Friday, 15 December 1995 22:30

Silencers, Sniper Rifles & the CIA

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Carol Hewett discusses the possibility of silenced weapons having been used in Dealey Plaza, an idea which up to the time of publication of this article in 1995 had been surprisingly unexplored.

From the November-December, 1995 issue (Vol. 3 No. 1) of Probe

"It's curious that no one seems to have mentioned this characteristic in connection with the John F. Kennedy assassination, in which both the number and direction of shots fired are still debated. If a silencer was used in combination with another, unsilenced rifle, witnesses located in different parts of the caravan and Dealey Plaza would have heard the shots coming from different directions. Unanimity would have been impossible on the subject of the gunfire's origin." 

Jim Hougan, Spooks (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1978.)

There has been no consideration given by the research community over the past 30 years regarding the possible use of silencers in the JFK assassination. This article hopes to remedy that intriguing possibility. Both conspiracy theorists and lone gun proponents at least agree on one point: that there are differing opinions amongst Dealey Plaza witnesses as to just how many shots were fired on November 22, 1963. All witnesses presumed that having "heard" a given number of shots, then there must have been an equal number of actual shots so as to coincide with what they heard, whether it be 2, 3 or 4 sounds or even more than 4 as some witnesses have claimed.

If there were 4 or more shots, then it follows that there was more than one gun for even the lone assassin proponents agree that Oswald could not have fired off 4 shots within the given time frame generally accepted. Consequently, a great deal of effort has been expended pinpointing the location of the witnesses in order to determine which ones may have had a better vantage point for discerning the "real" number of shots. For a brief time it was hoped that the dictabelt evidence would settle the matter once and for all. The HSCA spent a significant amount of time and money grappling with this acoustical evidence but to no avail.

Considering Possibilities

Three gunshots, of course, is in keeping with a lone assassin theory - or is it? If there exists the possibility that silencers could have been utilized by one or two additional gunmen, then the earwitness testimony may very well become irrelevant no matter how many shots were "heard." Acting on the assumption that a multi-gunmen crossfire, if one existed, would have to be carefully planned and executed, this researcher considered the means by which ballistic evidence could be manipulated. I tried to imagine how a triangulated gunfire could succeed while implicating one lone shooter in the Texas School Book Depository. My research led to the consideration of silencers and the characteristics of typical sniper weapons available in the year 1963. The results of this research should give pause for thought and cause us to re-examine the ballistics evidence and the medical evidence from a different perspective.

Manipulating Reality

It is possible for a shooter to manipulate or eradicate reliable ballistic evidence through a variety of techniques. These include, but are not limited to, the use of barrel inserts, sabots, undersized ammunition, expanding or exploding ammunition, and cartridge conversions. These techniques will impact upon the science of ballistic markings and render matchmaking to a particular weapon impossible. Manipulating the sound of a gun shot can be accomplished in varying degrees through the use of sub-sonic ammunition, suppressors, muzzle flash protectors and silencers. These techniques manipulate the perception of any earwitnesses to a shooting. This article will focus solely on silencers as a manipulative technique.

Firing a gun results in several distinct and separate noises of various intensity. First there is the detonation itself, followed by the muzzle blast of expanding gases, which is then followed by the shock wave-or sonic boom-created by the bullet's velocity. Add to this the echo effect created by natural or man-made canyons, i.e Dealey Plaza, and it is hardly surprising that there would be disagreement amongst ear witnesses as to the precise number of shots, as well as the disagreement over the perceived direction of shots. Since one's position in relationship to the direction of the shot also serves to complicate perceptions, earwitness testimony, especially that coming from Dealey Plaza, is inherently problematic.

Rifle Silencers?

Generally, people associate silencers with handguns rather than rifles. This is because the sonic boom of a high velocity weapon such as a rifle, is very difficult to silence and thus handgun silencers have been more prevalent in the past. Even if the muzzle blast sounds from the rifle itself were silenced, that still leaves the sound of the shock wave created by the high velocity bullet as it passes through the air. Silencers are nothing more than bafflers that muffle the sound, much like a muffler on a car. The greater the report or noise generated by a weapon, the larger the silencer needs to be. Silencers can thus be large bulky devices and difficult to conceal. Silencers have been and continue to be illegal for civilian use, although legal for military use. Despite the engineering difficulties in devising silencers for rifles, the utility of silenced weapons was not lost on the U.S. military; a silenced rifle would serve as a most useful instrument for shooting a sentry or guard from a distance.

