WEAK POINTS IN THE LONE-GUNMAN THEORY:
PROBLEMS WITH THE THEORY THAT A SINGLE ASSASSIN KILLED PRESIDENT KENNEDY
Michael T. Griffith
@All Rights Reserved
Defenders of the Warren Commission's lone-gunman theory of the JFK assassination sometimes express frustration over the fact that public opinion polls consistently show that two-thirds to three-quarters or more of the American people don't accept the single-assassin theory but instead believe Kennedy was killed by a conspiracy.
Why do so many people find the lone-gunman theory to be implausible? Why do so many people reject the opinions offered by the small group of experts who still support the single-assassin hypothesis? Why do most people who study the case come away believing Kennedy was killed by a conspiracy?
I suggest one reason is that the key assumptions on which the lone-gunman theory relies are incredible on their face, and only look worse upon closer examination. For example, the single-assassin scenario stands or falls on the infamous, convoluted single-bullet theory, a theory that was rejected by two members of the Warren Commission (WC) itself and by the scientist who conducted the Commission's wound ballistics tests (and those tests flatly contradicted the theory). More will be said about the single-bullet theory further on in this article.
Another foundational assumption of the lone-gunman theory is that every single one of the dozens of earwitnesses in Dealey Plaza who said they heard shots from the front really only heard "echoes" from the sixth-floor of the Texas School Book Depository Building, even though some of those witnesses were specifically asked if they thought they might have heard echoes and replied they were certain they heard shots coming from in front of the president's limousine. Many people who read the earwitness accounts and who watch film footage of these witnesses recalling hearing shots from the front come away highly skeptical of the argument that these witnesses were "confused" and merely heard "echoes."
Let us now examine five weak points in the lone-gunman theory.
1. THE ALLEGED SHOOTING FEAT
No rifleman has ever duplicated the shooting feat attributed to Lee Harvey Oswald, the alleged single assassin. There are various lone-gunman shooting scenarios floating around, but they all theorize that one gunman scored two hits out of three shots in 6 to 9 seconds while firing at a moving target from 60 feet up using a Mannlicher-Carcano bolt-action rifle—on the first and only attempt. In 1967 CBS News conducted a fairly realistic simulation involving eleven expert riflemen firing at a moving target sled from a 60-foot tower using a Carcano rifle (but not the alleged murder weapon itself). Not one of those expert riflemen scored two hits on his first attempt, and seven of them failed to do so on any attempt, even though they fired under easier conditions than those in which Oswald would have fired and even though they were allowed to fire nine practice rounds prior to the test.
The WC's own rifle tests were equally 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. So how did they do? 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 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 missed the head and neck area of the silhouettes 20 out of 21 times.
Nearly all lone-gunman theorists argue that Oswald would have had as much as 9 or even 10 seconds, not just 6 seconds. However, in order to give their single shooter that much time, these WC supporters must assume he completely missed, not only Kennedy, but the entire huge presidential limousine, with his first and closest shot, that is, that he missed such a gigantic target from 60 feet up and from less than 140 feet away. Even the WC balked at the idea that its lone gunman would have missed so badly with his first and closest shot. Said the Commission,
On the other hand, the greatest cause for doubt that the first shot missed is the improbability that the same marksman who twice hit a moving target would be so inaccurate on the first and closest of his shots as to miss completely, not only the target, but the large automobile. (Warren Commission Report, p. 111)
Of course, the single-assassin shooting scenario must assume that the supposed lone gunman completely missed the limousine with one of his alleged three shots. It's hard to imagine how even a mediocre marksman like Oswald could have missed such a large target, even from 270-300 feet away, much less from 140 feet away.
2. THE SINGLE-BULLET THEORY
As mentioned, the lone-gunman theory foundationally depends on the single-bullet theory. In a nutshell, this theory says that the bullet that struck Kennedy in the back exited his throat and went on to strike Governor John Connally in the back, tore through Connally's chest, hit his right wrist, shattering a strong bone in the wrist in the process, and ended up partially embedded in his left thigh. The bullet that the Commission claimed performed the above scenario is officially known as Commission Exhibit 399, which is usually abbreviated as CE 399.
Simply put, no bullet has ever done the same amount of damage attributed to CE 399 and emerged in the same condition as CE 399. In the Commission's own wound ballistics tests, bullets that were merely fired into cotton wadding suffered more visible damage than CE 399, and bullets that were fired into animal chests emerged clearly more damaged than CE 399. The 1992 All-American Television wound ballistics test directed by Dr. Cyril Wecht likewise contradicted the single-bullet theory. In this test a 6.5 mm Carcano bullet was fired into two gelatin blocks. The second block contained animal bones to simulate the shattering of a rib bone and the smashing of a wrist bone. The bullet transited the first gelatin block and penetrated deep into the second block. It emerged markedly more deformed than CE 399.
