BALLISTICS AND PRESIDENT KENNEDY'S HEAD WOUNDS

Michael T. Griffith
1996
@All Rights Reserved
Revised and Expanded on 4/5/99

The Warren Commission (WC) claimed that President Kennedy was struck by a 6.5 mm full-metal-jacketed bullet fired from a medium-velocity Mannlicher-Carcano rifle. The Clark Panel and the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) claimed that a sizable fragment sheared off from this missile and imbedded itself on the outer table of the President's skull. There is evidence that both claims are incorrect, and that President Kennedy was struck in the head by high-velocity, frangible ammunition.

I ran across an interesting fact in the course of my research: When Failure Analysis Inc. conducted ballistics tests on the behavior of FMJ missiles through human skulls, not one of the test bullets broke up into fragments. The bullets used by Failure Analysis were FMJ missiles coated with nickel-chrome, whereas the ones allegedly used by Oswald were copper-jacketed. When they were fired into human skulls, not one of the FAA missiles broke up into fragments, much less into numerous tiny fragments.

This brings us to the fact that the autopsy x-rays of President Kennedy's skull show a literal snowstorm of tiny bullet fragments, over 40 in fact. Critics have correctly pointed out that it would be highly unusual, if not impossible, for an FMJ bullet to leave behind so many tiny fragments. They also note that it is extremely unlikely that a sizable fragment would break off from an FMJ missile upon impact with bone and then become imbedded on the outer table of the skull.

"Shearing," FMJ Missiles, and the 6.5 mm Fragment in the X-Rays

Ballistics expert Howard Donahue has pointed out that it is highly unlikely that the 6.5 mm fragment seen in the x-rays could have come from the kind of ammunition allegedly used by Oswald. WC supporters speculate that the fragment "sheared off" from the bullet as the missile entered the skull. But Donahue observes that a bullet fired from the TSBD, and thus entering the skull at a downward angle, should have deposited a sheared-off fragment ABOVE the entrance point, not below it. He further notes that he has never heard of a fully metal-jacketed bullet shearing on impact (Menninger 68, 160). Donahue interviewed several forensic pathologists about this subject, including Dr. Thomas Smith, and all of them said they had never heard of a fragment shearing off a fully jacketed missile and depositing itself on the outer table of the skull, and that they considered this highly unlikely (Menninger 68). Australian forensic expert Detective Shaun Roach and forensic pathologist Dr. Halpert Fillinger have likewise stated that they have never heard of a fully jacketed missile behaving in this manner, and that they consider such a scenario extremely improbable. Detective Shaun Roach:

. . . due to the inherent strength of the 6.5 mm Carcano jacket, I also believe that it would NOT shear off a fragment upon entering the head, then deposit that fragment on the outer table of the skull, either above or below the wound. . . .

Unless full metal jacketed bullets strike an intermediate object in flight, prompting premature expansion and/or fragmentation, the depositing of fragments outside the entry wound is foreign to my experience. It is not common sense and would only be proposed by a person totally out of touch with the mechanisms of bullet penetration through the human body. (Livingstone, KILLING THE TRUTH, 57-58)

Dr. Fillinger:

You can appreciate the fact that a jacketed projectile is going to leave very little on the bone margins because it's basically a hardened jacket, and it's designed so that it will not scrape off when it goes through a steel barrel. One can appreciate the fact that going through bone, which is not as hard as steel, may etch or scratch it, but it's not going to peel off much metal. In contrast to this, a softer projectile might very well leave metallic residues around the margins. (Groden and Livingstone 79)

Bear in mind that Fillinger was talking about "residues." He wasn't referring to a sizable fragment like the 6.5 mm fragment seen in the current x-rays, but just to slight scrapings or residues.

In recent months Dr. Larry Sturdivan, a wound ballistics consultant to the HSCA, publicly acknowledged that the 6.5 mm object on the skull x-rays could not have come from an FMJ bullet. Dr. Sturdivan opined that perhaps the object was an artifact, such as a drop of acid.

Dr. David Mantik, a radiologist and an expert in radiation science, studied the 6.5 mm object, partly with the use of an optical densitometer, and discovered that the 6.5 mm object is not metal, that the image of the object was placed on the x-ray after the autopsy, and that that image was superimposed over the image of a genuine, smaller metallic fragment. Dr. Mantik discusses this historic finding in his chapter on the medical evidence in the recent book ASSASSINATION SCIENCE (pp. 93-140).

Dozens of Tiny Fragments from FMJ Missiles?

