Ballistics & Forensic Experts on the JFK Head Shot

Compiled by Joel Grant

Excerpts from testimony of Alfred G. Olivier, DVM to Rockefeller Commission, April 18, 1975. Transcript of testimony taken beginning at page 21 of the testimony. Dr. Olivier, (A.) a wound ballistics scientist, is being questioned by Robert Olsen. (Q.)

Q. Can you describe for us very briefly the kinds of studies that you have been engaged in over these 18 years? Describe for us briefly, if you will, what kinds of studies you have made of the reactions of animal bodies or human bodies to high velocity bullets being fired into the various portions of those bodies?

A. Animals are used for -- goats are the experimental animal of choice, and also there is less public empathy with a goat than there is with other types of experimental animals. And you need something fairly large approaching a human. Goats have been used for years. And in the course of those studies one thing we had noted -- people say a gun has great knockdown power. So we tried to see which weapons had the best knockdown power. So in examining goats that were shot with various weapons we found out that no small arm as we know it, shoulder fired weapon, has knockdown power. As many goats fell toward the weapon as fell away, or fell straight down. And we looked into it a little further as to what is happening. Well, when they are hit in the central nervous system, the head, the spinal cord, it apparently sends impulses down the system, non-regulated impulses. And what happens is, an animal -- and it doesn't matter whether they are anesthetized or unanesthetized -- an animal shot in the head, the legs fly up, the bullet passes through, and all of a sudden you see this reaction of the front legs coming up and the hind legs swinging out. Naturally in a timeframe it takes place in fractions of a second, so fast that you wouldn't see it with the naked eye, you would merely see the animal fall, but on a high speed motion picture you can see the process.


Q. What is your opinion, based upon the expertise that you have acquired in these 18 years at the Edgewood Arsenal in wound ballistics, with respect to the question of the direction from which the bullet came that struck the President in the head?

A. Well, the President in 313, the head appears to have moved slightly forward from the previous frame. Now, I say appears, because unless you measured this precisely you don't know. But it appears to have moved slightly.

And this would not be inconsistent with the momentum of the bullet being transferred to the head. Whereas I said a bullet cannot knock a person down or move a body in any violent way, it could conceivably move the head a little bit. We fired at human skulls filled with gelatin sitting on the table, and they would roll off the table. And this apparent side movement of the head is in the correct direction if the bullet came from the book depository.

Q. That is, from the rear of the President?

A. From the rear of the President.

Q. Now, then, what can you tell us with respect to the subsequent action of the President's head and body after that initial apparent slight movement forward?

A. There could be two reasons for it. One reason, there is a jet of blood and brain material from the head, some bone seemed to fly up in the air, but the bulk of it appears to fly forward and maybe slightly to the right. This gives an indication that that is possibly in the direction that the bullet exited from the skull.

Q. Now, was there any movement of the President's head and body associated with that?

A. That material going in that direction would have a tendency as a result of this jet effect to push the head in the other direction. This was demonstrated by Louis Alvarez in California several years ago by shooting melons. When you could get a jet of honeydew melon going out the front, the melon would roll toward the gun, showing that there is some movement from this jet effect.

Q. That also a moderate movement?

A. That would be moderate, yes. Now, most of the movement you see of the President moving backwards and his body moving sideward I believe is a neuromuscular reaction.

Another factor that could be involved is acceleration of the car. I have no idea of when the car started to accelerate. But at any rate, it is typical of animals or humans struck on the head to have a violent muscular reaction to it. And this is what is appears to me. Certainly the bullet didn't knock him backwards and sideways. This was, I think a neuromuscular reaction.

Q. Let me ask you this, Doctor Olivier. Approximately how many test firings have you been associated with and an observer to at the Arsenal where the firing has been done into a live animal?

A. In the thousands -- some done by myself, or as the years went by, and I went up to a supervisory position, then under my supervision.

Q. And in approximately how many, can you tell us, instances has there been a firing into the head of such an animal? A. Not nearly as many. The goat head is not a good model for the human. The brain is a pea brain compared to the large brain in the human. But we did do some studies deliberately to see this neuromuscular reaction firing into goat heads.

Q. On those occasions when there has been such a firing into the goat's head, did you observe a vigorous, violent action of the head from the impact of the bullet itself?