WC supporters cite Dr. John Lattimer's wound ballistics tests to prove the single-bullet theory is credible. But Lattimer's test was flawed and the results of questionable value. Lattimer used animal tissue to simulate Kennedy's neck, a rib cage to simulate Connally's torso, and radius bones wrapped in simulated forearms to simulate Connally's forearm. But nothing was used to simulate Connally's back or chest muscles. Lattimer said four bullets out of twenty struck all three objects. A picture of one of the test bullets shows it was split at the nose in several places and was markedly deformed, much more deformed than CE 399. When Stewart Galanor asked Lattimer, in a filmed interview, if he could examine the bullets that struck all three simulation objects, Lattimer said he had thrown them away (Galanor, Cover-Up, New York: Kestrel Books, 1998, p. 42). How convenient.
When asked about the deformed nature of the pictured bullet, Lattimer said all the damage to the missile was done when the missile struck a piece of metal after it passed through the test objects. So not only do we not have pictures of three of the four bullets from Lattimer's test that struck all the simulation objects, and not only do we not have the bullets themselves (since Lattimer says he threw them away), but we also must take Lattimer's word that all the damage to the one pictured bullet was done after the bullet passed through the test objects.
Lone-gunman theorists also cite a bullet from a 1976 case that
Furthermore, the bullet in the
There are numerous other objections to the single-bullet theory. For example, the theory requires that Kennedy was leaning markedly forward when the bullet struck him in the back. Just how far forward Kennedy would have had to be leaning can be seen in the NOVA computer simulation of the single-bullet theory that was done for the 1988 documentary "Who Shot President Kennedy?". In his book Cover-Up, Galanor presents one of the frames from this simulation that shows Kennedy would have had to be leaning markedly forward in order for the single-bullet theory's vertical trajectory to be possible. The Zapruder film and photos of Kennedy during the time in question show he was not leaning very far forward at all.
It is no exaggeration to say there is mass confusion in the lone-gunman camp about the horizontal position of Governor Connally in relation to President Kennedy and about the degree to which Connally was rotated to the right at the time when the alleged magic bullet performed its supposed feat. Some lone-gunman theorists' trajectory diagrams place Connally so that his left shoulder is right on, or just slightly beyond, the left edge of his jump seat. But the HSCA's trajectory diagram puts Connally so far to the left of Kennedy that Connally's left shoulder is close to the right edge of his wife's jump seat! Which is it going to be? Similarly, some lone-gunman theorists measure Connally's degree of rotation as being "only" 10-15 degrees, whereas others posit a 20-25 degree rotation. In spite of the huge differences in these "reconstructions," the single-bullet theory "works" in all of them. The Dave Powers film shows Connally was seated about 7-10 inches to Kennedy's left, and the Zapruder film shows Connally's shoulders were facing nearly straight ahead during the time period in which CE 399 supposedly struck him. In the Zapruder film we can see Connally's shoulders are nearly square to the roll bar in front of him during the Z222-224 time frame, as an FBI photographic expert even acknowledged to the WC in 1964.
Other objections to the single-bullet theory include the following:
* CE 399 supposedly created the slits in the front of JFK's shirt as it allegedly exited the throat. But those slits look much more like knife cuts, and when Dr. Mantik examined the shirt at the National Archives he discovered that the slits don't appear to be missing any fabric--yet bullets usually remove fabric as they tear through and exit cloth.
* There is no damage to the back of Kennedy's tie, and the nick in the front of the tie knot is clearly inward from the left edge of the knot. So clearly the nick was not made by an exiting bullet. Furthermore, Dr. Charles Carrico, one of the Dallas doctors who treated the president at Parkland Hospital and the first doctor to see the president as he was brought into the emergency room, told former Senate investigator Harold Weisberg he did not see any nick in the knot of Kennedy's tie before the nurses cut away the president's clothing (Weisberg, Post Mortem, 1975, p. 375). Dr. Carrico also said he did not see the slits in the front of JFK's shirt either. This lends considerable weight to the critics' argument that the slits in the shirt and the nick in the tie knot were made by the nurses as they hurriedly cut away Kennedy's clothing. As mentioned, Dr. Carrico was the first doctor to see Kennedy's body. Dr. Carrico said he immediately noticed the throat wound, and that the wound was above the collar. This is further evidence the shirt slits and tie-knot nick were made by the nurses.
