The Death of JFK, Part 2: Trigger, Trigger! Who Pulled the Trigger?

Read here for Part 1: Five Things We Now Know

Continuing with…

U.S. Marine Rifle Sharpshooter badgeOswald’s Weapons Training

Inevitably, in any discussion of the Kennedy assassination, the question of Oswald’s ability to make the shots that killed President Kennedy is hotly debated. And rightly so. Both sides of the argument use Oswald’s marksmanship record with the U.S. Marines to support their positions. But let’s set aside agendas and look objectively as possible at the facts.

Recently, while doing research on this post, I watched a BBC program called “Infamous Assassinations.”  It boldly pronounced, “Lee Harvey Oswald had once been a sharpshooter in the Marine Corps.”  No, not true. He was a radar operator and never served as a sharpshooter.  There is no such rating in the U.S. Marine Corps. They do have snipers, but that is a completely separate thing. Sharpshooter is the middle of three qualification levels that all Marines have to achieve–from cooks to dental assistants–at their yearly weapons qualifications. We know two facts: the first time he qualified, it was two points above the minimum score for sharpshooter. The second time, he barely qualified at all. But do not mistake that, as so many lone gunman supporters have, as some sort of sniper rating.  Neither rating confers on him any sort of special ability. It’s actually pretty common.

 Most of the critics, who hang their hats on this, apparently know nothing about the US military. Each and every graduate of basic training or boot camp, must qualify as at least a marksman or they can’t graduate. Oswald was not a trained Marine sniper. This is not sniper training, but simple, basic marksmanship. If it was that difficult, we wouldn’t have a standing army. And the concept of some trainees receiving a little “help” to get them over the hump hasn’t been unknown either.  

Today, statistics indicate that, for the Army and Marines, washout rates in basic training range between 10% and 17%, and that is all washouts for all reasons, not just the ones that don’t make it through marksmanship training. I went through basic in 1975 at Ft. Knox, KY. From a company of about 160 men, maybe one washed-out because of marksmanship training.  And let’s not forget another thing: military marksmanship in the 1950s did not include firing at moving targets. The comment that Oswald was, by virtue of his training, a better marksman than the average person, might—I said might—have been true in the immediate aftermath of boot camp. But marksmanship is a skill like any other; the less you practice, the more your skills grow rusty. And there is not a single, documented occasion of Oswald’s practicing with any rifle, including the now infamous Mannlicher-Carcano, between his discharge from the Marines and November 22, 1963, unless you count the bungled attempt on General Edwin Walker—hardly an auspicious start to Oswald’s young career as a sniper, if that’s what it was, and there are questions about even that. 

None of this means Oswald wasn’t the shooter. But it doesn’t provide any support to prove that he was. In fact, there’s very little that does argue for him as the shooter, outside of his three-year tenure as a U.S. Marine. And he had been out of the Marines for four years at the time of the assassination.

Despite all of this, could Oswald have been the shooter? Sure. When I was about thirteen and playing around on our farm with a BB gun, I shot down one of those big black-and-yellow bumblebees hovering in the air about twenty paces away. I just spun around and shot it. Pure, unadulterated luck (for me, not the bee). Oswald could have had the same kind of fortune. But I was shooting a BB gun at an insect.  Oswald, who, as far as we know, had never before killed a man, was allegedly shooting a rifle at the leader of the free world and scored two out of three hits.

Man!  That’s a lot of luck.


John F. Kennedy's motorcade on Elm St. in Dallas as it passes the Texas School Book Depository
John F. Kennedy’s motorcade on Elm St. in Dallas as it passes the Texas School Book Depository
The Secret Service Did It!                                                              

The theories that revolve around Kennedy’s Secret Service detail seem a little more far-fetched to me than your run-of-the-mill theories. These are epitomized by the recent Reelz channel documentary, JFK: The Smoking Gun, offering the idea that Secret Service agent George Hickey, riding in the car immediately behind the presidential limousine, shot Kennedy by accident.  But it’s a thirty-year old story that brought a lawsuit down on its publisher, on Howard Donahue, the originator of the theory, and Bonar Menninger, author of the book on the theory, Mortal Error.

Among the problems with these theories is that, while witnesses did report smelling gunpowder at street level, no one saw a Secret Service agent pull the trigger on JFK.  There were reports about an agent in the follow-up car holding a rifle, but the Secret Service has never denied that.  Even if, as alleged by many theorists, the famous Zapruder film was altered, someone on the ground would almost have to have seen it, seen something.

And this theory does nothing to explain the riddle that is Lee Harvey Oswald.

Did the Secret Service commit errors that day? Absolutely. A number of them had been out drinking late at a Ft. Worth bar the night before, in contradiction of agency policy. And the highhanded and illegal way that they literally stole JFK’s body at Parkland, when state law dictated that the autopsy be done in Dallas, simply created a kaleidoscope of suspicions that have fed conspiracy theories ever since. If the Secret Service agents are annoyed or offended at all the theories, they have themselves to blame, at least partially.

This is Part 2 of a three-part series. Next, a look at some of the remaining questions about Oswald, the cipher, and where we stand, 50 years later.

When Tony Hays isn’t traveling the world, teaching students, and adopting puppies, he takes time out to write the Arthurian Mystery series from Tor/Forge.

See all posts by Tony Hays for Criminal Element.


  1. Britton

    The book that puts an end to the debate and conspiracies is Roger Stone’s new explosive book The Man Who Killed Kennedy: The Case Against LBJ: [url=][/url]

  2. T. Hays

    The one thing that has always drawn me back to the LBJ theory is the fingerprint found in the so-called sniper’s nest. The gentleman, whose name escapes me now, that was a fingerprint expert and matched it to Malcolm Wallace, one of LBJ’s hatchetmen, seemed completely believable to me.

  3. dbrown

    LBJ had motive, means and opportunity. LBJ hated JFK, on many levels. First and foremost, LBJ loved power and wanted to be president. JFK was in his way. LBJ was a conservative and only ran with JFK so they could both get elected. Being a democratic VP, LBJ couldn’t really run as a republican canditate and wouldn’t get elected. An easy way to become president? If you’re the VP and the president dies… LBJ had powerful ties in the federal government, along with the Texas state and local goverments.

    It is odd that Tony Hays never mentions LBJ as a suspect.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *