Ep 8: Oswald's Rifle (Part 2)
In Episode 7 we looked at the details surrounding Oswald ordering the rifle, including Oswald’s P.O. Box, which some people believe was being monitored by the FBI. We also learned more about the initial reports of a Mauser being on the 6th floor – as opposed to the Mannlicher Carcano that is in evidence in the Warren Report. Were there any cartridge cases found near the 6th floor sniper’s nest? Were any of Oswald’s fingerprints found on the rifle? Was there any other scientific proof that he pulled the trigger? CARTRIDGE CASES According to the Warren Commission, the “examination of the cartridge cases found on the 6th floor established they had been previously loaded and ejected from the assassination rifle when Oswald was practicing operating the bolt,” – which would link the shells to the Carcano if true. BUT, it doesn’t appear to be true. That’s because commission exhibit 2968, a letter from FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, says that the cartridge shells in evidence “did not possess sufficient characteristics for identifying the weapon which produced them.” So, according to J Edgar Hoover himself, we cannot prove that those shells found on the 6th floor came from the Carcano in evidence. There are also issues with the condition of the shells that raise even more questions. The three empty cartridge shells were numbered as commission exhibits 543, 544, and 545. 543 had a noticeably dented shell. According to ballistics expert, Howard Donahue, 543 could not have been used to fire a bullet that day because the dent in the shell would prevent the weapon from even firing properly. Of course, there are competing experts on this point. Donahue’s claim is disputed by firearms expert Monty Lutz, who testified before the HSCA. Lutz says the dent in the shell happened during the shells being fired, which rebuts Donahue’s claim. Still, there are multiple firearms experts who concur with Donahue’s assessment that the dent in the shell would have stopped the weapon from firing. To further muddy the waters, the other two shells have issues too. 544 had markings revealing it had been ejected by the Carcano in evidence, but no marking of a firing pin from the rifle. Similarly, 545 has no marking of a firing pin from the rifle. Both 543 (the dented one) and 545 had markings made by the magazine follower, which would have only marked the last round in the clip. We know that neither of those shells could have been the last round in the clip because police found a live round in the rifle. There were no fingerprints found on the shell cases, the ammo clip, or on the live round. Oswald would have only had 4 bullets with him in total - the three shells found on the floor and the one live round in the barrel. But the clip could have held as many as 7 bullets. What kind of assassin only loads their clip halfway? Also, bullets are sold by the box, usually 20 per box. No other bullets or boxes of bullets were found at Oswald’s rooming house or Ruth Paine’s house. So, how did Oswald get 4 random bullets? OTHER DISPUTES I want to touch on a few other issues related to the rifle without doing a deep dive. First, there are disagreements over whether the scope of the rifle was consistent with Oswald’s shooting hand. The rifle was fitted with a left-handed scope. But, Oswald’s brother and wife described him as doing everything right handed. His mom, however, said he may have shot guns left handed. Second, the availability and reliability of Carcano ammunition is disputed. The Warren Report says the ammo was still being manufactured, was reliable, and readily available. But, Western Cartridge Company who sold the ammo, wrote a letter to the Warren Commission saying the ammo was no longer being manufactured. Researcher Sylvia Meagher followed up with the company who told her in a letter that the “reliability of the ammo in use” at that time was “questionable” and was no longer being manufactured. The FBI did an extensive search of all gun shops in the Dallas area and found only two gun stores that handled Carcano ammo and neither recalled selling any to Oswald. Finally, the Warren Report says the FBI found “a tuft of several cotton fibers of dark blue, gray-black, and orange-yellow shades” in a crevice on the gun. The FBI’s expert, Paul Stombaugh said the fibers on the gun “could have come from the shirt” that Oswald was wearing at the time he was arrested. Stombaugh also said that “in fiber analysis, as distinct from fingerprint or firearms identification, it is not possible to state with scientific certainty that a particular small group of fibers come from a certain piece of clothing to the exclusion of all others.
But, Oswald was wearing a brown shirt at the schoolbook depository according to Mary Bledsoe, his former landlady who saw him on the bus.