3. THE FRAGMENT ON THE BACK OF KENNEDY'S HEAD AND THE 6.5 MM OBJECT ON THE AUTOPSY SKULL X-RAYS
According to the current single-assassin theory, a bullet struck Kennedy near the cowlick region on the back of his head at a downward angle and deposited a sizable fragment on the outer table of the skull. The theory is that as the bullet struck the skull, the fragment was shaved off the missile by the bottom edge of the entrance wound. Then, somehow, this fragment ended up 1 cm from the entrance wound. WC apologists note that a 6.5 mm "fragment" appears on the Kennedy autopsy skull x-rays. Problems abound with this scenario.
First of all, simple common sense would dictate that if any "shaving" were to occur to a bullet that struck at a downward angle, the shaving would be expected to occur at the top edge of the entrance wound, not at the bottom edge. Moreover, forensic science knows of no case where a 6.5 mm fully metal-jacketed (FMJ) bullet has ever behaved in this manner. None of the bullets in the WC's wound ballistics tests deposited a sizable fragment on the outer table of the skull. FMJ bullets are designed not to lose material as they penetrate objects. In fact, in ballistics tests conducted by forensic pathologist Dr. John Nichols, FMJ bullets that penetrated several feet into tough Ponderosa pine emerged virtually intact, losing very little if any of their substance.
And consider the enormity of the contradiction in the behavior of the two posited FMJ bullets that struck their target in the lone-gunman scenario: FMJ bullet CE 399 allegedly tore through several layers of skin and muscle, smashed a rib bone, and shattered a tough distal radius bone, yet lost only a few grains of its substance, if any, and emerged with its lands and grooves intact. But the FMJ bullet that allegedly struck Kennedy in the back of the head not only deposited a sizable fragment on the outer table of the skull but also shattered into dozens of tiny fragments inside the skull and blew numerous fragments out of the skull as well!
The fact that it's extremely unlikely that an FMJ missile would
have had a fragment "shaved" off it as it struck the skull led the
late firearms and ballistics expert Howard Donahue to reject the lone-gunman
explanation for the 6.5 mm object seen on the autopsy x-rays. Donahue consulted
with several forensic pathologists about the possibility of a sizable fragment
shearing off an FMJ missile as it penetrated a skull. Not one of those experts
had ever heard of an FMJ bullet behaving in this manner, and they considered
this a most unlikely scenario (see Bonar Menninger, Mortal Error,
Dr. David Mantik, a radiation oncologist and physicist, studied the JFK autopsy x-rays and discovered that the 6.5 mm "fragment" is not really a fragment at all, but rather an image that has been ghosted over a small, genuine metal fragment. Dr. Mantik observed this visually and also did optical density measurements of the 6.5 mm object using an optical densitometer. Dr. Mantik's important discovery explains why FBI Special Agents James Sibert and Francis O'Neill stated in their report on the autopsy that the back-of-the-head fragment was the second largest fragment in the skull. Dr. Mantik's discovery proves the anterior-posterior autopsy x-ray was altered.
4. THE REAR HEAD ENTRY WOUND
For years the official story on President Kennedy's head wound was that a bullet struck slightly above the external occipital protuberance (EOP). That's the bump in the middle of the lower part of the back of your head. But in 1968 the Clark Panel concluded the x-rays showed the entrance wound was actually a whopping 4 inches higher, near the cowlick region. The HSCA's forensic pathology panel reached the same conclusion in 1979. The autopsy doctors vehemently objected to this relocation of the rear head entry wound. Although the chief autopsist, Dr. James Humes, under great pressure, temporarily went along with the new location for the wound, he later made it clear did not really accept the revised location. We now know, thanks to released documents, that one of the other JFK autopsy doctors, Dr. Pierre Finck, was adamant that the apparent entrance wound near the cowlick in the autopsy photos was not a wound. Indeed, we now know that Dr. Finck went so far as to question how the autopsy photos had been authenticated as having been taken at the autopsy! That is an astounding fact. The third JFK autopsist, Dr. J. Thornton Boswell, likewise strongly rejected the revised location for the rear head entry wound.
Surely it is hard to believe that three pathologists could so woefully mislocate a wound--by a whopping 4 inches--after examining it and handling it for an extended period of time, especially when they located it in reference to the EOP. Others who were present at the autopsy agree with the autopsy doctors in placing the wound very near the EOP, not 4 inches higher close to the cowlick.
