Oswald’s Rifle and Paraffin Tests

The Case Against Oswald

Find out more in 22 November 1963, recently published as a paperback and ebook.

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22 November 1963: A Brief Guide to the JFK Assassination

Not only was the Warren Commission unable to demonstrate that Oswald had committed the crime alone, but two important pieces of evidence showed that he had almost certainly not played any part in the shooting:

  • the poor physical condition of the rifle
  • and the absence of gunpowder residues on Oswald’s cheeks.

The Condition of the Sixth–Floor Rifle

The experts from the US Army and the FBI who had tested the rifle discovered that it was actually not usable in its original state:

  • Shims had to be applied to the telescopic sight before the rifle could be aimed.1
  • Even after the telescopic sight had been repaired, it proved unreliable and inaccurate.2
  • The condition of both the bolt and the trigger pull meant that the rifle could not be aimed accurately.3

The rifle discovered on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository could not have caused any of the wounds to Kennedy, Connally or Tague, except by accident.

Oswald’s Paraffin Test

A few hours after the assassination, Oswald underwent a test that was routinely carried out on those suspected of having fired a gun. Liquid paraffin wax was spread on his hands and his right cheek. When hardened, the paraffin wax would extract from deep in the pores of his skin any fine residues given off by the firing of a gun, even if he had washed his skin in the meantime.

Barium and antimony, which are found in gunpowder residues, are also found in several common substances such as printing ink, which Oswald certainly had handled on the morning of the assassination. The presence of these substances is not sufficient evidence of having fired a gun, but their absence is sufficient evidence of having not fired a gun.

In other words:

  • Firing a gun would deposit barium and antimony on parts of the skin close to the gun.
  • If barium and antimony were found on Oswald’s skin, they may have been deposited by the firing of a gun. But they may instead have been deposited by other means: for example, the handling of books.
  • If barium and antimony were not found on Oswald’s skin, he almost certainly did not fire a gun.

Three Tests Proved Oswald’s Innocence

Test 1: Spectrographic Analysis

Oswald’s paraffin casts were subjected to two analyses. Spectrographic analysis, the method normally used by the police, showed evidence of barium and antimony on Oswald's hands, but not on his cheek.4

Test 2: Neutron Activation Analysis on Oswald

Spectrographic analysis was considered sufficiently reliable for criminal investigations, but in this case a more incisive test was also used. Neutron activation analysis, which is capable of identifying the presence of substances in quantities much too small to be captured by spectrographic analysis, also showed no incriminating quantities of residues on Oswald’s cheek.5 The result was reported in an internal Warren Commission memo: “At best, the analysis shows that Oswald may have fired a pistol, although this is by no means certain. … There is no basis for concluding that he also fired a rifle.”6

Test 3: Controlled Neutron Activation Analysis

In order to check the validity of the neutron activation analysis of Oswald’s paraffin casts, a controlled test was made. Seven marksmen fired a rifle of the same type as that found on the sixth floor. The standard paraffin test was administered, and the paraffin casts were subjected to neutron activation analysis. All seven subjects showed substantial amounts of barium and antimony on their hands and, more importantly, on their cheeks.7

The absence of significant quantities of residues on Oswald’s cheek meant that he almost certainly had not fired a rifle that day.

Oswald’s Involvement in the Assassination

Although Lee Oswald was strongly associated with the rifle and bullet shells that were discovered on the sixth floor of the TSBD, it is extremely unlikely that he fired that rifle on the day of the assassination. The only realistic conclusion is that the evidence was planted, and that he had been framed.

Notes

  1. “They [the US Army marksmen] could not sight the weapon in using the telescope, and no attempt was made to sight it in using the iron sight. We did adjust the telescopic sight by the addition of two shims, one which tended to adjust the azimuth, and one which adjusted an elevation”: Warren Commission Hearings, vol.3, p.443.
  2. According to the FBI’s firearms specialist, “Every time we changed the adjusting screws to move the crosshairs in the telescopic sight in one direction it also affected the movement of the impact or the point of impact in the other direction. … We fired several shots and found that the shots were not all landing in the same place, but were gradually moving away from the point of impact.”: Warren Commission Hearings, vol.3, p.405.
  3. Problems with the bolt and the trigger mechanism: “There were several comments made — particularly with respect to the amount of effort required to open the bolt. … There was also comment made about the trigger pull … in the first stage the trigger is relatively free, and it suddenly required a greater pull to actually fire the weapon.”: Warren Commission Hearings, vol.3, p.449. “The pressure to open the bolt was so great that that we tended to move the rifle off the target.”: ibid., p.451.
  4. According to an FBI memo, “The results show Punctate traces of nitrate found in the paraffin on the right and left hands consistent with that of a person who handled or fired a firearm. The paraffin of right check [sic] showed no traces of nitrate.”: FBI HQ JFK Assassination File, 62–109060–8.
  5. The presence of almost identical, small quantities of barium and antimony both on the inside of the cast, which had touched Oswald’s cheek, and the outside, which had not, suggests that the cast had become contaminated. The results were complicated by the fact that they were conducted later than the spectrographic tests, which involved applying chemicals to the casts, then washing the casts. This has the effect of removing substantial amounts of barium and small amounts of antimony. The apparent contamination of the paraffin cast of Oswald’s right cheek allowed the Warren Report unjustifiably to discard the evidence of the neutron activation analysis; see Warren Report, p.562, which incorrectly states that both of Oswald’s hands tested negative.
  6. Memo from Redlich to Dulles, 2 July 1964, Investigation and Evidence File, RG 272, Series 12, box 4, folder 3, National Archives. The FBI’s message to the Warren Commission that “as a result of these [neutron activation analysis] examinations, the deposits found on the paraffin casts from the hands and cheek of Oswald could not be specifically associated with the rifle cartridges” (FBI HQ Oswald File, 105–82555–94) is a red herring. All those involved knew that NAA can only identify the presence of particular elements, and cannot distinguish between the sources of those elements.
  7. Even after the control casts had undergone the same chemical treatment as Oswald’s casts, they still displayed substantial amounts of both barium and antimony. See Harold Weisberg, Post Mortem: JFK Assassination Cover–Up Smashed, Weisberg, 1975, p.437. Because the tests required the use of a nuclear reactor, they were carried out on behalf of the FBI at a reactor owned by the Atomic Energy Commission. Before the neutron activation analyses were made, it had been decided that “any such examinations will, of course, be with the strict understanding that the information and dissemination of the results will be under complete FBI control”: FBI HQ JFK File, 62–109060–5. The results of the NAA controlled test were made public two decades after the assassination as the result of a court case, and are available in the Harold Weisberg Archive, Hood College, Frederick, Maryland. The case was Weisberg v. ERDA and the Department of Justice, Civil Action 75–226 (by the time of the court case, the AEC had been absorbed into the ERDA).

Paperback and E–Book

22 November 1963: A Brief Guide to the JFK Assassination

22 November 1963 : The Book

  • A clear and readable explanation of the central issues in the JFK assassination.
  • Fully referenced, with more than 400 footnotes.
  • Essential reading for experts and beginners alike, whatever your opinion about the assassination.
  • Available as a paperback and in two ebook formats: Kindle and EPUB.

Find Out About:

  • the case against Oswald — its strengths and weaknesses;
  • Oswald’s apparent visit to Mexico City a few weeks before the assassination — the crucial event which caused the Warren Commission to be set up;
  • the official investigations — and why they failed to solve the crime;
  • the medical evidence — the reason why the case remains controversial;
  • the political context of the JFK assassination;
  • and how to interpret the many contradictory theories associated with the event.

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