Let’s talk about one of the most argued about pieces of evidence in the case – Oswald’s fingerprints – or lack thereof - on the rifle. Here’s Dallas Police Chief Jesse Curry responding to questions about the rifle fingerprints.
“Do you think the smudged fingerprints that have been found on the rifle which killed the president will be able to establish the identity of the killer? We hope so but I couldn’t say positively at this time if it will be. I don’t know whether it will be enough to convict him or not. If we can get his prints on the rifle, it would certainly connect him with the rifle. – Dallas Police Chief Jesse Curry
Lt. Day of the Dallas PD examined the rifle for fingerprints shortly after it was discovered by Deputy Sheriff Boone. There are two areas on the rifle where fingerprint evidence was potentially found: the metal housing near the trigger and a “lifted palmprint” from the underside of the barrel.
Lt. Day noticed traces of two prints near the trigger. On November 23, the rifle with the prints was sent to FBI fingerprint expert, Agent Latona. The area near the trigger was protected by cellophane to preserve the prints. No other areas were protected by cellophane when the rifle was sent to Washington.
Agent Latona found that the prints near the trigger were “insufficient for purposes of either effecting identification or a determination that the print was not identical with prints of people.” He concluded that the trigger prints were ultimately “of no value.” Agent Latona then examined the rest of the weapon for fingerprints and found none. He also noted that there was no evidence of any lifted fingerprint.
On November 29, Six days after Latona received the rifle, a card was received by the FBI laboratory in Washington sent by Lt. Day. The card had a palmprint on one side and the handwritten words: “off underside gun barrel near end of grip C2766”.
Now, Lt. Day says he obtained the palm print by lifting it from the rifle. The Warren Report explains “Lifting a print involves the use of adhesive material to remove the fingerprint powder which adheres to the original print. In this way the powdered impression is actually removed from the object.”
Lt. Day says he lifted the palmprint on the day of the assassination. He says he didn’t send the lifted printuntil November 26th because he expected Latona to be able to find the traces of it.
When Latona finally examined the lifted palm print, he determined it was from the right palm of Lee Harvey Oswald. Additional fingerprint experts also confirmed that the right palmprint was Oswald.
Lt. Day is a key figure in the saga of the rifle palmprint. In fact, Lt. Day is the sole witness the Warren Report relies on for the propositions that 1) a palm print was found on the rifle, and 2) that the palm print was liftedfrom the rifle. Day took no photographs of the palm print on the barrel before he lifted it. Agent Latona never saw the palm print on the rifle. Instead, we are relying on Lt. Day’s word that he lifted the palmprint and then sent it to the FBI separate from all of the other evidence. Yes, Lt. Day has a somewhat plausible explanation – he didn’t realize that he had completely lifted the palmprint and he expected Agent Latona to be able to find the print on the barrel.
But here is what doesn’t make sense to me about that. When the rifle was sent to Agent Latona – the underside of the barrel where the incriminating palm print was supposedly located – was not protected by cellophane. Lt. Day says he knew that there were two possible sources of prints and expected Latona to be able to see both of them. If that’s true then why was the underside of the barrel not covered with cellophane by Lt. Day to protect the palm print, like he did for the trigger area – especially, if he was expecting Agent Latona to be able to find the part of the lifted print that still remained on the rifle?
There are also discrepancies surrounding the handoff of the rifle from Lt. Day to the FBI. Even Warren Commission Chief counsel J Lee Rankin didn’t understand the late arriving palm print. An internal Warren Commission memo about this disputed palmprint from August 28, 1964 said QUOTE “Mr. Rankin advised because of the circumstances that now exist, there was a serious question in the minds of the Commission as to whether or not the palm impression was removed from the rifle barrel or whether it was obtained from some other source…” In other words, only three months before the Warren Report was published, the Chief Counsel of the Commission wasn’t sure whether Oswald’s palm print on the rifle was genuine or had been planted.
He asked the FBI to question Lt. Day about it. The FBI agent who questioned Day was the same man who collected the evidence from him on November 22nd – Agent Vincent Drain. Agent Drain says he was never told about a palmprint when he picked up the evidence. Lt. Day told Agent Drain that he did tell him about the palmprint, but Drain must have just forgotten. When Drain asked Lt. Day to sign the statement that he gave, Lt. Day refused.
