The Round That Killed JFK

    The round that killed President John F Kennedy - well, close enough anyway. This round was made in 1954 by Western Cartridge Corp, as part of four lots for a one-time DoD contract.

    In March of 1963, a man named Lee Harvey Oswald purchased an M38 Carcano rifle and some quantity of ammunition from Klein’s Sporting Goods in Chicago. Oswald would later use this rifle and ammunition (or so the official narrative goes) to assassinate the then-President of the United States John F. Kennedy on November 22nd, 1963, in Dallas, Texas.

    So much has been written about that event that any cursory treatment on my part would be both inadequate and unnecessary. Instead, we’ll talk a little about the ammunition. By chance, I happen to have a single sample of the ammunition reputedly used by Oswald in the assassination, and that in and of itself holds an interesting story.

    A round of Austrian Hirtenberger-manufactured 6.5x52mm Carcano, left, alongside the WCC specimen.

    Our story begins with the CIA. In 1954, the Department of Defense let a contract to Western Cartridge Company, a division of Winchester-Olin, for 4 million rounds of 6.5x52mm Carcano full metal jacket ammunition. The contract was requested by the CIA, intended for anti-communist forces in some far away place (speculations include Albania, Greece, and Cuba). In 1962, this ammunition was re-imported into the United States, along with many of the M38 Carcano rifles it was intended for, and was released for sale onto the US civilian market. The four million rounds were produced as part of four 1-million-round lots, numbered 6000, 6001, 6002, and 6003. The rounds came in plain white cardboard boxes of 20 rounds each, which read:

    20 CARTRIDGES
    6.5 M/M MANNLICHER-CARCANO
    TYPE BALL
    DA-23-196-ORD-27
    WESTERN CARTRIDGE COMPANY
    DIVISION OF OLIN IND., INC.
    EAST ALTON, ILLINOIS
    LOT WCC-XXXX

    with the lot number in place of the Xs.

    These four lots were the only lots of 6.5x52mm Carcano ammunition ever produced by Western, making identification of the rounds, both by the Warren Commission and on the modern collector’s market, easy. During the Warren Hearings, Dr. Alfred Olivier of Edgewood Arsenal gave testimony regarding the nature of the ammunition used in the assassination:

    MR. SPECTER: And What gun was used?
    DR. OLIVIER: It was a 6.5mm Mannlicher-Carcano that was marked Commission Exhibit 139.
    MR. SPECTER: What bullets were used?
    DR. OLIVIER: It was the 6.5 millimeter Mannlicher-Carcano Western Ammunition lot 6,000.

    The headstamp, showing the “WCC” maker’s mark of Western Cartridge Company. Faintly visible is the “6.5 m/m” stamping indicating the caliber.

     

    The “sister rounds” to those Oswald used went on to be crucial to the subsequent investigations into the assassination. On September 8, 1978, during the hearings of the United States House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA), Dr. Vincent P. Guinn testified regarding the properties of the 1954 lots of WCC 6.5mm ammunition:

    Mr. WOLF. Have you analyzed Mannlicher-Carcano bullets produced by the Western Cartridge Co. (WCC)?

    Dr. GUINN. Yes, I have.

    Mr. WOLF. When did you do these analyses?

    Dr. GUINN. A number of years ago. I believe I started doing the first analyses about 1973. A colleague, not at Irvine but at the University of Kansas, Dr. John Nichols, had been interested in the President Kennedy case for quite some time and he contacted me and said he had been able to acquire boxes of Mannlicher-Carcano ammunition from the four production lots that had been produced by the WCC, and he was wondering if I would be interested in doing analyses on them since I had earlier analyzed a lot of other kinds of bullets . I said yes, and I did, and we found some unusual features about WCC Mannlicher-Carcano ammunition that showed it was different from most kinds of bullets.

    Mr. WOLF. Prior to getting into those features, did you examine bullets from every lot produced by the Western Cartridge Co.?

    Dr. GUINN. Yes. The Western Cartridge Co. reportedly made 1 million rounds of each of 4 production runs, lots 6,000, 6,001, 6,002, and 6,003. They were made at different times in 1954, and reportedly those are the only lots they ever produced, and we had boxes from each of those lots.

    Mr. WOLF. Addressing your analyses, did you find WCC Mannlicher-Carcano bullets differed from most other bullets you had analyzed?

    Dr. GUINN. Yes; they did.

    Mr. WOLF. How did they differ?

    Dr. GUINN. Well, as of the time that I first measured them, they had a lower antimony content than I had encountered prior to that in most other bullets, because a very large percentage of bullets you do look at, commercial ones, are hardened lead, where they deliberatedly add anywhere from half a percent up to perhaps 4 or 5 percent antimony to make the lead much harder. A very large percentage of commercial bullets do have hardened lead. So we have usually found much higher antimony levels than in the WCC Mannlicher-Carcano bullets .

    Mr. WOLF. And WCC Mannlicher-Carcano bullets are considered unhardened bullets . Is that correct?

    Dr. GUINN. They are definitely unhardened bullets. That puts them down much lower in antimony than most bullets. Subsequently we-in looking at a lot more brands in the interim-did find some others that were also low, some of them lower yet in antimony, but that was one unusual feature. The other unusual feature of the WCC Mannlicher-Carcano is that there seems to be no uniformity within a production lot. That is, even when we would take a box of cartridges all from a given production lot, take 1 cartridge out and then another and then another and then another, all out of the same box-boxes of 20, these were-and analyze them, they all in general look different and widely different, particularly in their antimony content. This is not true of most bullet leads that we have ever looked at before, which are very uniform. In general, if you take most boxes 495 of ammunition – and we published on this; it is in the literature – take a bunch of them out, you can’t tell one from the other. They all look like little carbon copies even to activation analysis, but not so with the Mannlicher-Carcano .

    Mr. WOLF. Did any of the 165 known brands and lots of bullets you have previously examined have constituent ranges that were the same as the WCC Mannlicher-Carcano bullets in their antimony and silver characteristics?

    Dr. GUINN. Yes; the range of the WCC Mannlicher-Carcanos, especially in the antimony content, is so wide that it does encompass some of the others which are down at that low end; and out of 165, there were 4 different groups, 1 U.S. made and 3 foreign made, that fell somewhere in that range.

    The different metallurgical content of the rounds produced by WCC as part of those four lots was significant to the findings of the previous Warren Commission, where it was revealed that Edgewood testing had produced slightly different bullet deformation patterns than occurred during the Kennedy assassination. Guinn’s testimony confirmed that the 6.5mm WCC ammunition found in Oswald’s abandoned gun in the Texas School Book Depository was in fact metallurgically consistent with the projectiles fired at General Edwin Walker in April of 1963, during an earlier assassination attempt. This supported the Warren Commission’s conclusion that Oswald was the perpetrator of that earlier attack, in addition to the Kennedy Assassination.

    Unusually, “Kennedy rounds” like this one are readily identifiable. Normally, a round’s lot number on the collector market can only be positively determined by someone breaking open a box themselves, but since Western never made any but those four lots, this round must have come from one of them. Granted, that’s a one-in-four-million degree of separation, but still!

    Nathaniel F

    Nathaniel is a history enthusiast and firearms hobbyist whose primary interest lies in military small arms technological developments beginning with the smokeless powder era. He can be reached via email at [email protected]


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