A. In the particular movies I was thinking of that we made to show the neuromuscular reaction, unfortunately the head was restrained, so you could not see the movement of the head. You could see the violent movement of the legs. But no, you couldn't see the movement of the head. It couldn't move, it was restrained.

Q. Have there been any instances in which you have done firings into the head?

A. We have done firings into human skulls filled with gelatin and coated with gelatin, and we have even put goat skin on it to simulate the human scalp.

Q. Have you been able to observe the nature of the movement of the skulls?

A. The skulls that we shot invariably rolled away from the gun. And this was a reason for this, that you didn't get any jet effect, because the gelatin that we used was 20 percent gelatin, this was our simulant for tissue. We also used it as a simulant for the brain.

There is one bad thing about that. If you want to see this movement, the gelatin is too elastic, it recovers, in other words, any gelatin that expands out comes back like a rubber band. So it didn't fly loose from the skull to get a jet effect.

Q. You mean such as brain tissue might?

A. Right.


Q. Have you done firings into other portions of animals, live animals, other than the head?

A. Oh, yes.

Q. Have you ever seen any jet effect?

A. Jet effect, moving the body?

Q. Yes.

A. No, because for years we used to document the direction in which an animal fell -- and the number was something like 2,000 animals and it ended up, as many fell away from the gun as fell toward the gun, and a goodly number fell straight down. There was absolutely no -- you can say possibly maybe a jet effect was pushing some of them toward the gun, or it could have been a muscular reaction.

Q. Have you ever seen an instance in which an animal body, from the impact of the bullet itself, thrust violently in the direction away from the gunner?

A. Never.

Q. Do you have an opinion, then, based upon your work in this field over the years, as to whether President Kennedy's body would have moved in the fashion that it did after the fatal shot in the head, that movement being a consequence of the impact of the bullet?

A. As a result of the momentum imparted to the body by the bullet?

Q. Yes.

A. No, it wouldn't.

Q. Are you saying --

A. The President weights a lot more than a 100 pound goat, and if a bullet wouldn't move a 100 pound goat it isn't going to move the President. This just doesn't happen.

[end excerpts from Olivier testimony]

Excerpts from testimony of Dr. Werner Spitz to the Rockefeller Commission on April 18, 1975. Excerpts taken from transcript beginning at page 57. Robert Olsen (Q.) is the questioner, Dr. Spitz (A.) the respondent.

Q. May I ask this, then. Do you have any opinion, based upon your observing several times the Zapruder motion picture film, as to whether that film indicates that the President was struck by a bullet fired from the right front of the Presidential car?

A. No, the President was struck from the back both times, the one in the back and the one in the head definitely indicated that.

Q. Is the backward movement that you have observed of the President's body after the shot was fired and after the body first moved somewhat to the front, the body moved backward then rather vigorously, did it not?

A. Yes.

Q. Does that backward movement of the President's body indicate in any respect whatever that the shot came from the right front to the front of the car?

A. No. I am not even sure that at that moment the President did go back, because of the lack of control that he was able to exercise on his body to refrain from going back upon accelartion of the automobile.

Q. You don't know for sure whether the automobile was accelerated at that point?

A. I don't. But even if it was accelerating, he could not hold himself at that moment, because he had lost all nervous control, he had no control to speak of, because half of his brain was lost.

Q. Was it also possible that the backward movement of the body at that point was purely a neuromuscular response.

A. It was a neuromuscular response activated by the destruction of the centers.

Q. You are talking about the nerve centers?

A. The nerve centers.

[end excerpt from Spitz testimony]

Before we move on to the HSCA and others, let's look at those portions of the Rockefeller Commission Medical Panel's reports which deal directly with the relationship between JFK's movements following z-313 and what it tells us about the source of the bullet.

This panel is a fertile source of expert opinion because, instead of collaborating on one report, each of the five doctors filed their own report. The basic outline of each report consisted of addressing fourteen specific questions. Question number seven was: "Is the motion of the President's head and body following the fatal head shot consistent with the shot striking him from the rear? from the front? from the right front? from the right side?"

What follows are those portions of the medical reports which deal with this question.