WC apologists now almost universally argue that the autopsy doctors simply "goofed," that they innocently "erred" in describing the rear head entry wound's location. By 4 inches? All three of them? Even after examining it and handling it for a prolonged period of time? Even though they located it in reference to the EOP? "Yes," say nearly all lone-gunman theorists. These same researchers will then turn around and argue that the autopsy doctors' descriptions of the locations of the back wound and the large head wound are reliable and accurate.
"But the higher location is confirmed by the autopsy skull x-rays," claim lone-gunman theorists. Is it really? One of the radiology experts for the HSCA told the committee the x-rays did not conclusively show an entry wound at the higher location. Dr. Mantik examined the autopsy x-rays and found no entrance wound at the higher location, only a small, transverse wound that was much too small to be the entry point for a 6.5 mm missile.
Why would it have been deemed necessary to revise the rear head entry wound's location? Because the location described in the autopsy report and so adamantly defended by the autopsy pathologists could not possibly have been made by a bullet fired from the window from which Oswald allegedly performed the shooting. The WC solved this problem by simply assuming Kennedy was leaning nearly 60 degrees forward when the missile struck him in the back of the head. Of course, the Zapruder film and other photographic evidence show Kennedy was not even remotely leaning that far forward at the time of the head shot.
What is sometimes overlooked is that the revised location for the rear head entry wound really doesn't line up with the so-called Oswald sniper window either. Donahue noticed this, and this was another fact that led him to reject the lone-gunman version of the head shot. Although the higher location for the wound is problematic, it isn't nearly as problematic as the location described in the autopsy report. Truth be told, neither location really lines up with the infamous sixth-floor window from which Oswald supposedly fired, neither horizontally nor vertically, when one examines the Zapruder film and other footage of the assassination. Donahue concluded the shot to the back of the head came from a much lower location than the sixth-floor window.
5. THE FRAGMENTS IN THE AUTOPSY SKULL X-RAYS AND THE BEHAVIOR OF THE AMMUNITION THAT STRUCK KENNEDY IN THE HEAD
Skeptics of the lone-gunman theory have long noted that the extensive skull fracturing and bullet fragmentation visible on the autopsy skull x-rays strongly indicate that the ammunition that struck the president's head was not the same kind of ammunition that Oswald allegedly used. The skull x-rays show 35 to 40 bullet fragments. Such fragmentation is typical of high-velocity, frangible ammunition, not the low-to-medium-velocity FMJ ammunition that Oswald supposedly used. The fact that FMJ bullets are not known for leaving numerous fragments when they penetrate skulls is yet another factor that led Donahue to reject the lone-gunman explanation for the head shot (assuming, for the sake of argument, that only one bullet struck the skull). Even the Clark Panel concluded that the missile that struck the back of the president's head was a high-velocity bullet. Said the panel,
These findings indicate that the back of the head was struck by a single bullet travelling at high velocity. . . . (Clark Panel Report, "Examination of Photographs of Head," reproduced in Mortal Error, p. 316, emphasis added)
However, Oswald used low-to-medium-velocity ammunition. FBI firearms expert Robert Frazier explained to the Commission that the Carcano rifle was a low-velocity weapon:
Mr. EISENBERG. How does the recoil of this weapon [the Mannlicher-Carcano rifle that Oswald supposedly used] compare with the recoil of the average military rifle?
Mr. FRAZIER. Considerably less. The recoil is nominal with this weapon, because it has a very low velocity and pressure, and just an average-size bullet weight.
Mr. EISENBERG. Is the killing power of the bullets essentially similar to the killing power at these ranges---the killing power of the rifles you have named?
Mr. FRAZIER. No, sir.
Mr. EISENBERG. How much difference is there?
Mr. FRAZIER. The higher velocity bullets of approximately the same weight would have more killing power. This has a low velocity. . . . (3 H 414, emphasis added)
Dr. Michael Kurtz has done considerable research on the wound ballistics aspects of the case. Dr. Kurtz likewise concludes that the skull fracturing and bullet fragmentation visible on the autopsy x-rays indicate that high-velocity, not low-velocity or medium-velocity, ammunition struck the president's skull:
The x-rays of the skull reveal massive multiple fractures of the skull on both the right and left sides. There is extensive fragmentation of the bone, and several pieces of the skull are missing. This type of damage is not produced by ammunition like that allegedly used by Oswald. Copper-jacketed bullet commonly penetrate straight through objects, leaving only small tracks and causing little in the way of bone fractures. Wounds ballistics tests performed for the Commission confirmed this. Bullets from Oswald's rifle, from a .257 Roberts soft-point hunting rifle, and from a United States Army M-14 rifle were fired into blocks of gelatin covered with masonite. The Mannlicher-Carcano bullet went straight through the gelatin, leaving a tiny track and causing little damage to the substance. The soft-point hunting bullet expanded rapidly upon entering and considerably more damage. The M-14 bullet caused more destruction than the others. . . .
