Mortal Error

There are numerous theories about the assassination of President Kennedy, and this one, I think, deserves to be better known. I shall make few judgements, only observations.

The Man behind the Theory

Howard Donahue was born in 1922, and from his early boyhood was interested in firearms. By his early teens he was an award-winning junior marksman in the National Rifle Association. Although initially working for a pharmaceutical firm, he had a second business as a gunsmith. Later on, he opened his own gun shop, and such was his reputation, he was often called upon to give expert testimony on firearms at criminal trials. Politically, he was not a Kennedy sympathiser, and so the assassination on 22nd November 1963 affected him far less than most. When the Warren Commission Report was first published, he, like many Americans, accepted its findings.

The Warren Commission Findings

Most of the witnesses of the shooting reported having heard three shots, and three spent cartridge cases were found by the window of the Texas School Book depository, so the Commission resolved that Oswald had fired three shots. This led to some anomalies. One of the best pieces of evidence was the amateur film shot by spectator Abraham Zapruder, and since the running speed of the camera was known, analysis of the individual frames gave an accurate timing of events. Governor Connally, who was also shot, stated afterwards that he had heard a shot, turned to look at the President, and then had been shot himself, and the film clearly shows Kennedy reacting to being hit seconds before Connally did. This would suggest that they were hit by different shots. There were, however, clearly two other shots- one which missed the car, chipping the pavement, and disintegrating into fragments, one of which hit a spectator – and the fatal head shot. The analysis of the film, however, shows that there was no time for four shots to be fired. The rifle, a Model 31/98 6.5 Mannlicher-Carcano, had a bolt action which was stiff and heavy to operate. The shots had apparently been fired from it in 5.6 seconds, according to the film, and in the Warren Commission’s test firings, only one of the three experts used had succeeded in firing three rounds in that time, and he had not been called upon to score two hits on a moving target. Obviously, four shots were impossible, so the Warren Commission concluded that there had been three. The first shot had hit Kennedy in the neck, passed through it and hit Connally in the back, damaging his rib, then gone on to shatter a bone in his wrist before lodging in his thigh. It was stated that this was the bullet which had later been found on a stretcher in Parkland Hospital, to which Kennedy and Connally had both been rushed after the shooting. This very slightly distorted bullet later came to be known as “The magic bullet”. The second shot was the one that had missed, and the third was the fatal head shot. It was decided that there had been a delayed reaction between Connally being hit and his registering the fact, the only conclusion which could support the evidence of both Connally and the film.

Donahue’s Involvement

In 1967 Donahue received a telephone call, asking him to participate in a rifle study. He agreed, assuming it was for a court case, and travelled to a ballistics laboratory where he was given a rifle to test-fire which he immediately recognised as the same model involved in the Kennedy assassination. After test firing he and the ten other marksmen taking part were led to a compound where they found a functional mock-up of the site where Kennedy had been killed, including a wooden tower to simulate the height of the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, and a vehicle on a moving track containing the silhouette of a man. Two stakes had been placed near the track. One represented the first point where Oswald would have had a clear shot, and the second, the position of the car at the final shot. The marksmen had to fire three shots while the car moved between the two stakes. All the men were given three attempts. In Donahue’s first, the rifle jammed. In his second, he had trouble with the sticky bolt mechanism and only got off two shots, both of which hit. The third try was more successful. He was able to fire three shots, all of which hit, in 4.8 seconds. He later found that he was the only one of the eleven marksmen to better the target time. As a result of this test, Donahue was later approached by the editor of True magazine asking if he would write an article supporting the findings of the Warren Commission. He agreed, but asked for a little time to do his own research. And that was how it all started.

Donahue’s Research

After reading the Warren Commission report Donahue still didn’t have any doubts about it, but in reading the books written by its critics he realised that there were some anomalies that needed to be resolved. It was also obvious that none of the writers of these book were firearms experts. He decided to ignore the political theories and stick with what he knew best, and carry out a rigorous analysis of the ballistics and forensic aspects of the case.

The Magic Bullet

Donahue first looked at the shot which the Warren Commission had stated had struck both Kennedy and Connally. There were several vital questions to be answered.

1) Did the bullet have sufficient penetrating power to make the wounds described? Donahue knew that it was a heavy bullet designed for deep penetration. Tests had shown it capable of passing through 47 inches of pine board. The muzzle velocity was more than twice that of a .22 bullet. He had no doubts about its ability to pass through two men.