1. Dr. Fred Hodges, Professor of Radiology (Neuroradiology), The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine: "7) The motion of the President's head as shown in the Zapruder film does not indicate the direction of the shot in my opinion, but the visible blow-out of tissue and bony fragments in frame 313 and subsequent frames do conclusively indicate the bullet came from behind. The head motion subsequently is interpreted as due to involuntary muscle extension and not due to the direction of the injury."

2. Alfred G. Oliver, DVM, Chief, Biophysics Division, Edgewood Arsenal: "7. The movement of the President's body would bear no relationship to the direction of the shot. As for the motion of the President's head, I would have to see precise measurements taken from the motion picture film, to make a final judgment here."

3. Robert R. McMeekin, MD, forensic pathologist, Chief, Division of Aerospace Pathology, AFIP: "7. The motion of the President's head is inconsistent with the shot striking him from any direction other than the rear."

4. Werner U. Spitz, M.D., forensic pathologist, Chief Medical Examiner, Wayne County, Michigan: "7. It is impossible to conclude from the motion of the President's head and body following the head shot, from which direction the shots came. There is no doubt that as soon as the President was struck in the head, death occurred. The President's body was thus limp, devoid of control and stability normally exerted by the cerebral centers. Nothing would keep the body up at this stage and a forward drop is likely to occur. The subsequent backward movement of the President's head can be explained by sudden decerebration. This position is well known as "decerebrate posture" and is characterized by opisthotonos, a tetanic spasm -- or seizure-like condition."

5. Richard Lindenberg, M.D., Director of Neuropathology and Legal Medicine, State of Maryland: "Immediately after the shot through the head the President took rather abruptly an almost erect position before slumping over to the left. This straightening is to be considered a sudden opisthotonic reflex movement due to decerebration."

From the HSCA Forensic Panel Report


"Finally, the panel members also discussed their experiences with the explosive effects of shotgun and, to a lesser extent, military rifle wounds to enclosed portions of the body such as the head. Rarely has any member observed photographs documenting the reactions of victims' bodies to being shot, although crime scene reconstruction has often enabled panel members to establish body position prior to the shooting.

The panel members have critically evaluated the observations of Alvarez, and the physical principles he considers in explaining the President's head movements in the Zapruder film. The panel members took note of the differences between the missile and targets (melons) in Alvarez's work and the missile and targets in the homicide. The work of Lattimer and associates, which addressed some of these differences by using a weapon and missiles similar to those used in the Kennedy assassination and which attempted to duplicate the injury pattern of skulls, was also critically reviewed, as were studies by Dr. John Nichols.

The panel members agree that the exit wound of a missile seriously deformed by initial penetration of the skull might be considerably larger than the entrance defect and the forces related to yaw and the large temporary cavity created by the missile would usually be transmitted fairly equally throughout a closed space such as the skull. The larger exit defect in the front of the skull would theoretically permit greater exodus of tissue under pressure , and a resulting backward movement of the head could occur.

The panel is aware of the time interval between the backward motion of the President's head and the earlier, slight forward motion, possibly caused by the initial missile impact and transfer of energy to the head, as recorded in frames 313-314 of the Zapruder film. The panel further recognizes the possibility of the body stiffening, with an upward and backward lunge, which might have resulted from a massive downward rush of neurologic stimuli to all efferent nerves (those which stimulate muscles). The disparity in mass and strength between those muscles supporting the body on the back (dorsal surface) of the spine and those muscles on the front (ventral) surface could account, at least partially, for this type of motion, although it would be reasonable to expect that all muscles would be similarly stimulated.

The panel suggests that the lacerations of a specific portion of the brain - the cerebral peduncles as described in the autopsy report -- could be a cause of decerebrate ridigity, which could contribute to the President's backward motion. such decerebrate rigidity as Sherrington described usually does not commence for several minutes after separation of the upper brain centers from the brain stem and spinal cord. It is, however, most intense in those muscles which normally counteract the effects of gravity.

[later, still 1HSCA174]

One panel member, Dr. Wecht, suspects that the backward head motion might be explained by a soft-nosed bullet that struck the right side of the President's head simultaneously with the shot from the rear and disintegrated on impact without exiting the skull on the other side. the remaining panel members take exception to such speculation, since they are unaware of any missile with such capabilities. Further, the X-rays taken prior to the autopsy show no evidence of a second missile, nor do the photographs of the head and brain show evidence of any injury to the left side."

