What is the Single Bullet Theory?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

The assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas was indeed a national tragedy. but it also prompted years of speculation and investigation as to what actually happened that day in November of 1963, and who may have been involved. An official investigation headed by Chief Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren attempted to collect enough eyewitness testimony and forensic evidence to piece together the events surrounding the president's assassination. One controversial theory which supported the premise of a lone gunman was deemed the "single bullet theory", although those who believe there was a conspiracy called it the "magic bullet" theory.

The single bullet theory refers to the premise of a lone gunman being responsible for the assassination of President Kennedy.
The single bullet theory refers to the premise of a lone gunman being responsible for the assassination of President Kennedy.

According to most eyewitnesses to the shooting, there were three bullets fired at the president's open-air limousine. Under the lone gunman premise, the shooter, a man named Lee Harvey Oswald, fired all three of those shots from the sixth floor of a book depository building. It is believed that the first shot missed the president's car entirely, striking the pavement instead. Some occupants of the vehicle, however, testified that all three bullets struck at least one person. The Warren commission eventually concluded that the first shot did not cause any significant damage or injury.

President John F. Kennedy died within an hour of being shot.
President John F. Kennedy died within an hour of being shot.

In order to understand the single bullet theory, it may help to discuss the third bullet next. As President Kennedy and Texas governor John Connally lay slumped over from their injuries, a third shot struck Kennedy in the head and essentially exploded. The third shot was the fatal one, causing significant brain damage and blood loss. Despite the best efforts of the doctors at Parkland hospital, President Kennedy died within an hour of the shooting. Governor Connally did recover from his injuries, and was a vital eyewitness for the Warren Commission.

It was the second shot, however, which formed the basis of the "single bullet" or "magic bullet" theory. When Governor Connally was wheeled into emergency surgery, an orderly discovered a bullet on the gurney. It was widely assumed that this bullet had fallen out of Connally's thigh when he was transferred to the surgical table. This fully jacketed rifle bullet, in relatively pristine condition, was believed to the second shot fired at the president's vehicle. If Oswald had acted alone and there were only three shots fired from a single rifle, then this single bullet was responsible for a large number of injuries to both Kennedy and Connally.

According to the single bullet theory, Oswald's second shot must have pierced several layers of Kennedy's jacket, which was known to be bunched up around his neck moments before the shooting. This bullet went through the back of Kennedy's neck and exited near his trachea. In the famous Zapruder footage of the assassination, Kennedy can be seen clutching both hands at his throat. The bullet began to tumble, and entered Connally's back at a sideways angle.

Continuing with the single bullet theory, this bullet struck the tip of one of Connally's ribs, virtually shattering it. It still had enough energy to exit Connally's chest and smash through the bones and skin of Connally's wrist. Finally, this second shot superficially penetrated Connally's left thigh, where it remained lodged until it fell onto the gurney at Parkland. When the bullet was examined by experts, it had no signs of human blood, tissue or bone on it. The bullet was only slightly deformed on the butt end, but the tip of the bullet was remarkably intact and the rifling marks were undamaged.

Because many people found it unlikely that a single bullet could do all of that damage to skin, fabric and bone and still remain relatively pristine, the Warren Commission's single bullet theory generated a significant amount of debate. Some dubbed it a "magic bullet," since it would have had to perform a number of changes in direction in order to cause all of the injuries. Only by recreating the relative positions of Kennedy and Connally could the single bullet theory be proven plausible. Indeed, experts did conduct scientific recreations which proved that a bullet fired from above and behind the president's limousine could have passed through Kennedy's soft tissues with enough power to cause all of Connally's injuries.

There are critics who say the bullet found under Connally's body may have been from a completely different incident earlier that same day. The orderly who found the bullet could not be certain if the gurney had been thoroughly inspected and cleaned before Connally's arrival. Connally did testify that he saw a nurse place the bullet in her pocket shortly before his surgery. It is possible that the bullet received by the FBI was not the one recovered by the nurse in the emergency room. The total weight of the intact bullet combined with the weight of fragments discovered in Kennedy and Connally's bodies also came into question. The "magic bullet" would have been significantly heavier than the other bullets found in Oswald's sniper nest.

The single bullet theory has been investigated many times in the years following President Kennedy's assassination. Some studies demonstrated that the single bullet theory was plausible under the right set of circumstances, while others suggested that at least one more shot would have been required to cause all of the injuries. If Oswald was only able to fire off three rounds in the estimated 5.6 seconds of the attack, then a fourth bullet would suggest at least a conspiracy if not the presence of a second unknown gunman. In order for the single bullet theory to remain viable, there could only have been three shots fired by a lone gunman positioned above and behind the motorcade.

The debate over "magic bullets" and additional gunmen could continue for the foreseeable future, but the single bullet theory continues to be the official explanation for the non-fatal injuries suffered by Kennedy and Connally on that fateful day in November of 1963.

The single bullet theory disputes that there was a second shooter during the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
The single bullet theory disputes that there was a second shooter during the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments


I really just have a question: With the capability of DNA testing that we have now, has the single bullet that struck Kennedy and then Connally been tested for JFK's DNA? If it hit JFK first, one would expect to find his DNA along with Connally's DNA on the bullet.


in the estimated 5.6 seconds of the attack: We obviously know that is not true today. There was 8.4 seconds between the first shot fired from the TSBD to the last shot.

What the guy who wrote this doesn't know is what happened in between those shots.


JFK and Bobby Kennedy both had a strong hand in preventing a nuclear fallout during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Many were upset with their politics, however. They had more friends than enemies, but their enemies were from diverse places, including Russians and Americans. Because of diverse enemies, it is hard to tell where their assassinations came from.


Not only JFK, but his brother Bobby Kennedy, was also assassinated. This is strange, and causes people to scratch their chin and wonder why the world seems to have been against these two heroes.


So much conspiracy theory surrounds the tragic death of JFK. Many believe that it was a sort of religious war waged against the first Irish Catholic president. Irish New Englanders have a long history of struggling against the native English upper crust in New England. As such, it is somewhat natural for us to assume that the settled American English aristocracy had a hand in some kind of jealous campaign against the Irish in the form of assassinating the culmination of Irish-American pride and dominance in this nation.

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