Q: How do you know the CIA was not involved in a plot to kill Kennedy?
A: He's dead, isn't he?
At a recent conference a few of us were sitting in the hotel bar and chatting about nothing in particular. I'm not sure how we got on the topic, but the discussion veered into how 60+% of Americans believe that Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone. I think it's largely a result of the media's sensationalizing conspiracy theories because they've got much more "zing" than good old boring reality. The problem is that the media are content to feature any self-appointed expert who's willing to spout controversial claims but nobody ever gets a chance to explore their claims by comparing them to common-sense observations. So I started ranting a bit about my favorite Kennedy assassination mythology - namely the claim I've heard voiced by conspiracy theorists:
"Oswald could not have fired 3 aimed shots with a scope-sighted bolt-action rifle in 10 seconds. Nobody can; it's too hard."
This is taken as an argument that there had to be a shooter on the "grassy knoll" because Oswald couldn't have done it alone and therefore a conspiracy was in effect to kill Kennedy.
Anyhow, as often happens during hotel bar conversations, I said something stupid. I said, "You know what? I bet Oswald could have done it with a handgun. It's not that tough a shot I mean, you've got 8 shots in a .45 - how hard could it be?"
Well, when you've got a bunch of scientist/computer geeks sitting around chatting and drinking saying "how hard could it be?" is the sound of a glove being thrown. Someone's got to pick it up.
The next day I got an Email from one of the guys who was there, saying, "I checked some ballistics tables and at 150 yards, a .45 round will drop nearly 6 feet. Now, if you'd said a .44 magnum or something more powerful, I'd believe a 150 yard shot. But a .45 would be hard."
The ballistics of the big, slow, .45 ACP round are not exactly good. The accuracy of a 1911 model .45 is not exactly good, either. There are a lot of shooters who love their .45s and have gone to amazing lengths to make a fundamentally mediocre design perform fairly well - urethane bushings, competition triggers, titanium firing pins, etc, etc. Think about it for a second - the gun's action works by shifting the angle of the barrel as part of the action's locking mechanism: how good can it be? The sights are on the top of the slide, which is not directly connected to the barrel itself; the gun is designed as a short-range hard-hitting military weapon, not a target pistol. Yes, you can get a fairly accurate .45 if you spend a lot of money. But I don't have one of those.
I have a Norinco .45.
What's a Norinco? It's a cheap Chinese-made knock-off of a model 1911. My Norinco's trigger is stiff and feels kind of like a staple-gun's main spring - it takes about 6lbs of pressure and gives no feedback to the shooter. Norincos are pretty reliable but I don't think anyone is going to accuse them of being accurate competition-pieces.
Update: You want to know something embarrassing?? I got confused and remembered 160 was the distance of the Oswald shot, but I mis-remembered the unit of measure! I thought it was 160 yards but Oswald's shot was 160 feet. When I got to visit Dealy Plaza a year after I first did this, I was walking around going, "WTF? This place is TINY!" As you read the rest of this, please bear in mind that I am mistakenly operating at 3 times the distance of Oswald's shot.
I am such a doofus. Maybe I'll try this shot again with something more practical than my Norinco.
By the way, the "grassy knoll"? The idea you'd need a scope-sighted rifle at such a distance is absurd. You could throw a brick from the "grassy knoll" and hit the limo! Now, am I going to have to demonstrate that, too?
I don't have time or inclination to ask permission to use Dealy Plaza for my experiment. So I didn't go overboard with attempting to simulate the exact conditions of Oswald's shooting position.
I do, however, have a pretty large back yard, with a couple of spots that have fairly long vistas. So I picked an area of my side field that has a nice slope into a treeline and set up an 4x10 sheet of tileboard that was left over from a previous project. The distance came out to about 160 yards with a 50-foot drop over the distance. That doesn't exactly equate to being on the (6th, was it?) floor of a building like the Texas Book Depository. However, for someone shooting a .45, reducing the drop is actually a handicap - remember, my buddy told me a .45ACP round will drop nearly 6 feet at 150 yards and firing downhill would reduce that drop somewhat. A serious shooter, of course, would look up a ballistics table for the exact distance, factor in the drop, and fire a couple of test rounds to make sure they had computed everything correctly. You've seen "The Day of the Jackal" right?
