Saturday, December 21, 2019

Understanding Wound Ballistics in the JFK Assassination: Lucien C. Haag’s Look at the Unique Properties of Lee Harvey Oswald’s Bullets


The December issue of the American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology (Vol. 40, No. 4, pp.336-346) features an important article by respected firearms examiner and author Lucien C. “Luke” Haag that explores the unique characteristics of the ammunition used by Lee Harvey Oswald in JFK assassination and offers a clearer understanding of the ballistic principles that resulted in the president’s death.

Haag, a former Criminalist and Technical Director of the Phoenix Crime Laboratory, with over 50-years of experience in the field of criminalistics and forensic firearms examination, and author of over 200 scientific papers dealing with the effects and behavior of projectiles, brings his first-hand knowledge and testing to bear on questions surrounding the single-bullet theory and Kennedy’s fatal head wound.

The eleven-page article explains in detail why doctors and forensic examiners at the time were not in a position to understand the unique characteristics of the wound produced by the Model 91/38 Carcano rifle and the WCC 6.5mm ammunition used by Oswald – a rather uncommon weapon in 1963.

Bullet design considerations

While the general shape and design of the 6.5mm Carcano bullet are not unique; the 6.5 x 52-mm Carcano cartridge is unique to the Carcano rifle; no other firearm is chambered for this cartridge.

While many other rifle cartridges evolved by the time of the First World War to contain a bullet of spitzer design (pointed-nose shape), the Carcano cartridge retained its original 1891 design, which included a blunt, rounded-nosed bullet, to the end of World War II.

The two bullet designs produced radically different wound ballistic characteristics; Haag tells us. Doctors and forensic ballistic experts were more familiar with wounds produced by the modern pointed-nosed bullet; and far less familiar with those produced by these long, round-nosed projectiles. This led to misstatements of fact by doctors at Parkland Hospital in Dallas and confusion at the autopsy in Bethesda, Maryland.

Haag had two Model 91/38 Carcano rifles at his disposal to conduct firing tests and a quantity of the now-rare Winchester 6.5 Carcano ammunition.

Using a Infinition Doppler radar system, not available in 1963, to determine the G1 ballistic coefficient of the WCC bullets, Haag determined that the WCC bullets would have had a velocity of 1,967 ft/s (600 m/s) at 70 yards – the distance at which President Kennedy and Governor Connally were struck by a single-bullet – and 1,914 ft/s (583 m/s) at 90 yards – the distance at which the president was struck by the fatal head shot.

Wound ballistic characteristics

Haag reports that there is a common expectation that exit wound from high-velocity rifle bullets are larger than the entrance wounds. However, in the case of the WCC 6.5mm Carcano bullets, this is simply not true. Haag found in firing test after firing test that the WCC bullet was extremely stable at it penetrated soft tissue, producing entry and exit wounds that were nearly indistinguishable.

Snapshots of WCC rounds fired through ballistic gelatin and ballistic soap (simulating soft tissue) show the long, heavy cylindrical bullet remains intact and nose-forward during penetration.

By comparison, Haag found that spitzer (pointed) bullet designs began yawing almost immediately (after about 4 inches (10 cm) of penetration) upon entering a block of ballistic soap and undergoes deflection form its original flight path.

Of particular significance, especially in the case of the Kennedy assassination, the WCC bullet lost very little velocity during the perforation process, especially compared with spitzer (pointed) military rifle bullets.

Tracking numerous test firings with the Infinition Doppler radar system, Haag demonstrates that the velocity loss experienced by the WCC Carcano bullets, after perforating a 6-inch long block of ballistic soap (simulating the soft tissues of President Kennedy’s neck) ranged from 150 to 180 ft/s. That means that the WCC bullet exiting the president’s throat would have a residual velocity of approximately 1,800 ft/s – more than enough to perforate anything in the car, including steel.

Even more significant is the fact that Haag’s Doppler radar plots also showed that these bullets always entered a yawing motion after exiting the soft tissue simulants.

“This fact coincides with the yawed entry wound in Governor Connally’s back,” Haag writes.

Haag also discusses the bullet wipe around the bullet hole in the back of President Kennedy’s coat (establishing a certain back-to front bullet path) and the fact that a bullet fired at a 27-degree downward angle (often used by conspiracy advocates, without any testing, to explain the elongated entrance wound on Governor Connally’s back) still produces a round entrance hole. 

Given Haag’s findings, the position of Kennedy and Connally at the time of the shooting, and the lack of any other bullet damage to the presidential limousine that could be associated with a WCC bullet traveling at 1,800 ft/s – can there really be any doubt about the validity of the single-bullet theory?

The fatal head shot

Haag also found through testing – as did John K. Lattimer and military wound ballistician Larry M. Sturdivan – that the WCC Carcano bullet had the ability to “totally change character” and behave more like a soft-point hunting bullet, yawing and deflecting, when its nose-area was breeched by striking thick skull bone.

The unique properties of the WCC Carcano bullet – in particular, its ability to produce different-looking types of wounds depending on whether striking soft tissue or hard bone – were not known to law enforcement and medical examiners in 1963 and remain little known or understood today.

Consequently, the autopsy pathologists at Bethesda Medical Center on the night of November 22, 1963, were faced with trying to make sense of wounds in the president’s body that had all the characteristics of two different types of bullets.

In reality, Haag assures us, the wounds were produced by one unique type of bullet – the WCC 6.5mm Carcano bullets fired from Oswald’s rifle.