2) Was the trajectory consistent with the way the two men were positioned? Critics of the single bullet theory have suggested that the bullet, in order to pass through both men needed to make a sharp right turn in mid air. This criticism is however based on the belief that Connally was seated directly in front of the President. This was not the case. Kennedy was on the back seat of the car at the extreme right. Connally was on one of the jump seats in front, which, photographs of the car clearly show, was positioned some six inches closer to the midline of the car, and below the level of the back seat. If Connally was correct and he was hit after he had turned, alerted by a sound, then the trajectory from the School Book Depository lines up perfectly.

3) Were the wounds compatible with the trajectory? The wound high on the President’s back was compatible with a wound of entry, but the small wound on the neck, later altered by a tracheotomy, was described as smaller, and therefore more likely to be an entry wound, which would rule out a shot from the Depository. Test firings supported this view. Donahue realised something his predecessors had not taken into account. The test firings had been done on goat meat, but Kennedy’s neck had been firmly restrained by a buttoned collar. This meant that the bullet would have made a neat exit hole rather than a tearing jagged one. Also the analysis of the direction of the shirt fibres had showed clearly that the back wound was one of entry, the neck wound an exit. The appearance and angle of the Governor’s back wound also added to Donahue’s feeling that the two men had been wounded by the same bullet as the elliptical entry suggested it had been yawing when it struck, as it would have done if it had passed through the President’s neck first.

4) Could the intact bullet really have done so much damage without being distorted? Donahue was able to obtain permission to examine the bullet, and found that it was not completely undamaged as had been claimed. It was somewhat flattened, and some of the lead had extruded. Clearly it had hit something. The bullet was encased in a full metal jacket of copper and zinc, highly resistant to breaking up. But test firings into the wrist of a corpse, attempting to simulate the Governor’s wrist wound had shattered the bullet. Donahue spotted the flaw in this experiment. The tests had fired the bullet at full velocity. The bullet which hit Connally’s wrist had first traversed Kennedy’s neck and Connally’s back. By the time it hit Connally’s wrist it would have been travelling at no more than 900 feet per second. This was consistent with the fact that when the bullet finally lodged in the Governor’s thigh, the wound it made was fairly superficial. Donahue was now satisfied that the bullet could have done all the damage claimed.

5) Was the single bullet theory compatible with the eyewitness and photographic evidence? The first frame on the Zapruder film to show Kennedy emerging from behind a highway sign that blocked Zapruder’s view was 225. He appears to be reacting to a wound, and based on estimates of reaction time it is assumed that he was hit about frame 210. It is not until frame 238 that Connally’s cheeks puff out as he reacts to his wound. The Warren commission explained this as a delayed reaction, however the surgeon who operated on Connally stated that the puffing out of the cheeks was an involuntary physical reaction, and a necessary consequence of the shot through the chest wall. The estimated time between being hit and this reaction was no more than one quarter to one half a second. Added to this was the Governor’s own testimony that he was sure he had not been hit by the first shot, that he had had the time to turn around in response to the sound before he himself was hit. Also, a secret service agent who had been riding in the limousine in front of Connally testified that after he heard the first shot he heard Kennedy say “My God! I’ve been hit!” Yet the Commission asserted that the first shot was the one which had gone through Kennedy’s windpipe.

For the first time. Donahue had noted something he could not readily explain. He was sure that the single bullet theory was possible from the ballistics point of view, but the timing didn’t fit. He decided to lay that matter aside while he looked at the head shot.

The Head Shot

According to the Warren Commission report the fatal bullet entered the back of Kennedy’s head and disintegrated, blowing out a portion of the skull. Donahue, using the best available evidence, made an analysis of the bullet’s trajectory. Frame 312 of the Zapruder film, the one immediately before impact shows the President’s head tilted forward and a little to the left. Even given this, however, Donahue saw that a bullet coming from the Book Depository would have exited, not from the top of the skull, but through the President’s face. In fact, the path of the wound suggested that the bullet had had a much flatter trajectory. As Donahue pondered this problem, another point became clear. The Warren Commission had stated that one bullet had caused the neck wound and all of the Governor’s wounds and emerged little distorted. Donahue accepted this. It was now saying that the same kind of bullet fired by the same rifle from the same location a few seconds later had exploded into a mass of fragments. The discrepancy could have been explained if the second shot had been a different kind of round, but the three spent shells all came from the same kind of full metal jacketed 6.5 ammunition. Had someone else fired the shot? Donahue was sure that only a bullet pushing through from the rear could have caused the head wound. He was not convinced by the evidence of witnesses who heard shots coming from the grassy knoll. He knew that if a bullet travels faster than the speed of sound, then the acoustics are such that an observer at right angles to the path, may perceive that the shot came from a site opposite to him. Even so, the evidence was suggesting to him that the head shot was fired on a different trajectory and with different ammunition than the neck shot. That would have to mean that there was another gunman. For the first time, Donahue’s faith in the Warren Commission’s findings was severely shaken. He contacted the editor of True magazine and said he wouldn’t be able to do the article after all.