1HSCA178 --

"The issue of a second bullet striking the head from the front or side originates in part from the pronounced backward and leftward motion of the President's head and shoulders after being shot, as seen in the Zapruder film. To some, this motion appears explainable only by a shot coming from the front or side.

The majority of the panel believes that there is a possibility that this movement may have been caused by neurologic response to the massive brain damage caused by the bullet, or by a propulsive effect resulting from the matter that exited through the large defect under great pressure, or a combination of both. Whatever the cause of the President's movement, the majority of the Panel concluded that only one bullet struck the President's head and that it entered at the rear and exited from the right front."

from the testimony of Larry Sturdivan, physical scientist with the Wound Ballistics Branch of the Aberdeen Proving Grounds since 1964

1HSCA403 --

"The picture will be much the same as those with the skull. The bullet will be coming in from the left, will strike the can and you will see pieces of the can moving toward the right in the direction of the bullet, but you will also see pieces of the can moving in other directions. Notably, the top of the can will be moving back toward the left in the direction from which the bullet came." (he is describing film of a bullet being shot into a can of tomatoes)

1HSCA404 --

(re: film of skulls filled with a 20% gelatin solution)

"In fact, all 10 of the skulls that we shot did essentially the same thing. They gained a little bit of momentum consistent with one or a little better [than a] foot-per-second velocity that would have been imparted by the bullet and they also lost material toward us, that is, toward its right and, therefore, rotated towards its left."

1HSCA414 --

[JFK Exhibit JFK F-303]

Energy = ½ MV²
Momentum = MV
Mannlicher Carcano Bullet
Momentum Lost: (162/7000) * 800 = 18.4 lb. ft./sec

Head of Kennedy

Velocity gained: 18.4/15 = 1.2 ft. sec
Energy deposited: 1110 Joules ~ 800 ft. lb.

[this exhibit is up while the following exchange occurs]

Mr. Fauntroy. The exhibits which are being placed show, as I say, a rearward thrust of the President's head and his upper body, a fraction of a second after he was shot in the head, and the assassination critics have insisted this rearward thrust clearly indicates that the shot came from the front, the theory being that the force and momentum of the bullet, Mr. Sturdivan, carried the President's head toward the rear of the limousine.

Mr. Sturdivan. As we can see from the chart, this velocity of 1.2 feet per second is not the kind of velocity that would throw the President bodily around backwards, forwards, or in any direction no matter which direction the bullet came from. The deposit of momentum from the bullet is not sufficient to cause any dramatic movement in any direction. It would have a very slight movement, assuming that the bullet hit him in the side of the head.

[later, same page]

"In fact, I conclude from these films that, since the President does have motion, that it must have arisen from another source, that is, it could not have been the momentum of the bullet."

1HSCA415 --

"This mechanical stimulation, once it starts to move down the nerve, look exactly the same as any other nerve impulse does. And if this mechanical stimulation is in a motor nerve, that is, one that moves muscles, then the muscle will move.

Now, the extreme radial velocity imparted to the matter in the President's head, the brain tissue, caused mechanical movement of essentially everything inside the skull, including where the cord went through the foramen magnum, that is, the hole that leads out of the skull down the spinal cord.

Motion there, I believe, carried mechanical stimulation of the motor nerves of the President, and since all motor nerves were stimulated at the same time, then every muscle in the body would be activated at the same time."

1HSCA417 --

[Sturdivan shows the film of goats being shot - the film is 2400 frames per second]

"Four one-hundredths of a second after that impact then the neuromuscular reaction that I describe begins to happen; the back legs go out, under the influence of the powerful muscles of the back legs, the front legs go upward and outward, that back arches, as the powerful back muscles overcome those of the abdomen."

1HSCA421 --

Mr. Devine. Again, as an expert in he field of ballistics, you are not troubled having seen the Zapruder picture that the head moved in an anterior direction or posterior direction, I guess, the same direction from which the bullet was allegedly fired, that does not trouble you as an expert in the field having conducted tests in ballistics?

Mr. Sturdivan. No, sir, the momentum of the bullet could not have thrown him in any direction violently. The neuromuscular reaction in which the heavy back muscles predominate over the lighter abdominal muscles would have thrown him backward no matter where the bullet came from, whether it entered the front, the side or the back of the head."

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