There’s much more in Haag’s dissertation worthy of attention, including a wealth of photographs, charts, and illustrations.

As lifelong wound ballistician Larry Sturdivan once observed: “Physical evidence is always consistent with the truth – even if we don’t immediately understand it, or can’t fully explain it.” [END]

Friday, December 6, 2019

Kennedy Assassination Bullets Preserved in Digital Form

NIST scientists used advanced imaging techniques to create digital replicas of these important historical artifacts


In the palm of his hand, Thomas Brian Renegar held two small metal objects that had changed the course of history. Twisted pieces of copper and lead, they were fragments of the bullet that ended the life of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963.

A physical scientist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), Renegar was not yet born when the nation was robbed of the young, charismatic leader who fought for civil rights and set America on a course for the Moon. But he felt the weight of history. He picked up one of the fragments using rubber-tipped forceps and, with the care of a jeweler setting a stone, placed it into a housing beneath the lens of a 3D surface scanning microscope.

These artifacts are usually held at the National Archives. They were transported to NIST so that Renegar and the rest of the NIST ballistics team could scan them and produce digital replicas that are true down to the microscopic details.

Viewing the digital replicas on his computer screen, Renegar said, “It’s like they’re right there in front of you.” The National Archives plans to make the data available in its online catalog in early 2020.

Why do this, so many years after President Kennedy’s tragic death? The mission of the National Archives is to provide the public with access to artifacts such as these, and it receives many requests for access to them. This project will allow the Archives to release the 3D replicas to the public while the originals remain safely preserved in their temperature and humidity-controlled vault.

“The virtual artifacts are as close as possible to the real things,” said Martha Murphy, deputy director of government information services at the National Archives. “In some respects, they are better than the originals in that you can zoom in to see microscopic details,” she said.

In addition to the two fragments from the bullet that fatally wounded the president, the digital collection includes another bullet that struck both the president and Texas Gov. John Connally. That one is known as the “stretcher bullet” because it was found lying near Connally at the hospital. The collection also includes two bullets produced by test firing the assassin’s rifle, and a bullet that was recovered following an earlier, failed assassination attempt on Army Maj. Gen. Edwin Walker that was thought to involve the same firearm.

In the lab, the NIST ballistics team used a technique called focus variation microscopy to image the artifacts. At each location along the object’s surface, the microscope created a series of images at different focal distances. By analyzing which parts of those images were in focus, the microscope measured the distance to the object’s surface features. As the lens moved across the object, it built a 3D surface map of the microscopic landscape beneath it, like a satellite mapping a mountain range.

NIST physical scientist Mike Stocker places Warren Commission Exhibit (CE) 399, the so-called "magic bullet", wrapped in a silicone sleeve, on the microscope for a new run. [Credit: Jason Stoughton / NIST]

Renegar and NIST physical scientist Mike Stocker spent countless hours rotating the metal fragments beneath the lens of the microscope to image every facet, then stitching the image segments together where they overlapped. “It was like solving a supercomplicated 3D puzzle,” Renegar said. “I’ve stared at them so much I can draw them from memory.”

If you held one of the original fragments in the palm of your hand, you would see that the metal is warped and twisted into a complex shape. But magnified on the computer screen, it is a world unto itself: a highly complex and undulating terrain that bends, dips and doubles back. Zoom in, and you can see rifling grooves left by the barrel of the gun. Zoom in closer, and you can see the microtopography — ridges and scratches that would be far too fine to feel with your fingertip.

The focus variation scans had a horizontal resolution of 4 micrometers, about one-tenth the width of a human hair, and a vertical resolution of 0.5 micrometers, or eight times better. This allowed the scans to record the depth of minute scratches in the metallic surface of the artifacts. Other members of the team, including mechanical engineers Xiaoyu Alan Zheng and Johannes Soons, used a technique called confocal microscopy to image selected regions of the artifacts at higher resolution.

Although this was an unusual project for the NIST ballistics team, its members do spend a lot of time imaging bullet surfaces. Their regular work has them researching advanced forensic techniques for identifying firearms used in crimes.

For more than a century, forensic examiners have matched pairs of bullets by viewing them under a split-screen comparison microscope. If the striations on a pair of bullets — or on microscopic photographs of those bullets — line up, examiners might consider them a match.

The NIST ballistics team is developing methods for comparing bullets using 3D surface maps, which can provide greater detail and accuracy than comparing two-dimensional images. It’s also developing methods so that, instead of just saying whether or not two bullets appear to match, forensic examiners will be able to statistically quantify their degree of similarity. This research is part of a larger effort by NIST to strengthen forensic science so that judges, juries and investigators have reliable, science-based information when deciding guilt or innocence.

Robert Thompson, the NIST forensic firearms expert who oversaw the project, said that the bullet fragments from the Kennedy assassination were bent and distorted in ways that made them difficult to image. “The techniques we developed to image those artifacts will be useful in criminal cases that involve similarly challenging evidence.”

The team did not conduct any forensic analysis of the bullets from the Kennedy assassination. This project was strictly a matter of historic preservation. However, once the National Archives makes the data available to the public, anyone who is interested in analyzing those bullets will be able to do so without risking damage to the originals.

Though Renegar is too young to remember the event that indelibly marked the memories of an earlier generation, he feels deeply connected to that day in history. Speaking for the entire team, he said, “It was an honor to put our expertise toward such an important project.”