar with the assassination. Personally, I would add the following two factors, which, though supported by good evidence, are disputed by lone-gunman theorists:
* The riflemen must have a shield of boxes behind them that allows them no more than 30-32 inches in which to kneel and fire. (Photos of the supposed sniper's nest show that a gunman would have had no more than 30-32 inches in which to kneel.)
* The riflemen must fire two of their shots in no more than 1.5 seconds. (Numerous witnesses, from all over the plaza, said that two of the shots came so closely together that they were almost simultaneous. Some witnesses even said they sounded like a single burst from an automatic rifle.)
In closing, I quote from an internal Warren Commission memo that was written by Commission attorney Wesley Liebeler. Liebeler was commenting on the various rifle tests that were done for the Commission, on the marksmen who took part in them, and on the way in which those tests were being cited as "evidence" that Oswald could have done the shooting:
The fact is that most of the experts were much more proficient with a rifle than Oswald could ever be expected to be, and the record indicates that fact. . . . To put it bluntly, that sort of selection from the record could seriously affect the integrity and credibility of the entire report. . . . [These] conclusions will never be accepted by critical persons anyway. (James DiEugenio, Destiny Betrayed, Sheridan Square Press, 1992, p. 106; 11 HSCA 231-232)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Michael
T. Griffith holds a Master’s degree in Theology from The Catholic Distance
University, a Graduate Certificate in Ancient and Classical History from
American Military University, a Bachelor’s degree in Liberal Arts from
Excelsior College, and two Associate in Applied Science degrees from the
Community College of the Air Force. He
also holds an Advanced Certificate of Civil War Studies and a Certificate of
Civil War Studies from