Patented Silencer

designs for rifles appear as early as 1901. But it was not until WWII that our military devoted serious attention to engineering silencers for rifles after observing the Germans making effective use of them. Two silenced sniper rifles emerged from these war efforts: 1) a modified version of the M-1 .30 caliber carbine, standard issue for the U.S. military, and a modified version of the .30 caliber 1903 30.06 Springfield rifle, also standard issue.

Figure 1: Silenced M-1 .30 Caliber Carbine (top)
compared to the regular G. I. issue (bottom)

The silenced M-1 .30 caliber carbine was developed in England for the United States in 1945. It came equipped with an integral non-detachable silencer which had been developed by Bell Laboratory. Its barrel had a 6 groove, right-hand twist rifling pattern. This weapon is pictured in figure 1.

The modified Springfield rifle was a variation of the standard bolt action which was originally developed in 1903. The silenced sniper version is designated as a Springfield M1903A4 and was developed in the United States in 1947 under a special contract with the Remington Arms Company arsenal in Ilion, New York. This .30 caliber rifle came equipped with a detachable Maxim silencer and had a 4 groove, right-hand twist rifling pattern. See figure 2 (below).

Figure 2: Silenced Springfield M1903A4

The M-1 .30 caliber carbine had an effective range of 100 yards while the Springfield M19103A4 rifle had an effective range of 300 yards. Thus both weapons would have readily found their prey in the kill zone of Dealey Plaza. Our Army was nevertheless disappointed in these weapons because neither weapon succeeded in producing a completely silenced shot. The firing of the M-1 carbine, for instance, sounded like a sharp handclap followed by a distinctive hissing sound. Accordingly, the weapons were not manufactured on a large scale basis and it is believed that only 1000 trial weapons were ever manufactured.

CIA Acquires Silenced Rifles

Because of their acoustical shortcomings, these silenced weapons were turned over to the CIA. The precise date is unknown, and some gun authorities believe that the English produced M-1 carbine had been developed in the first place for the CIA's predecessor, the OSS. Whatever the origin, it is clear that by 1963 the CIA possessed these silenced sniper weapons. The rifles added to the CIA's existing arsenal of silenced handguns. Still highly reliable in 1963 was the High Standard .22 caliber silenced pistol which was standard issue for the OSS during WWII. This silenced handgun was amongst the personal items recovered by the Russians when Gary Powers, a CIA contract agent, was shot down over Russia in 1960 while flying the CIA's secret U-2 spy plane. (See page 15, figure 3.)

Figure 3: High Standard .22 Caliber Silenced Pistol

As of 1963, the best available silenced rifles were still the modified vintage WWII weapons described above. Silencer technology remained at a virtual standstill throughout the Korean War and into the 1960's. We know this from the results of a 1968 Army study which concluded that the best silenced rifles continued to be the M-1 .30 caliber carbine and especially the Springfield M1903A4. It was after this report that the quest for better silencers developed in earnest. During the late 1960's and 1970's, Mitchell Livingston Werbell III, a gun dealer whose name surfaces frequently in assassination research, would become the preeminent designer of the modern day silencer for military weapons and is credited with enabling widespread and effective use of silenced sniper rifles in the Vietnam War.

The inherent limitations to completely silencing a high velocity weapon means that some measure of sound will remain depending upon where the earwitness is positioned in relationship to the direction of the shot. This is best illustrated by figure 4 (see page 15) which is borrowed from schematics used by Werbell's arms company, the Military Armaments Corporation.

Figure 4: Chart from Military Armament Corporation.
The muzzle blast spread from a suppressed weapon
shows deception and confusion resulting from
attempts to locate sound origina from
weak fixed source at various angles
from the source.

