By Bonar Menninger
This story offers additional information about the theory that President John F. Kennedy was inadvertently shot by one of his own Secret Service agents, as chronicled in the 1992 book, Mortal Error, and reported in the October 2017 Medium story, Hidden in Plain Sight.
From the moment Baltimore gunsmith Howard Donahue reluctantly concluded in 1977 that ballistic evidence proved President Kennedy was mistakenly shot by Secret Service agent George Hickey on November 22, 1963, he assumed the agent had involuntarily squeezed the trigger of his AR15 as he lost his balance in the back of the open follow-up car amid the bedlam of Lee Harvey Oswald’s attack.
Donahue’s theory upended conventional wisdom about the assassination, etched the president’s death in the darkest of irony and raised questions about what might have been. Had the presidential limousine not braked suddenly after Oswald opened fire, the chain reaction that led to Hickey’s shot might not have occurred.
But a little-known defect in the earliest model AR15 now raises the possibility that Hickey may not have been directly responsible for the accident after all. Rather, his firearm may have discharged on its own, without the agent ever touching the trigger. The design flaw — recently brought to light by a retired Southern California law enforcement officer — produced a phenomenon known as slamfire, or the unintended discharge of a cartridge as the rifle’s bolt closes but before the trigger is pulled.
The prospect that Hickey’s rifle went off without warning just as he stood and cocked the weapon offers an alternative explanation for why ballistic evidence from Kennedy’s head wound points to an AR15 .223 bullet and not the 6.5-millimeter projectile Oswald fired. The scenario may also help explain why Hickey chose never to speak of the events in Dallas nor personally respond to Donahue’s allegations.
A revolutionary weapon
Originally developed in the mid-1950s by ArmaLite, a small, California-based division of Fairchild Industries, the AR15 was a breakthrough infantry weapon that incorporated lightweight aircraft materials, including aluminum and high-strength plastic, in its construction. The idea was to create a light (6.5 pounds) but lethal select-fire (automatic and semi-automatic) rifle that could stand up to the highly effective AK-47 carried by Communist soldiers and insurgents. Although no branch of the U.S. armed forces was yet interested in the rifle, the AR15’s design was sold to Colt Industries and production began in December 1959.
U.S. Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay had a chance to test-fire an AR15 at a Fourth of July picnic in 1960 hosted by friend and Fairchild president Richard S. Boutelle. The general was impressed with the rifle’s unique combination of light weight, ease-of-use and devastating firepower. Despite widespread resistance to the new weapon across the military’s weapons design and procurement community, LeMay authorized the order of 8,500 model 601s for Air Force security forces in the spring of 1962. Soon after, the Navy purchased a smaller number of the rifles to equip its SEAL teams.
Opposition to the AR15 stemmed largely from an entrenched institutional bias toward the more traditional, larger-caliber M14 select-fire rifle. Even though test results showed the AR15 was superior to the M-14 in virtually every respect, detractors continued to criticize the AR’s small, .223 caliber cartridge and the lightweight materials used in its construction. As a result, extensive field trials of the 601 were ordered by the Department of Defense (DOD) in 1963 to assess the weapon’s capabilities. With luck, the tests would show the revolutionary rifle was both robust and reliable enough for combat service, thereby paving the way for its adoption across all four service branches.
As it turned out, the AR15 again performed exceptionally during these trials, save for one major, potentially fatal flaw: The slamfire defect. As detailed in the authoritative book, The Black Rifle: M16 Retrospective, by R. Blake Stevens and Edward C. Ezell, the weapon’s propensity to discharge unexpectedly without the trigger being pulled ultimately was linked to a heavier-than-necessary firing pin.
Engineers discovered the AR15 would sometimes fire when the charging handle or cocking device was pulled back and released, which allowed the spring-loaded bolt and firing pin mechanism to move forward, strip a cartridge from the magazine and load a round into the rifle’s chamber. Because the free-floating firing pin had too much mass relative to the .223 primer, momentum would occasionally carry the pin forward to make contact with the cartridge primer as the bolt came to a sudden stop. The impact would have just enough force to compress the fulminated mercury in the primer, create a spark, ignite the powder in the cartridge case and discharge a bullet.
The record doesn’t indicate how frequently slamfire events occurred during the 1963 trials. But even if the incidence was low, the firing pin’s potentially catastrophic effects led DOD to require resolution of the problem as a condition for awarding its first ever service-wide AR15 contract. A lighter pin was quickly designed and tested and the slamfire problem was eliminated. DOD contract #508 worth $13.5 million for 104,000 of what was now designated the M16 was awarded to Colt on November 4, 1963 — less than three weeks before the president’s trip to Dallas, according to The Black Rifle.
“Ironically, it was a design glitch they were in the middle of addressing when Kennedy was killed,” the retired law enforcement officer said.
Locked and loaded?
The AR15 Hickey carried in Dallas was most assuredly a model 601 (it was the only production version of the rifle available at the time) and therefore equipped with the heavier, unmodified firing pin. It remains unclear how or when the Secret Service acquired the rifle. Several photographs show President Kennedy and his military aide, Gen. Chester Clifton, inspecting an AR15 at the White House in April 1963. It is possible Kennedy himself was responsible for ensuring the new weapon ended up in the hands of his protection detail. It is even conceivable the rifle shown in the president’s hands was the one Hickey carried in Dealey Plaza.
If slamfire did cause the head shot, it would mean Hickey yanked back the charging handle with one hand as he started to lift the gun with his other, then released the handle the instant the barrel was pointing downrange toward the president’s head and just as the shot’s trajectory cleared the top of the follow-up car windshield. This sequence of events would require that — contrary to Howard Donahue’s belief — the rifle was not loaded as the motorcade made its way through Dallas.