The skull x-rays also depicted extensive bullet fragmentation within the skull. This type of fragmentation is not typical of full-jacketed military ammunition. That ammunition was specifically designed to remain intact when passing through a body. Lead, or hollow-point, ammunition is the type that causes fragmentation. . . .
World War II films of men being shot in the head by Mannlicher-Carcano rifles reveal absolutely no massive explosion of brain tissue and also show quite graphically that the men invariably fell in the same direction as the trajectory of the bullets that struck them. Autopsy photographs and x-rays of some of the victims of Mannlicher-Carcano-inflicted head wounds also showed no bullet fragmentation, no serious disruption of brain tissue, and very small exit wounds. (Crime of the Century, Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1982, pp. 91, 104)
The usual failure of FMJ bullets to leave numerous fragments in skulls was also seen in Dr. Lattimer's own wound ballistics tests. Dr. Lattimer fired Carcano missiles at test skulls packed with a substance designed to simulate the scalp. X-rays of these test skulls revealed no bullet fragments, not even near the wound of entry in the rear top of the head (Kurtz, Crime of the Century, p. 98).
The x-rays of two of the skulls used in the WC's wound ballistics tests pose another problem for the lone-gunman theory. The fragmentation seen on these x-rays differs markedly from the fragmentation seen on the autopsy x-rays, in location, nature, and number. Howard Roffman explains:
These [two] X rays depict gelatin-filled human skulls shot with ammunition of the type allegedly used by Oswald. They were classified by the government and remained suppressed until recently; they are printed here for the first time ever. What they reveal is that Oswald's rifle could not have produced the head wounds suffered by President Kennedy. The bullet that hit the president in the head exploded into a multitude of minuscule fragments. One Secret Service agent described the appearance of these metal fragments on the X rays: "The whole head looked like a little mass of stars." The fragmentation depicted on these test X rays obviously differs from that described in the president's head. The upper X ray reveals only relatively large fragments concentrated at the point of entrance; the lower reveals only a few tiny fragments altogether. This gives dramatic, suppressed proof that Oswald did not fire the shot that killed President Kennedy. (Photo: National Archives) (Presumed Guilty, 1976, photo pages 8 and 9, chapter 5)
Another ballistics problem for the lone-gunman theory is that the number of known and unknown fragments from the head shot appears to add up to much more than one Carcano missile, which means more than one bullet struck Kennedy in the head. Dr. Kurtz explains:
The known fragments both inside and outside the head total more than two-thirds of an intact Mannlicher-Carcano bullet. This does not account for the fact that a sizable number of fragments exploded completely out of the head and were propelled out of the limousine on to the street. . . . The Ramsey Clark panel states specifically that most of the bullet that struck the president "emerged from the head." Dr. Lattimer estimated that 95 grains of the bullet which struck the head "apparently went completely over the windshield to strike the street further along." His calculation is based on the fact that 65 grains of the bullet were recovered. This calculation, however, is based entirely upon the total weight of the limousine fragments. He does not include the weight of the two fragments recovered from the head nor those remaining in the head.
Dr. Lattimer estimated that 70 percent of the right half of the brain as well as 50 percent of the right half of the skull was missing. Over thirty-five fragments, many over 1 mm. in diameter, two over 6 mm., remained in that portion of the brain and skull which did not explode out of the head. It is not unreasonable to postulate that at least as many fragments must have been blown out of the head as remained in it.
Wounds ballistics tests conducted for the Warren Commission by Dr. Alfred Olivier confirmed this. A bullet from Oswald's rifle fired into a test skull fragmented extensively, ejecting over thirty fragments outside the skull. Two very large fragments composing approximately 70 percent of the test bullet were found outside the skull. Twenty-nine smaller fragments, some as large as 6 mm. in diameter, were also discovered outside the test skull. Collectively, these fragments total about 95 percent of the total size of the test bullet. Dr. Lattimer also performed ballistics tests that verified the fact that most of the intact size and weight of Mannlicher-Carcano bullets were blown out of the skulls.
The results of these tests indicate that the total number of known and unknown fragments add up to substantially more than one of Oswald's bullets. The bullet fragments remaining in the brain plus those in the skull plus those removed from the brain plus those the limousine fragments plus those never recovered strongly suggest that more than one bullet struck President Kennedy in the head. (Crime of the Century, pp. 97-98, emphasis added)
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