Other Evidence of Multiple Guns

Silencers may explain why different witnesses reported hearing differing numbers of gun shots. But what other evidence is there for more than one gunman? At least four pieces of tangible firearm evidence have surfaced since the Warren Commission's Report which suggest the presence of gunshots in Dealey Plaza on November 22nd from a weapon other than Oswald's Mannlicher-Carcano. This evidence consists of two bullets, one bullet fragment and one shellcasing. Each of these items of evidence are consistent with one or the other general characteristics of the two CIA sniper weapons discussed above.

  1. The Barbee Specimen: This intact bullet was found imbedded in the roof of a building located at 1615 Stemmons Free-way by William Barbee in the summer of 1966. The building, which was located about a 1/4 mile from the TSBD, happened to be in the line of fire from where Oswald allegedly shot. Mr. Barbee turned the bullet over to the FBI for analysis in December, 1967, when current publicity about the assassination caused him to wonder if this bullet might be relevant evidence. The FBI lab determined the bullet to be a .30 caliber full metal jacketed military bullet. Its rifling pattern of 4 grooves, right hand twist was the same as that produced by the U.S. government .30 carbine. The FBI took little interest in this bullet once having determined that it came from a weapon other than Oswald's rifle. Apparently, the thought of a second gunmen was never entertained. Yet this bullet is consistent with that which could be shot from the CIA's silenced M-1 .30 caliber carbine. One can speculate that this bullet was shot out in the suburbs by a hunter engaged in target practice. Consider, however, that M-1 .30 caliber carbines were not prevalent amongst the civilian population as they had only been released by the government for civilian use in mid-1963. Furthermore, it was and continues to be illegal to use full metal jacketed military ammunition for hunting purposes.
  2. The Haythorne Specimen: The second piece of evidence was a bullet found in 1967 on top of the Massey building by Rich Haythorne, a roofer doing work on the building. The Massey Building was located about 8 blocks away from the TSBD in the 1200 block of Elm Street. It has since been torn down. The bullet remained in the possession of Haythorne's attorney, until it was delivered to the HSCA for examination. The HSCA utilized the services of the Washington, D.C. police department, where it was determined that the bullet was a jacketed, soft-point .30 caliber bullet, weighing 149 grains which was consistent with the .30 caliber ammunition produced by Remington-Peters. Such ammunition was a popular hunting load and many gun manufacturers chambered their rifles to accommodate this ammunition. The 6 groove, right hand twist rifling marks on the bullet indicated that the bullet was not shot from Oswald's Mannlicher-Cacano.
  3. The Lester Specimen: The third specimen was a bullet fragment found in Dealey Plaza by Richard Lester in 1974. Its precise location was reported to be 500 yards from the TSBD and 61 paces east of the triple overpass abutment. Mr. Lester turned the fragment over to the FBI for analysis in December, 1976. The FBI reported its findings in July, 1977, and concluded that the fragment, which consisted of the base portion of a bullet and weighed 52.7 grains, was consistent with the diameter of a 6.5 mm bullet. It was also determined that the fragment came from a metal jacketed soft point or hollow point sporting bullet. The rifling characteristics did not match those of a Mannlicher-Carcano. Even though the bullet exhibited the same 4 grooves, right hand twist pattern as Oswald's Mannlicher-Cacano, the lands between the grooves were spaced further apart than his Carcano. Once again, no one ventured to suggest that the fragment might represent the work of a second gunman.
  4. The Dal-Tex Specimen: The fourth piece of firearm evidence consists of a rusted shell casing found on the rooftop of the Dal-Tex Building in 1977 by an air-conditioning repair man. The Dal-Tex Building is just east of the TSBD, across Houston Street. Assassination researchers have long speculated that a second gunman was positioned at that building. Judging by the rusted condition of the shell case, it had been there for quite some time. What was unique about this case was the crimped edges along the neck suggesting that either the shell had been handloaded or had been used in conjunction with a sabot. Specimens 1), 2) and 3) could conceivably have been shot from locations other than Dealey Plaza by some careless hunter. However, this shell casing meant that the rifle was shot where the shell was expended and it is unlikely that deer hunters ever had occasion to position themselves on a rooftop in downtown Dallas.

One cannot rule out the possibility of a hoax or freakish accident to explain the presence of these specimens. Yet the unresolved questions surrounding the nature of the wounds, trajectory disputes and debate over the number of gunshots require that any evidence of other missiles be taken seriously.