Vincent DiMaio, M.D., a forensics expert (note: FMJ missiles are used by militaries all over the world and are often referred to as "military bullets"):

Military bullets, by virtue of their full metal jackets, tend to pass through the body intact, thus producing less extensive injuries than hunting ammunition. Military bullets usually do NOT fragment in the body or shed fragments of lead in their paths. (Livingstone, KILLING THE TRUTH, 58-59)

Detective Roach again:

The head wound [JFK's head wound as seen in the x-rays] has all the hallmarks of 5.56 mm bullet performance. I would expect that if JFK were struck in the head from above and behind by a 6.5 Carcano bullet, the bullet would have crashed into the skull, out the other side, intact, and continued on till it hit something else. (Livingstone, KILLING THE TRUTH, 59)

DiMaio again:

X-rays of individuals shot with hunting ammunition usually show a characteristic radiologic picture that is seen almost exclusively with this form of rifle ammunition. This is the so-called lead snowstorm. As the expanding bullet moves through the body, fragments of lead break off the lead core and are hurled out into the surrounding tissues. Thus an X-ray shows scores of small radiopaque bullet fragments scattered along the wound track (the lead snowstorm). Such a picture is not seen with pistol bullets, nor with one exception, with full metal-jacketed rifle bullets. The exception is the 5.56 mm cartridge, whose propensity to fragment has been previously discussed. (Livingstone, KILLING THE TRUTH, 59)

Howard Donahue discovered that the HSCA's own ballistics tests appeared provided further evidence that the bullet that struck Kennedy in the head did not behave like a Carcano missile, but rather like a high-velocity, frangible bullet. Bonar Menninger explains:

Yet another clue surfaced . . . that further strengthened Donahue's belief that his conclusions were correct. A press package containing reams of ballistic data and charts was made available to who attended the [HSCA's] ballistic hearings. Included in the package were photographs of gelatin blocks shot with various caliber bullets. The gelatin simulated the human brain. The tests were designed to mimic the President's head wound. Among the bullets tested by the committee were a 6.5 mm Carcano round, a .30 caliber rifle bullet and a .223 M-16 (which is the same as an AR-15) round. Side-view photos showed both the 6.5 mm and the .30 caliber full-metal-jacketed bullets punched straight, relatively narrow channels through the gelatin, wounds in no way consistent with the damage done to the President's brain. The M-16 bullet, however, tumbled, disintegrated, and gouged a huge, gaping portion from the gelatin, leaving tiny fragments near the front of the block in a carbon copy of the wound Kennedy suffered. No explanation was offered at the committee hearings for why the Carcano bullet failed to replicate the President's head wound. . . . (Menninger 165)

Dr. Cyril Wecht, former president of the American Academy of Forensic Science and a renowned forensic pathologist:

It is my experience, including bullets that are not as powerful, and fully jacketed ammunition like this [the 6.5 mm Carcano bullet], that they do not explode into dozens of pieces. They may break into two or three fragments or pieces, but they don't just disintegrate like that [like the missile that left dozens of fragments in Kennedy's skull]. And so when you say it [the bullet or bullets that struck Kennedy in the head] behaved much more like a soft or hollow-point or so on, I agree with you. I've been saying that for a long time. (Menninger 231)

Dr. Alfred Olivier conducted ballistics tests for the WC, in part to determine if a Carcano missile could have caused the wounds to President Kennedy's head. Some WC defenders have argued that Dr. Olivier's tests did in fact prove that the head shot could have been caused by a Carcano missile, and that his tests in fact explained the veritable snowstorm of bullet fragments seen in the autopsy x-rays of JFK's skull. However, Howard Donahue reported that Dr. Olivier told him (1) that the bullets in his ballistics tests did NOT explode or disintegrate, and (2) that the bullets broke up into only a few fragments. After reviewing Dr. Olivier's WC testimony, and upon considering the exhibits produced by his tests, I question the claim that Dr. Olivier's tests support the claim that the head shot could have been caused by a Carcano missile.

As mentioned, Dr. Olivier told Howard Donahue that each of his test bullets mainly broke up into two or three fragments and that these accounted "for the bulk of the bullet's mass" in each instance (Menninger 84). Dr. Olivier said none of his test bullets exploded, whereas the head-shot missile gave every appearance of having done just that.  Dr. Olivier did not specify how many fragments resulted from each of his test bullets. If anything, however, his description of them does not give the impression that they were numerous (see, for example, 5 H 88). The photos of the relevant exhibits appear to confirm this view.