Regardless of the credibility of Lt. Day as a witness, Warren Report critics still have to address how Oswald’s palm print got on that rifle barrel. The FBI expert confirmed that the print is the same as Oswald’s palm. We know that. So, the only question is whether that print really came from the barrel of the gun as Lt. Day says.
Warren Report critics argue that one way the palmprint could have been obtained is when the FBI went to the morgue after Oswald was killed and took additional fingerprints from him. According to the Fort Worth Press, “an FBI camera and crime lab kit spent a long time in the morgue.” The director of Miller Funeral Home, Paul Groody, also said the FBI came out the night Oswald was killed.
“I had gotten to the funeral home with his body something in the neighborhood of 11 o’clock at night. It is a several hour procedure to prepare the remains. After this time, some place in the early early morning, agents came. I say agents because I am not familiar at the moment as to whether they were Secret Service or FBI or what they were. But agents did come and when they did come they fingerprinted. And the only reason that we knew they did is that they were carrying the satchel and equipment asked us if they might have the preparation room to themselves. And after it was over, we found ink on Lee Harvey Oswald’s hands showing that they had fingerprinted him and palmprinted him. We had to take that ink back off in order to prepare him for burial and eliminate that ink.”
This sounds like wild conspiratorial stuff. I know. So what do Warren Report defenders have to say about the idea that the FBI came to the funeral home to fingerprint Oswald’s dead body? Vincent Bugliosi does not dispute it. He says that the FBI needed additional fingerprints from Oswald and there is an innocent reason for the visit. But, the Dallas Police already had ample fingerprints for Oswald, including his palmprint. Did the FBI really need to fingerprint him again at the funeral home?
Conspiracy researchers also point out that the first public mention of the Oswald’s palmprint on the rifle barrel was by District Attorney Henry Wade on Sunday night, after Oswald was already dead.
“Chief we understand that you have the results of the paraffin test which were made to determine whether Oswald had fired a weapon.” – Reporter. I understand that it was positive. It only shows that he had fired a gun. – Chief Curry. “Yes, the paraffin test showed that he had recently fired a gun it was on both hands”.- DA Henry Wade.
Oswald was given a paraffin test, which measures gunshot residue by placing a suspect’s hand and in a cast to determine if they recently fired a weapon. The Warren Report explains how the test works as follows QUOTE:
To perform the paraffin test, layers of warm liquid paraffin, inter-leaved with layers of gauze for reinforcement, are brushed or poured on the suspect's skin. The warm sticky paraffin opens the skin's pores and picks up any dirt and foreign material present at the surface. When the paraffin cools and hardens it forms a cast, which is taken off and processed with … chemicals which turn blue in the presence of nitrates. Since gunpowder residues contain nitrates, the theory behind the test is that if a cast reacts positively, i.e., if blue dots appear, it provides evidence that the suspect recently fired a weapon. In fact, however, the test is completely unreliable in determining either whether a person has recently fired a weapon or whether he has not.… [This is because contact with common items like]tobacco, urine, and kitchen matches, among other things, may result in a positive reaction to the paraffin test. 
So, according the Warren Report, the Paraffin test is basically worthless. This is both because it can fail to be positive when someone has fired a rifle AND because false positives are easily registered by innocent activities.
There is also a dispute about whether one would ever expect to find residue on a person’s cheek after shooting a rifle. Cortland Cunningham, the FBI agent who testified on this issue to the Warren Commission, said he would not expect to find nitrate residue on a person’s face from shooting the rifle.
When Oswald was given the paraffin test, the results of the test were positive for the hands and negative for the right cheek.
Even though the Warren Report goes out of its way to say that it didn’t find the paraffin test credible, a lot of people who believe Oswald was the lone gunman still point to the paraffin test as being persuasive evidence. For example, Vincent Bugliosi says that there was no residue on Oswald’s face because the Carcano rounds were so tightly sealed in the chamber that the nitrates couldn’t escape onto Oswald’s cheek even when he had the rifle up to his face.