The ballistic evidence, thus far, falls short of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that Oswald's Mannlicher-Carcano fired bullets on November 22nd that wounded Governor Connally and killed President Kennedy. The limousine fragments and magic bullet #399 appear to have come from Oswald's Mannlicher-Carcano. Yet they had no residue of blood or tissue and thus cannot be linked to human wounds. The HSCA's neutron activation analysis links the wound fragments only to the limousine fragments and to bullet #399 - not to the weapon. The major gap in the chain of evidence, then, is the inability to link the wound fragments to the weapon. Moreover, when one considers the testimony of the HSCA firearms expert Vincent P. Guinn that at least four other types of ammunition shared the same composition of trace elements as the 6.5 Mannlicher-Carcano ammunition, the neutron activation analysis leaves the door open to other realistic possibilities.

One such possibility is that an expanding bullet with the same composition of trace elements as the 6.5 Mannlicher-Carcano ammunition was shot from a different weapon, perhaps a silenced weapon. Another possibility is that the 6.5 ammunition was fired and recovered from Oswald's Mannlicher-Cacano and then shot out of another larger bore weapon with the aid of sabots, barrel inserts or cartridge conversions. Yet another possibility is that bullets or fragments from other weapons were in fact recovered from Kennedy's body but were suppressed following the autopsy. Consider, for instance, the report from a top FBI administrator, Alan Belmont, to Clyde Tolson, Hoover's second in command, in which Belmont on the night of November 22nd advises that a bullet has been found lodged behind the President's ear.

The existence of silenced rifles and the belated discovery of other ballistic evidence in and around Dealey Plaza still does not prove conclusively that more than one gunman was involved in the Kennedy assassination. The point of this article, however, is to encourage researchers to think about other possibilities that are not only realistic and but fall within the capability of the military and intelligence apparatus in the fall of 1963.


  1. Truby, Silencers, Snipers and Assassins: An Overview of Whispering Death (1972)
  2. Minnery, Firearm Silencers, Vol II (1981)
  3. U. S. Department of Army, "Silencers: Principles and Evaluations, Report #R-1896" (August 1968)
  4. War Department Technical Manual, Ordnance Maintenance, U.S. Rifles, Caliber .30, M1. M1C (Sniper's), and M1D (Sniper's)
  5. War Department Technical Manual, Ordnance Maintenance, The Springfield Rifle, M1903, M1903A1, M1903A3, M1903A4
  6. Nonte, Firearms Encyclopedia (1973)
  7. Hearings before the U.S. House Select Committee on Assassinations, (1978):
    a) Volume 1, p. 495 et seq re: neutron activation analysis (incredibly the HSCA never asked the firearms expert Vincent P. Guinn to identify the four other types of ammunition that matched Oswald's 6.5 Western Cartridge bullets.)
    b) Volume 7, p. 357 et seq re: the Lester and Haythorne specimens (The HSCA makes passing reference to the "Walder" bullet that was also submitted for testing; the author could find no other mention of this particular item of evidence. Is it possible that the HSCA was referring to the bullet which Deputy Walthers was rumored to have found in Dealey Plaza?)
  8. The Dal-Tex specimen: The author has never seen a document substantiating this claim and has also heard that the shell casing was discovered on the rooftop of the book depository, not the Dal-Tex building; she would welcome information from other researchers concerning this evidence
  9. FBI Document #62-109060-5898 (12/13/67) re: the Barbee specimen
  10. FBI Document #62-109060-1431 (11/22/63) re: the statement "I told Shanklin FBI has one of the bullets, the other is stuck behind his ear" is consistent with the writing on the Sibert/O'Neill evidence envelope enclosing a "missile" that had been removed from JFK's body. It is inconceivable that these FBI agents would mistakenly use the word missile or bullet if what in fact was recovered was merely a small fragment.
Last modified on Monday, 31 October 2016 00:55
Carol Hewett

Carol Hewett holds a degree from the University of Texas School of Law.  She served as litigation director of the National Juvenile Law Center, and formed her own law firm where she focused primarily on criminal defense and family law.  After 1992, she limited her practice to federal administrative appeals on behalf of social security disability claimants, whereby she could pursue assassination research on almost a full-time basis. She was a frequent contributor to Probe.

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