Tuesday, 15 August 1995 23:53

The FBI's Fib about the Mannlicher Carcano

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How would the public have responded to the information that, when firing the last shot, the bullet would have gone at least 14 inches above the point of aim on Kennedy's head?, asks Milicent Cranor.


From the July-August, 1995 issue (Vol. 2 No. 5) of Probe

FBI firearms expert Robert Frazier, testifying before the Warren Commission, described the results of tests by FBI marksmen with Oswald's Mannlicher Carcano at 15, 25 and 100 yards. Their shots consistently landed close to each other, within an area "the size of a dime," but not close to the target, demonstrating the rifle's precision, but lack of accuracy due to the misalignment of the telescopic sight. (Accuracy and precision have separate meanings in ballistics.) Their results:

At 15 yards:

2.5 to 4 inches too high;

1 inch too far to the right

At 25 yards:

4 to 5 inches too high;

1 to 2 inches too far to the right

At 100 yards:

2.5 to 5 inches too high;

2 to 5 inches too far to the right

If the bullet struck 2.5 - 4 inches too high at 15 yards, how could it be a mere 2.5 to 5 inches too high at 100 yards?

Deviation is in direct proportion to the distance of the gun from the target. Earlier in his testimony, in a very different context, Frazier made an offhand remark that illustrates this principle: He said he fired three shots at 25 yards with "approximately a 3-inch spread...the equivalent of a 12-inch spread at a hundred yards." Twelve inches, not 5 inches?

Would bullet drop (effect of gravity) compensate for the rifle's poor vertical alignment at 100 yards? I got a precise answer from the editor of a leading ballistics publication who, because of the "sensitive" subject matter, wishes to remain anonymous. Using Barnes' Ballistics computer program, he determined that, at 120 yards, a 6.5mm, 160-grain bullet, muzzle velocity of 2,200 feet per second, would have dropped only 0.7 inches below "flat firing" level. (In a different context, Frazier claimed more bullet drop than my expert, 1.2 inches at 100 yards. Not enough to explain the results obtained.) So much for gravity explaining the disproportionately small degree of deviation at 100 yards.

I then posed another question for his computer: if the telescopic sight of the rifle places the same bullet 3 inches above the target at 25 yards, how far above the target would the bullet strike if the rifle was zeroed in at 100 yards? He came up with 14 inches. If the bullet is 4 inches off at 25 yards, it would be 18 inches off at 100 yards. (These figures are conservative; even at 15 yards, when firing for accuracy and not speed, two of the FBI marksmen were off by 4 inches.)

How did the FBI manage to fire "only" 5 inches too high at 100 yards (assuming they were telling the truth)? It is reasonable to conclude that, having become familiar with the gun by the time of the last series of tests, they compensated for the misalignment of the telescopic sight - and did not say so. Commissioner Eisenberg appears to have guessed it:

"Mr. Frazier, when you were running, let's say, the last test, could you have compensated for this defect?"

"Yes; you could take an aiming point low and to the left and have the shots strike a predetermined point..."

 Or, was it his point that Oswald compensated for the defect? Eisenberg also appears to have known, in advance, what might solve the problem, as acknowledged:

"[I]f the elevation crosshair was defective at the time of the assassination...and no compensation was made for this defect, how would this have interacted with the amount of lead which needed to be given to the target?"

Frazier answered, perhaps as predicted, that no lead would have been necessary: The misaligned scope "accomplished the lead" for him. Earlier, Frazier had testified that Oswald would have had to lead (aim ahead of the target because it would have moved by the time the bullet arrived) the target by 4 to 6 inches. (If Oswald were as good a shot as claimed, would he not have aimed ahead of the target, assuming he didn't know the sight was off?) The sight was well stabilized when received in Dallas, as shown by the shots landing so close together, but it was misaligned. Why? Frazier could not answer, but suggested it had been bumped, as evidenced by a "severe scrape on the scope tube" that occurred at some unknown time. And he said "It may be the that the mount has been bent or the crosshair ring shifted." (Wouldn't it be have been clear whether, if not when, the mount was bent?) Did the FBI or the Commission inquire if the scrape had been on the gun when found in the Depository? If the scrape was "severe," wouldn't it have been seen in Dallas? If not, the Commission could have claimed the gun was damaged in transit, and was fine at the time of the assassination. Was this basic, obvious question ever asked?

Frazier minimized the problem, claiming it wasn't really defective, that "only the adjusting mechanism does not have enough tolerance to bring the crosshair to the point of impact of the bullet," simple to fix by slipping a "shim" under the sight. But, the defect is apparently inherent with that brand, and was there before the hypothetical bump. When, for his experiments, John Lattimer bought four Carcanos – "a favorite among European riflemen" – and four telescopic sights identical to Oswald's, he found that all four needed shims, and hinted that Oswald had used one. No shim was ever found on or near Oswald's gun.

We may never know the truth about that gun. But we do know the FBI told what amounts to a lie. When they made the statement that, at 100 yards, the rifle's aim was off by only 5 inches, they knew it would be understood to mean that the last series of tests was performed under the conditions of the first two tests, that is, without compensating for the misalignment of the sight. How would the public have responded to the information that, when firing the last shot, the bullet would have gone at least 14 inches above the point of aim on Kennedy's head? The gun seems to have been more of a threat to the pigeons above. How would the public have responded to the information that the FBI rigged the last test?

Last modified on Saturday, 02 September 2017 15:15
Milicent Cranor

Milicent Cranor is currently a senior editor at whowhatwhy.org. She has been a creative editor at E.P. Dutton (fiction, non fiction); comedy ghostwriter; co-author of numerous peer-reviewed articles for medical journals; editor of consequential legal and scientific documents; former member of the American Mensa Society. Milicent was a frequent contributor to Probe.

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