The fragments from Dr. Olivier's tests appear in CE 857 and in CE 859. The photos in these exhibits show that this particular test missile broke up into no more than 9 small fragments and into 2 somewhat larger fragments. CE 857 is a photograph showing a small clear plastic box with the lid open with what looks like between 6-9 tiny fragments in it. To the right are two large bullet fragments with the front end smashed in. This missile's behavior doesn't seem to compare with the performance of the head-shot bullet, which left traces of lead on one of the seats and in the windshield, which reportedly left a sizable fragment in the back of the skull (the mysterious 6.5 mm fragment), which allegedly deposited two sizable fragments inside the limousine (after one of them presumably dented the windshield chrome), which allegedly sent a sizable fragment streaking toward James Tague over 200 feet away and cut his face when it reached him, and which left a snowstorm of tiny fragments, OVER 40 IN FACT, on the right side of the brain in the skull x-rays.  

Moreover, as we have seen in the above quotes, it would be uncharacteristic of a Carcano bullet to leave a trail of numerous fragments. Yet, the missile that struck JFK's skull left dozens of tiny fragments all across the right side of the interior of the head, from the alleged entrance point to the forward edge of the HSCA's revised exit wound. (The x-rays and autopsy report indicate there was ANOTHER trail of fragments, another bullet path, but an analysis of these two fragment trails is beyond the scope of the present discussion. Suffice it to say that they are evidence that TWO bullets struck the President's head, as several doctors have pointed out.) And, as mentioned above, in the Failure Analysis ballistics tests, the FMJ missiles fired into skulls did not break up into tiny fragments.

I see other problems for the lone-gunman theory in the results from Dr. Olivier's tests. The resulting exit wounds in his test skulls were nowhere near the HSCA's revised location for JFK's exit wound, which is the location now accepted by virtually all lone-gunman theorists. In fact, in his WC testimony Dr. Olivier mentioned one test in which the bullet exited from the area of the supraorbital ridge, which is in the forward part of the frontal bone (5 H 89). (Of course, Dr. Olivier assumed the entry point was slightly above the external occipital protuberance, which is where the autopsists located it, but the HSCA said the autopsy photos and x-rays showed the entrance to be a whopping four inches higher. The autopsists balked at this placement. Boswell and Finck never wavered in their insistence that the entry point was where they had placed it, and they disputed the relevance of the autopsy materials in this instance. Humes initially rejected the higher placement, vigorously. Later, though, he temporarily caved in and went along with the revised location. Now, however, he once again insists the wound was where he said it was during the autopsy and in the autopsy report.)

It is interesting to note that although Dr. Olivier fired bullets into 10 skulls, he only cited one skull as having an exit wound that was at all similar in location and size to the large exit wound described by the autopsy doctors. As a matter of fact, most of the resulting exit wounds were in the frontal area--they shattered bones in the forehead area (Menninger 84). Bear in mind, too, that the Commission's exit wound was different from the one later proposed by the HSCA, and from the one described in detail by the Dallas doctors and nurses who treated the President at Parkland Hospital immediately after the shooting. The Parkland doctors and nurses reported seeing a large wound in the right rear part of the head, strongly indicating a shot from the front. And, thanks in part to newly released HSCA interview files, we now know that witness after witness at the autopsy told Committee investigators that the large wound was in back of the head.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Michael T. Griffith is a two-time graduate of the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, and of the U.S. Air Force Technical Training School in San Angelo, Texas, and has attended Brigham Young University, Ricks College, Austin Peay State University, Mount Wachusett Community College, and Haifa University. He is the author of four books on Mormonism and ancient religious texts. He is also the author of the book COMPELLING EVIDENCE: A NEW LOOK AT THE ASSASSINATION OF PRESIDENT KENNEDY (Grand Prairie, TX: JFK Lancer Productions and Publications, 1996). His articles on the assassination have appeared in DALLAS '63, in DATELINE: DALLAS, and in THE ASSASSINATION CHRONICLES.

Bibliography

Groden, Robert and Harrison Edward Livingstone, HIGH TREASON,

Berkley Books Edition, New York: Berkley Book, 1990.

Livingstone, Harrison Edward, KILLING KENNEDY AND THE HOAX OF THE CENTURY, New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1995. Must reading.

-----, KILLING THE TRUTH: DECEIT AND DECEPTION IN THE JFK CASE, New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1993.

Menninger, Bonar, MORTAL ERROR: THE SHOT THAT KILLED JFK, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992.

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