Since this was intended as an ad hoc investigation and not serious science, I decided to simply blaze away and see what happened. To compensate for the bullets' drop, I'd "hold over" - aim high - about 5 feet. So, one of the things we'd be measuring in this experiment is my ability to accurately estimate 5 feet at 160 yards. I braced myself against the side of my pickup truck, aimed at the target, and fired all 8 rounds in about 8 seconds. One second between shots, to aim and relax, is about right.
(Well, it would have been unpleasant...)
I was surprised that I actually hit the sheet 4 times out of 8! You can see by the distribution of the shots that they were fairly widely dispersed, which means there were inconsistencies in my shooting. Either my hold over estimate changed, or the Norinco is not very accurate, or the ammunition I was using has inconsistencies, or there was a lot of wind, or my trigger-pull was inconsistent. Or all of the above, to some degree or another.
I can tell you a few things with a high degree of confidence:
For this kind of shooting, a .45 would be my least preferred choice in handguns (that's what you get for shooting your mouth off!) - back when I was in practice shooting regularly, I would have been able to put all 8 into the target with my scope-sighted Desert Eagle .44 magnum. That would translate to "an ungodly mess" if the target represented a convertible full of people. My H&K USP 9mm is also highly accurate and I have high-capacity (17-shot) magazines for it; I suspect I could pretty effectively blow holes all over the target with rapid but aimed fire.
(Sako TRG-21s completely accessorized with Kahles 10x scope, integral bipod, and Chevy Scottsdale)
But - you'll recall the main claim of the conspiracy theorists is that "Oswald could not have fired 3 aimed shots with a scope-sighted bolt-action rifle in 10 seconds."
It just so happens I have one of those.
Back in the mid 1990's I managed to get a good deal on a Sako TRG-21s sniper rifle in .308. The TRG was designed for the Finnish military - a humorless bunch of guys who take their sniping very seriously ever since they were invaded by Russia in WWII. Finnish snipers made the Russians pay a phenominal price in blood for every meter of land they conquered, and the Finns still take their shooting so seriously that they are one of the few armies in the world that have a sniper in the order of battle of nearly every platoon-sized unit. The TRG is an awesome rifle - it's fiendishly accurate, and has a silky-smooth hand-lapped action that compliments its delicate yet crisp trigger perfectly. My buddy Mike (who is a better shot than I) has regularly fired .33" shot groups at 100 yards with my TRG. The best I've done was a pretty sloppy .5" -- but that was back when I was in practice, and was taking my time between shots.
I figured that since I was going to be going out and making holes in a perfectly good sheet of tileboard I may as well make a few extra holes, so I grabbed the TRG's case and threw it in the back of the pick-up truck.
Before I did this experiment I had not fired the TRG for a bit more than 2 years (I was on probation and was barred from having any guns in my possession from August 2003 through August 2005) so I was a bit rusty. Normally, I would have cleaned it thoroughly, carefully re-zeroed the scope by firing a few dozen groups from a sand-bagged bench rest, cleaned it again, and checked over the ammunition before using it. In order to keep things challenging I decided to just grab the rifle and fire 3 shots as fast as I could, just to see how well I could do.
Update: Remember, that's at three times the distance of Oswald's shot, because Marcus can't remember "feet" versus "yards"
I am so damn tired of reading about how Oswald's shot was impossible written by people who obviously have never even done any serious amateur shooting. I had probably 500 rounds through the TRG during its life-span at the time when I did this silly exercise.
Since I hadn't re-zeroed the rifle in 2 years and I hadn't measured the drop, I decided that I would adjust the scope for 140 yards range and then aim pretty much dead-on. No doubt you've heard the hollywood hitmen in the movies talk about "two in the chest, one in the head" - that doesn't make a lot of sense if your target may be wearing body-armor. I decided I'd try for "two in the head, one in the chest" - a little more challenging since the head is a smaller target. In this case it wouldn't have mattered - nor would it have mattered that my zero was apparently a bit off after a couple of years. In fact, my hurrying to get all 3 shots off in under 4 seconds didn't matter much, either. My target was DRT after the first round.