Donahue always assumed Hickey’s rifle had a cartridge in the chamber and that the agent had simply flipped the safety off as he stood to return fire. The gunsmith based this supposition on the Warren Commission testimony of Secret Service agent Roy Kellerman, who said the rifle on the floor of the follow-up car was “ready to go,” a statement Donahue took to mean the gun was cocked and ready to fire.
While this scenario remains valid, it is equally possible that, for safety’s sake, Hickey would not have chambered a round at the outset of the parade and did so only after it became clear the presidential party was under attack.
There is also a third possibility: The AR15’s design allows the bolt to be locked in the rearward position by pulling the charging handle back and depressing the bolt catch on the left side of the receiver. The bolt can then be released to instantly advance a cartridge into the chamber by pressing the bolt release above the bolt catch. If Hickey was carrying the rifle in this condition to optimize safe handling but still enable an immediate threat response, slamfire could have just as easily occurred when he pressed the bolt release as he began to stand and turn toward the Texas School Book Depository.
A true accident
Skeptics no doubt will argue that, like Donahue’s original theory, the mindboggling coincidence at the heart of the slamfire scenario — Hickey’s rifle just happened to be pointing precisely at Kennedy’s head the instant it discharged — stretches plausibility beyond the breaking point. But isn’t an inverse relationship between probability and consequence the essence of a tragic accident or terrible mistake? And doesn’t disaster often result when seemingly random circumstances, events and decisions coalesce in a once-in-a-lifetime sequence, like the lost numbers on a combination lock?
In truth, the odds of a bullet from Hickey’s rifle striking the president — just 20 feet away and downrange right of center — began to rise the instant the agent picked up the weapon and continued to increase exponentially as he stood, started to turn, and swept the barrel from left to right across his range of vision to the front.
And while the slamfire scenario alters the complexion of Donahue’s friendly fire theory, it does not diminish it. On the contrary, an unintended, mechanically induced discharge essentially doubles the circumstances or conditions through which a shot from Hickey’s rifle could have taken place. What’s more, the spotty quality of early .223 ammunition — notably high primers that did not seat evenly with the base of the casing and were therefore hyper-sensitive to firing pin strikes — could have made the weapon even more prone to an unintended discharge.
Whether the Secret Service was aware of the AR15’s deadly flaw in 1963 is unknown. But it seems unlikely the follow-up car would have been equipped with the weapon if the agency had knowledge of the problem. One can only imagine the horror and confusion Hickey experienced if the rifle did discharge due to a slamfire event.
What is clear is that a slamfire incident would have done nothing to mitigate a desire to suppress the truth among those in the know. Whether caused by human or mechanical error, an unintended shot from the Secret Service that ended up killing the very man they were supposed to protect represented a gargantuan mistake that, if publicized, would likely have destroyed the agency. It is telling that the Secret Service, without explanation, stopped using the AR15 immediately after Dallas.
Martin K.A. Morgan, a firearms and military historian with encyclopedic knowledge of the AR15’s early development, believes the slamfire scenario is not only plausible, but probable. Morgan has previously noted that another early design feature of the Model 601 — its relatively loose rifling twist rate — likely contributed to the cavernous, devastating nature of the wound suffered by President Kennedy.
“Slamfire really spans the gulf between personal negligence on the part of Hickey and a truly accidental discharge,” Morgan said. “I have always thought Donahue’s theory was the most logical and scientifically sound explanation for what happened in Dallas. The idea that it was simply a mechanical error takes the onus off Hickey but is consistent with the ballistic evidence Donahue assembled. To me, it’s extremely compelling.”
Petty jealousies and criminal negligence
As for the AR15, the controversy surrounding the star-crossed rifle did not abate once the slamfire problem was resolved and the weapon was officially adopted by the U.S. armed forces in 1963. Quite the opposite: Institutional opposition to the rifle among many in the military’s small arms community metastasized with unconscionable results as the 1960s wore on.
After essentially being forced to accept the M16 over their preferred but inferior M14, Army ordnance personnel retaliated by unilaterally ordering a change in the powder used in the M16’s .223 cartridge. Instead of the powder the rifle had been designed for, a substitute was employed that dangerously accelerated the weapon’s cyclical rate of fire. The visionary designer of the AR15’s prototype, Eugene Stoner, vehemently opposed this change and warned that it would have profoundly negative consequences on the weapon’s performance and reliability. As writer James Fallows documented in the seminal 1981 Atlantic article M16: A Bureaucratic Horror Story, Stoner’s warnings were borne out by a series of tests that showed the rifle was six times more likely to malfunction when the alternate powder was used.
The Army nonetheless stuck with the ill-suited, mismatched powder, and when the M16 began arriving in Vietnam in 1965, the results were predictable and horrendous. By the time the weapon had reached most fighting units in early 1967, reports were filtering back in letters home about the rifle’s notorious unreliability. The first word that surfaced publicly came from an unidentified New Jersey Marine:
“Do you know what killed most of us? Our own rifles… the M-16. Practically every one of our dead [in a recent battle] was found with his rifle torn down next to him where he was trying to fix it.”
The Army responded to mounting outcry about the M16’s performance by claiming soldiers simply weren’t cleaning the weapon properly. But a congressional investigation in 1967 found otherwise. They concluded ordnance personnel could offer no conceivable justification for changing the powder and stated that to continue using it after tests showed how dramatically it affected the rifle “bordered on criminal negligence.”
Changes were subsequently made to accommodate the new powder and reduce the weapon’s tendency to foul and malfunction, but the Army never went back to the original powder recommended by the M16’s designer and manufacturer. And no individual within the Army’s faceless bureaucracy was ever held to account for the untold deaths that resulted from their decision.