The fatal trajectory

Donahue’s analysis of the head shot suggested that the bullet had come not from the right rear, i.e. the direction of the Texas School Book Depository, but from the left rear. He studied aerial photographs of the area to identify possible sniper sites. The only two possible were Government offices, and it seemed unlikely that anyone could fire from these undetected unless they used the roof, in which case the angle of descent was all wrong. He then thought about the fragmenting bullet. Who would use such ammunition? The answer was clear. Bodyguards. A full metal jacket bullet, which could pierce several people would never be used by someone who might have to fire into a crowd. Bodyguards used frangible bullets that caused a wound massive enough to instantly immobilise the enemy but wouldn’t pass through and hit a bystander. Donahue was able to identify who the Secret Service men were in the motorcade but when he made enquiries, he was told that the only information available was that they carried standard issue .38 calibre revolvers and no shots were fired by any of them.

A short while after, Donahue was able to interview the State Medical Examiner who had been involved in an enquiry into the assassination. He confirmed that the fatal bullet had disintegrated into about 40 tiny fragments. He also confirmed that from the photos and x rays, the position of the entrance wound on the back of the skull was higher than described in the original notes, and he had discovered a metal fragment 6.5 millimetres in diameter embedded in the outer part of the skull, which he had assumed to be a ricochet wound. The newly confirmed position of the entry wound meant that the trajectory was shallow and downward. There was another curious fact. The doctors involved in the enquiry had been denied access to samples which would have enabled them to identify from minute particles of metal, the type of bullet that had been used.


According to the Warren Commission, one of Oswald’s three shots missed. They couldn’t say which one it was, but thought it was probably the second. But supposing it had been the first? The bullet would have hit the pavement, and shattered into pieces. One of these might well have hit Kennedy on the head, which would explain the witness hearing Kennedy call out that he’d been hit after the first shot. This also resolved the problems with Connally’s testimony. It had been assumed that the President’s raised hands were grabbing at his throat after the first shot, but Donahue thought that they might just as easily have been raised to protect his face or head. At frame 230 his right fist is in front of his mouth. At frame 237 just before Connally’s reaction, Kennedy’s elbows fly up. Donahue thought it was very possible that this was in fact the moment of impact of the neck shot. Close study of the testimony to the Warren Commission revealed that there were five witnesses who had seen something strike the pavement. There were also some large bullet fragments found in the presidential limousine, which the Commission concluded were fragments from the head shot. Donahue was able to examine these fragments. He found that the distortion of the pieces was consistent with them having hit something like concrete, and there were no traces of cranial tissue in the folds. Donahue was puzzled. The Warren Commission had stated that one of Oswald’s shots had missed, and here was evidence that this had happened. Why were they insisting that it was the second shot that had missed, especially when the theory that it was the first one ironed out several anomalies? He sketched the trajectory of the ricochet bullet from the depository and it went on to the middle tunnel of the triple overpass. A witness had been standing there and had testified that he had been hit in the face by a fragment

Line of Fire

Another thing was worrying Donahue. As he combed the Warren Commission testimony he found several reports by people who said they had smelled gunpowder after hearing the shots, people in very different locations. He didn’t see how this could be possible.

Now that he had a more accurate location of the entry and exit wounds of the head shot, he made drillings though a plaster skull, inserted a wooden dowel and placed the skull at the angle shown in the Zapruder film just before the head shot. He went back to his picture of the site and extended the shallow trajectory line backwards. It passed directly over the following Secret Service car and extended back towards the Dallas County Records Building. Donahue studied the photographs that were taken at the time of the assassination, and found that the agent in the back of the following car was sitting high up on the left rear seat. If a shot had been fired from the records building it would have hit him. Could the agent have fired the shot? He had been told that the agents had carried standard issue .38 calibre revolvers. There had been other guns, but no details had been released, and he was unable to find out any more. But such a theory did explain three things – the scent of gunpowder dispersed along the plaza, the exploding ammunition, and the refusal of the government to provide samples to medical examiners. (The brain and these samples are now officially missing)


Time passed without further developments. Donahue opened his own gun shop, and continued to establish his reputation as a firearms expert in legal cases. One thing he was very aware of – how easy it was for even a experienced gunman to accidentally discharge a gun.