By the way, one of the funny things that the conspiracy idiots don't consider is this: to fire three shots with a bolt-action rifle, you only have to work the bolt twice. The first round is (presumably) chambered and ready to go when you engage the target. I swear, when I fired that 3-shot group above, I was leisurely. Some day I need to set up a towable target I can get a volunteer to drag across the field with a (long) rope on my tractor at 5mph, to simulate the motion of the presidential limo. But you've also got to remember the limo was moving almost directly away from Oswald's firing position; it would not have appeared to hardly be moving at all. It would have appeared to be slowly getting a little bit smaller and rising a little bit. That's a much much easier shot than having to swing your rifle to track a target that's moving at right angles to your position.
A semi-hollow-point .308 boat-tail bullet hitting a person in any of the 3 places where my rounds hit would have done instant catastrophic damage. That, by the way, raises another point: if Oswald had been anything like a tactical shooter he would not have used military ball ammunition; he'd have used something that expanded on impact. A Sierra MatchKing round, like the 3 I was firing, would have blown great big holes in anything it hit; military ball like Oswald used tends to make a smaller, neater hole, and keep moving. If the first round (the one that hit Kennedy in the back and exited above his chest) had been a MatchKing, it would have practically decapitated him right away and there would be no debate about conspiracies. Oswald was an amateur.
(after passing variously through a president's throat, a governor, and a car seat)
168 grains of "ow, ow, ow!"
(massive expansion in substances much less durable than a Lincoln convertible)
A Sierra Matchking, in wimpy little .223 (less than half as powerful as a .308)
turns ballistic gelatine into ballistic compost.
What you need to understand is that this is not great shooting. It's not even good shooting. A Delta Force sniper would probably fall over laughing at how slow and inaccurate I am. I'm sure that one of the snipers from The Regiment could have done this blindfolded, with one hand, in the rain, at night, with iron sights. For that matter, a member of the room entry team from The Regiment could have made Oswald's shot with a handgun, one-handed, in the rain, at night, while drinking a pint of beer with the other hand and not spilling a drop.
And that's the point.
Modern weapons (any rifle made after the Mauser brothers perfected the bolt action rifle in 1896) are simply amazingly accurate; the weakest link in most manually-aimed weapons systems is the shooter. Oswald's Mannlicher-Carcano was a perfectly respectable rifle, capable of firing a 4 inch shot group at 200 yards in the hands of an amateur marksman with some practice. And Oswald had been through US Marine Corps basic training. When I went through US Army basic training (Ft Dix, NJ summer class of 1983) I got so proficient with my cruddy old vietnam-era M-16 (the upper and lower receivers were so loose the thing used to rattle for a second after each shot) that I could fairly reliably (80%) drop a man-sized target at 300 meters - with iron sights.
Conspiracy theorists talk about some guy on the grassy knoll and Oswald shooting Kennedy together. Some even go so far as to theorize that there were 3 shooters. It's patently ridiculous to fantasize about a second sniper backstopping Oswald's easy shot; if a conspiracy had wanted Kennedy dead, they would have had some guy with a tommy gun step out of the bushes on the grassy knoll and blow the limo and everyone in it full of huge .45 cal holes. Or, they could have made it more plausible and the conspirators could have given Oswald a WWII-era M1 .30 carbine and a couple of clips of ammo for it. At that range, a decent shooter could have easily put every round in the clip into the passenger compartment of the limo. There would have been so many bullets flying that nobody would have been counting the shots and the limo would have looked like a bad day at Stalingrad. Do you remember when Anwar El-Sadat, Dictator-President Of Egypt, was assassinated? That is how presidents are assassinated by professionals: a hail of aimed semi-automatic weapons-fire at close range from several shooters. Oswald wasn't deliberately handicapping himself by choosing a bolt-action rifle - he was just a mentally disorganized nutjob who appears to have decided on impulse to take a crack at The President.
But Oswald wasn't a nutjob who "got lucky" with his shooting. Oswald was a nutjob who made a relatively easy shot. I can understand why that's hard to accept. People don't want to believe it's that easy to change history. Ask Gavrilo Princip, John Hinckley, John Wilkes Booth, and Lee Harvey Oswald: it is.
Marcus J. Ranum
On the Amtrak from Altoona, PA to New York City Oct 20, 2005
Updated on a bored winter day January 19, 2013