But, former FBI agents Bill Turner and Vincent Guinn tested the Carcano and 6.5 mm ammo and found that “the weapon discharged nitrates in abundance.” And that shots from the rifle would produce detectable traces on both the hand and face.
So, the paraffin test had mixed results. The lack of gunpowder residue on Oswald’s face means that he didn’t fire the rifle. But, the report also showed that Oswald’s hands did have residue on them, which suggests that he did fire a gun. If this is true, is there an innocent way to explain how that could be?
As James DiEugenio points out, when you look at the declassified records with actual outlines of the casts it shows that more nitrates appear on the palm of each hand - not on the back side. If a gun was fired, the nitrates would hit the back of your hand because your palm would be holding the trigger of the gun. Also, the FBI used Neutron Activiation Analysis to test the paraffin casts. Those tests showed the deposits on the casts could not be associated with the rifle shells that found on the 6th floor. Finally, Oswald was seen reading a newspaper that day that would leave the same chemical traces on his palms as firing a rifle.
Let’s talk about the big picture takeaways from this episode.
Was any ammo found on the 6th floor?
There were three shells that were found. Hoover’s letter to the FBI is conclusive on the issue that the shells cannot be linked to the rifle. There are Competing experts on whether shells found on 6th floor could have been fired by Carcano in evidence. But, there are multiple experts who say the shells could not have been fired..
What I find to be even more interesting when it comes to the ammo is the fact that the clip on the rifle in evidence held 7 bullets. But, only 4 bullets were used – the three that were fired and one in the chamber when the rifle was discovered. And no other bullets were found at Oswald’s rooming house or the Paine residence. That’s also strange. Maybe Oswald had a stash of other ammo that was just never found. Maybe he thought it would only take 4 bullets to get the job done. If not, it seems unlikely that someone would load a clip halfway full and not have any other ammo. Did Oswald just find 4 bullets or what?
I conclude that the ammo evidence is inconclusive because they can’t be definitively linked to the rifle.
Is there any proof that Oswald handled the weapon or fired a gun that day?
The paraffin test certainly cannot be used to incriminate Oswald. But, then again, the Warren Report says it didn’t rely on it anyway. Like the Warren Report, my conclusion is that the paraffin tests are inconclusive. If they were reliable, they would lean in favor of supporting Oswald’s innocence because there was no residue on his cheek or the back of his hands.
What about the Palmprint on the Rifle?
The right palm print on the underside of the rifle barrel belonged to Oswald - according to FBI fingerprint expert, Sebastian Latona.
But the fact that the Chief Counsel of the Warren Commission himself had suspicions that the only piece of fingerprint evidence on the murder weapon was planted is a serious problem for Warren Report defenders. On top of J. Lee Rankin’s doubts about this palmprint, FBI Agent Vincent Drain who was sent to investigate the matter encountered an uncooperative Lt. Day who disputed Drain’s recollection of the events – saying that he did tell Agent Drain about the palmprint when Drain picked up the gun. Lt. Day even refused to sign a written statement with the information he was telling Drain. This is suspicious to me.
But the piece of evidence that is most persuasive to me is the failure of the Dallas Police to cover the palmprint location in cellophane in the same way that was done with the metal housing near the trigger. If Lt. Day knew there was a print there, he should have covered it. The fact that he didn’t, shows that he didn’t think there was anything there to protect. The key piece of evidence against the assassin of the President of the United States should not be a print that arrives almost a week later on an index card – only after no other prints could be used.
For those reasons, I conclude that the palmprint evidence on the barrel - or lack thereof - weighs in favor of Oswald not holding that weapon and there being a conspiracy to manufacture evidence. Leans – not guaranteed. But, I think it leans that way.
Now, while this saga of Lt. Day v. Agent Drain and the late arriving palm print look really bad for the Warren Report standing alone, Warren Report defenders make a different inference when it comes to the prints. They infer that Lt. Day is acting above board and that Agent Drain from the FBI must be the one who was mistaken.
