Unreliable Ammo?

Like so many of the firearms factoids, the claim that Mannlicher-Carcano ammunition was unreliable traces back to Sylvia Meagher, and her 1967 book Accessories After the Fact. Meagher quotes (on page 113) Commission Exhibit 2694, an FBI report:
On March 23, 1964, Mr. R.W. Botts, District Manager, Winchester-Western Division, Olin Mathieson Chemical Corporation, Braniff Building, advised [that] the Western Cartridge Company, a division of Olin Industries, East Alton, Illinois, manufactured a quantity of 6.5 M/M Mannlicher-Carcano ammunition for the Italian Government during World War II. At the end of the war the Italian Carcano rifle, and no telling how much of this type ammunition, was sold to United States gun brokers and dealers and subsequently was distributed by direct sales to wholesalers, retailers, and individual purchasers.
Meagher has already admitted (on page 112) that the Warren Commission said that the Western Cartridge Company ammo used by Oswald was "recently" manufactured and that the company "currently" manufactured the rounds (quoting the Warren Commission Report, p. 646). She then goes on to say:
To investigate this startling contradiction between the Report and the FBI document, I wrote the Western Cartridge Company on the chance that Mr. Botts was mistaken and the Report was accurate in its assertions.

An official of the Company replied in a letter of April 1965 that the ammunition had once been produced under a government contract but was no longer available. Further inquiry elicited a letter dated April 20, 1965 in which the manufacturer states frankly that the reliability of the ammunition still in circulation today is questionable.


From all this, it may be inferred that the statement in the Report is sheer fabrication, employed to rebut a serious criticism of the official theory when the evidence, in fact, sustains that criticism. (p. 113)

Dallas Police Lt. J.C. Day with Oswald's Mannlicher-Carcano rifle
Oswald's Ammunition came from one of the four lots pictured here
Meagher really is grasping at straws here, since Commission Exhibit 399 (the "stretcher bullet") was ballistically matched to Oswald's rifle to the exclusion of all other weapons. Also matched were two large fragments found in the front seat of the presidential limo after the shooting (presumably from the head shot). So Oswald (or whoever was firing his gun) apparently got lucky. Worse, for Meagher's argument, using cheap unreliable ammo isn't something that professional assassins would do. It's more like something a lone assassin with very little money would do.

But even on the issue of reliability, Meagher is simply wrong. What she has done is to latch onto a single FBI report, and ignore much better evidence in the testimony of FBI firearms expert Robert Frazier.

Mr. EISENBERG. Mr. Frazier, can you give an estimate of the total number of bullets fired in the various tests made with this rifle?
Mr. FRAZIER. Approximately 60 rounds.
Mr. EISENBERG. And were all of these rounds 6.5 mm. Western Mannlicher-Carcano ammunition?
Mr. FRAZIER. Yes, sir.
Mr. EISENBERG. Did you have any misfires?
Mr. FRAZIER. No, sir.
Mr. EISENBERG. Did you find the ammunition dependable?
Mr. FRAZIER. Very dependable.
Mr. EISENBERG. Can you think of any reason why someone might think this is an undependable type of ammunition?
Mr. FRAZIER. No, sir; The Western Cartridge Co. has always manufactured, in my experience, very dependable ammunition. There is other ammunition on the market available for this particular rifle in this caliber, which in my opinion is undependable or would be a very poor quality of ammunition. It may have been a confusion between that other ammunition of the same caliber and this Western ammunition. (3H437-438)
In separate tests, the Infantry Weapons Evaluation Branch of the U.S. Army fired another 47 bullets, with no misfires. (3H449)

But the Warren Commission tests were not the last.

Dr. John Nichols and Dr. John Lattimer independently did extensive shooting tests with Mannlicher-Carcano rifles and the same lots of ammo that Oswald used. Lattimer summarized the results:

Our final question concerned Oswald's ammunition: Was it reliable? To test this, we fired 700 rounds of the same type of cartridge as those used by Oswald (from sub-lots 6000, 6001, 6002, 6003), manufactured by the Western Cartridge Company, a branch of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, in the same year as those used by Oswald.

None of these rounds failed to fire, even though an additional four years had elapsed since the Kennedy shooting, making this ammunition thirteen years old at the time of the testing. Dr. John Nichols had reported the same degree of dependability, and the FBI agents [and Army shooters] who fired ammunition from lots 6000 and 6003 with Oswald's rifle more than 100 times also reported no failures to fire. These various samples represented every lot manufactured, so they much have included the lot from which Oswald's ammunition came.

In all, more than 900 rounds of this Western Cartridge Company 6.5 mm. ammunition have been fired in our experiments and those of others without a single failure to fire on the first attempt. (Kennedy and Lincoln, pp. 288-289)

As is usual with this case, one detail is unclear. The document that Meagher quotes implies (but does not state) that no ammunition for the Mannlicher-Carcano had been manufactured since World War II. The Warren Commission asserted that Western Cartridge Company ammo for the rifle was being "currently" manufactured. And Lattimer says that the four lots that he tested — which must have included the lots that Oswald used — were manufactured "around 1954" (Kennedy and Lincoln, p. 287).

But the verdict on the ammo that Oswald used is clear: it was quite reliable.

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