One day in 1976 a friend gave him a copy of a book called The Death of A President by William Manchester, the semi-official account of the assassination. There, he found what he had been looking for for years. It described how agent George Hickey who had been sitting the left rear seat of the secret service car behind the presidential limousine, had with him an AR-15 rifle which he was waving about at the time of the shooting. Donahue scoured the testimony again and found a reference to Hickey standing up in his seat and then falling backwards. One witness had actually thought that Hickey had fired at someone. Agent Bennett seated beside Hickey said that when he heard the fatal shot he reached for the rifle between them but Hickey had already picked it up. Hickey’s own statement had indicated he had picked up his gun after the last shot but this was contradicted by others who saw him with it at the time of the shot. And it was also started that the gun was kept in the bottom of the car “ready to go”, i.e. cocked and loaded.


There was never much doubt in Donahue’s mind that if Hickey had fired the head shot it was accidental. This fact must surely have been known to the secret service men there at the time. When Clint Hill (the man seen climbing onto the back of the President’s limousine just after the shooting) telephoned the White House he said “There has been an accident”, and the secret service removed the body from Parkland hospital firmly and illegally, despite the Dallas medical examiner’s insistence than an autopsy must by law be performed before the body could be shipped out of the state. After a major confrontation he was shoved aside and the casket removed. Of course there would have to be a cover up. Such an accident would tarnish the Secret Service, tarnish the memory of JFK, which was why the Warren Commission had insisted the bullet fragments found in the car came from the head shot – they were ballistically matched to Oswald’s rifle.

How Many Shots?

Donahue thought that the evidence suggested that Oswald had fired only two shots and not three. Witnesses in the School Book Depository at he time said that they had heard two shots. One of the three spent shells found was dented and marked and Donahue thought it could have been used for dry firings. It might also have been left in after Oswald’s attempt to kill Major General Walker earlier that year. Donahue’s conclusions were that a total of three shots had been fired, one by Hickey, two by Oswald. Of course, none of Donahue’s researches concerned themselves with political matters or considered whether Oswald was part of a conspiracy or a “patsy” as he himself claimed. Donahue’s theory is compatible with either the conspiracy or the “lone nut” theories. (There have been suggestions since that four shots were fired, based on a police recording taken at the time, but analysis of the recording has revealed that double channels were open and therefore this cannot be relied upon)


As Donahue continued to research into the AR-15 he became more convinced that the characteristics of the ammunition would have produced exactly the kind of wound suffered by Kennedy. He also found a description of the entrance wound as 6mm in diameter. The AR-15 ammunition was 5.56 mm in diameter as compared to the Mannlicher-Carcano’s of 6.5mm, and an entrance wound in bone cannot shrink. His certainty hardened. A later medical report based on further examination of the x-rays was especially interesting since it suggested that the neck wound had been more serious than at first thought, and would in all probability have proved fatal in any case. Donahue had always had profound sympathy for Hickey, and now he would be able to offer him reassurance that the head shot had struck an already doomed man.

Donahue did not like the idea of revealing Hickey’s name even though he had written about his theory, and although he had traced him, he hesitated before trying to contact him. But he needed to talk to Hickey, to get his side of the story. In particular, the results of the gun tests that had been run after the shooting on all the agents’ weapons had never been made available. He attempted many times to get in touch with Hickey, explaining his sympathy, the fact that he was sure it was an accident, the fact that he felt the President would have died in any case. All to no avail. Hickey did not respond. Other Secret Service agents have given their opinion that Donahue’s conclusions are “A load of bullshit”.

Linda Stratmann

"I love writing about crime, especially Victorian crime. Before the launch of my fiction series set in Bayswater in the 1880s I researched and wrote true crime and historical biography.

It is that fascination for the nineteenth century and those contradictory Victorians that I now bring to my fiction writing. Frances Doughty’s adventures are only just beginning!"

Linda Stratmann
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