Those who think Oswald acted alone and is guilty argue that it was hectic in the aftermath of the assassination and that Lt. Day made a mistake by failing to protect the barrel where the palmprint was and by failing to send the palmprint that he says he lifted with the rifle immediately after he gave the rifle to Agent Drain. But, it’s not fair to say that Lt. Day is lying when it’s possible to infer that he was just negligent.
I cannot buy this argument, but, I know that there are many people who believe it one hundred percent and think that it is crazy and paranoid to even consider the possibility that Lt. Day was not being truthful. They also argue that this palmprint issue is just one aspect of the case and all of the other ones point to Oswald.
Specifically, Warren Report defenders point to a few other pieces of evidence to confirm Oswald’s ownership of the rifle that we didn’t talk about yet. There’s the infamous backyard photo showing Oswald holding a rifle with a revolver in a holster, the incident at General Walker’s house where Oswald allegedly fired a shot, and Oswald’s wife, Marina, saying that he owned a rifle. Those topics deserve a deep dive. This is why we must go issue by issue and examine everything. And we’ll get to each of those issues in a future episode.
As far as the overall evidence regarding Oswald’s rifle, I find it to be inconclusive. There is competing evidence when it comes to whether Oswald ordered the rifle and whether he received it at his P.O. Box. There’s even competing evidence as to whether the gun initially found was even a Carcano – the first three law enforcement officials to encounter it said it was a Mauser, but the Carcano is what is in the National Archives today. There are three cartridges in the sniper’s nest, but J. Edgar Hoover said that they can’t be tied to any specific gun. The paraffin test is worthless according to the Warren Report itself. And the only fingerprint evidence that links Oswald to the rifle is a palmprint that was sent a week later on an index card.
This back and forth battle of competing evidence is a common feature of JFK assassination research. I find that my conclusions are inconclusive on many items in the case. Many times it’s hard to know what or who to believe. That makes the issues where there is a clear conclusion to be drawn all the more important.
Next time on Solving JFK: We’ll begin looking at the witness statements from Dealey Plaza What did they see? Where did the gunshots come from?
 Warren Report at 192-193; Sylvia Meagher, Accessories After the Fact, at 115.  CE 2968; Meagher at 115.  Bonar Menninger, Mortal Error (1992), at 114.  James DiEugenio, Reclaiming Parkland (2013), at 69-70. See, e.g., Chris Mills and Forrest Chapman.  Memo from J. Edgar Hoover to J. Lee Rankin, June 2, 1964  Id.  Id.  Warren Report at 79.  Warren Commission Vol 4, page 253  CE 2560  CE 1401, p 297  Testimony of Marguerite Oswald, 1H 163  The Fourth Tramp, Washington Post, August 7, 1994, available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/opinions/1994/08/07/the-fourth-tramp/1f58fbe9-a0fa-4fc2-8ebf-d62694845bbe/; See Anthony Summers, Conspiracy (1980) at 72.  Warren Report at 124.  WC Vol 6, at 409 - https://www.history-matters.com/archive/jfk/wc/wcvols/wh6/pdf/WH6_Bledsoe.pdf  Mark Lane and Emile De Antonio, Rush To Judgment (1967), at 3:40  Warren Report at 122.  Id. At 123.  Id.  Id.  Id.  Meagher at 121.  Warren Report at 123.  Id.  Id.  Id.  Memo from Belmont to Rosen, August 28, 1964, https://www.maryferrell.org/showDoc.html?docId=59637#relPageId=8  DiEugenio at 191. Jim Marrs, Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy (2013), at 422.  Men Who Killed Kennedy, Part 4 at 27:15. Paul Groody  Vincent Bugliosi, Reclaiming History, End Notes, at 414.  DiEugenio at 191.  Lane and De Antonio, at 7:40.  Warren Report at 180.  Id. at 560-61.  Id.  Bugliosi at 164.  DiEugenio at 88 (citing Letter from Bill Turner to Gary Aguilar, July 17, 2007).  Id. at 88-89.  Letter from J. Edgar Hoover to J. Lee Rankin, March 10, 1964  FBI Report on Charles Givens, November 22, 1963 - https://ratical.org/ratville/JFK/PG/PGappE.html