What Is The JFK Magic Bullet Theory?

Is it really possible to shoot two men with a single bullet from many yards away? According to writers of the Warren Report, that is precisely what happened when John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. The theory argues that one bullet — not two, as others have concluded — injured both the president and then-Texas Governor John Connally, passing through the former's neck and traveling through the latter's back, chest, wrist, and into his thigh. The Warren Report concluded that the gunman fired three shots in total, a number most analysts and witnesses agree with.

The Warren Report — compiled in the year following Kennedy's death — has been attacked many times over the years. Its findings were reexamined in 1979, when the U.S. House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) was created to comb over the evidence surrounding JFK's assassination. Initially, the acoustic evidence studied by the committee led to the conclusion there were actually two gunmen at the scene and four shots fired. However, the National Academy of Sciences assembled a Committee on Ballistic Acoustics in 1982 and decided that this new theory was a mistake — reviving the original explanation.

The so-called "single" or "magic bullet" theory doesn't rule out additional shots hitting the president. Still, the Warren Report has left many people unsatisfied with the official explanation that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. Those who believe there was a second gunman involved in the killing of the president generally do not accept that the bullet could have passed through both men, as well as multiple layers of clothing.

Exhibit 399

According to the Warren Commission, one of the bullets fired by Lee Harvey Oswald — nicknamed Exhibit 399 — traveled right through the back of the president's neck and into his co-passenger. The commission report concluded that their theory was not 100% certain, but given the experiments carried out by the Army Wound Ballistics Branch, it was highly likely.

The report concluded that a single bullet passed through Governor John Connally's back, then shattered his wrist before hitting him in the thigh. The odd passage of travel was explained by Connally's posture when the bullet hit. A ballistics test carried out by the team seemed to confirm that it was not "a pristine bullet" that hit the governor's wrist, given that the test round seemed to cause far more damage and had a smaller entry wound and larger exit wound. According to the report, "The governor's wrist had a larger entry wound as compared with its exit wound, indicating a bullet which was tumbling."

Unfortunately, Connally himself was a surprisingly bad witness, having fallen unconscious after suffering the bullet's impact. He told the Commission, "I ... wound up the next day realizing I was hit in three places, and I was not conscious of having been hit but by one bullet, so I tried to reconstruct how I could have been hit in three places by the same bullet ... I know it penetrated from the back through the chest first. I assumed that I had turned ... placing my right hand on my left leg, that it hit my wrist."

The odd discovery of the bullet

The peculiar circumstances surrounding the so-called "magic bullet" have been a boon to the conspiratorially-minded. Notably, a bullet was found on a stretcher that allegedly carried Governor John Connally. According to the committee report, this bullet fell out of Connally at some point after his arrival at the hospital.

In 2023, a Secret Service agent named Paul Landis told The New York Times that he was the one who found the bullet in JFK's car, behind his seat — and put it onto the president's stretcher. From here, he believes it wound up on the governor's gurney. Live Science says the bullet was allegedly found by a nurse or a hospital engineer, depending on the report. It has often been noted that the round was in relatively good condition despite the damage it allegedly caused.

This odd sequence of events has raised a number of questions over the years, and speculation about the bullet has only increased following Landis' apparent confession in 2023. The ex-Secret Service agent says he believes the bullet fell out of the president's body when he was moved and did not hit both men. According to The New York Times, Landis' new account of the events that day appears to contradict his original two statements given decades before.

Modern tests of the theory

In an attempt to debunk theories surrounding the bullet and its unusual path of travel, the magic bullet theory was re-examined by Luke and Michael Hagg, a father-son team specializing in ballistics. Their findings were presented in the PBS program "Cold Case JFK."

The duo used modern forensics equipment to demonstrate that the 6.5-millimeter Carcano bullet fired from Lee Harvey Oswald's gun was more than capable of passing through two bodies relatively unscathed. They also argued that the strange path of travel was caused by the destabilizing effect that occurred when the bullet hit the president. The result was a bullet that did not follow a completely straight line. Luke Haag told CBS News, "It's like a badly thrown football. It normally flies true and straight. When this bullet emerged from Kennedy — or any ballistic medium ... it's now yawing and tumbling."

A similar 2004 Discovery Channel documentary had comparable results. The show — "Unsolved History: JFK — Beyond the Magic Bullet" — included a re-enactment of the "magic bullet" shot, and the round was shown to display a very similar path of travel to the one suggested in the Warren Report.