RIP: Arlen Specter and his Single Bullet Theory

The custodians of legacy news organizations and certain historians will say that the late Arlen Specter was right beyond a reasonable doubt in his theorizing about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. Unfortunately, the facts say otherwise. In the past decade, improvements in forensic science have undermined Specter’s most famous hypothesis, the venerable Single Bullet Theory.

This is not to criticize the dead.

JFK Postcard

The original story of gunfire that was abandoned.

The former Pennsylvania Senator, now rightly mourned for his almost-extinct brand of moderate Republican politics, should also be mourned for his dubious contribution to the investigation of JFK’s assassination. Many sane people find his famous “single bullet theory” (SBT) of JFK’s murder to be unpersuasive. I’m one of them. But Arlen Specter was indubitably a public servant, whatever you think of his forensic acumen.

Was Specter a passionate truth-seeker or a cynical opportunist? (Maybe he was both.)

A notorious theory

Specter certainly never shook the notoriety of his durable, if unpersuasive, theory of Kennedy’s assassination. His opportunistic political style later in life did not help, suggesting that intellectual flexibility had always been Specter’s forte, even when he was strength just an ambitious young staff attorney working for the Warren Commission a half century ago.

Specter’s hypothesis, adopted as historical truth by the distracted members of the Warren Commission, attracted skeptics in the American and international press right away. Specter’s theory was skewered memorably by District Attorney Jim Garrison in a 1969 trial in a New Orleans courtroom. As depicted by Kevin Costner in Oliver Stone’s “JFK” (1992), Garrison charged that Specter’s theory required one of the bullets that wounded to President Kennedy to change directions in mid-air after piercing his body. Stone’s cinematic version caricatured  Specter’s thesis–but not by much.

Specter never escaped populist ridicule for his convoluted theory. At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in the 1990s, he grilled one right-wing militiaman about his claims that black helicopters of the United Nations were flying in Montana airspace.

Do you actually believe that? Specter asked incredulously. The grizzled militiaman looked up at Specter and drawled words to the effect of, “Senator, do you actually believe that bullet in Dallas went like ….”

And the old coot recited Garrison’s speech almost word for word from Stone’s movie. Specter was steaming but what could he do? People just didn’t believe his Single Bullet Theory.

James Tague’s wound

Specter’s problem wasn’t Oliver Stone or populist irrationality as much as it was Occam’s Razor, the precept which holds that the simplest explanation is often the best. As an explanation of the gunfire that wounded JFK and Texas Governor John Connally, Specter’s SBT was anything but simple. As the above postcard shows, Specter’s theory of the gunfire required jettisoning the previously accepted testimony of the closest witness to the gunfire, Texas Governor John Connally.

It is often forgotten but Specter’s intellectual acrobatics came relatively late in the investigation of JFK’s death. As an investigator, Specter accepted Gov. Connally’s testimony as unquestioned truth for several months until a bystander named James Tague came forward with a credible and corroborated story.

Tague had been standing near the president’s motorcade route with the gunfire erupted. He felt a burning sensation of his cheek and realized he had been hit by a piece of flying debris. He noticed that a bullet had struck the street curb and sent a chip of stone glancing off his face.

Once the Warren Commission staff realized that Tague’s story was credible, Specter had to account for the origins of four gunshots–the separate shots that hit Connally and JFK from behind, the shot that hit JFK in the head, and the shot that hit the curb.

Specter had to solve a complicated problem. He knew the rifle of accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald could not be reloaded and fired fast enough to get off four shots in the estimated 8 seconds of gunfire. So Specter came up with novel theory that no one–not a single witness or investigator--had ever proposed: that one bullet caused the back wounds to both JFK and Connally.

It wasn’t quite as preposterous as Oliver Stone suggested but it contradicted the best available witness testimony and strained common sense. It still does.

God bless Arlen Specter: he tried and failed to explain the gunfire that took JFK’s death. Let’s hope history gives his survivors a more favorable verdict.


  1. MattC says:

    Bullets do strange things when hitting a body.
    That being said it is clear from the real evidence that JFK and Connaly were not hit by the same round.
    Teague could have been hit from that shot, or from a head shot fragment.
    There was no such thing as the “jet effect”
    Kennedys movements using modern analysys were of a neuromuscular
    Acoustical evidence is unreliable based on its primitive media and the echo tendencies of dealy plaza.
    Will this ever be put to rest?

    • Gerry Simone says:

      The acoustic experts used real gunfire and recorded them and any resultant echoes. When analyzing the audio recordings, they differentiated actual shots and their echoes.

    • “There was no such thing as the “jet effect”
      Kennedys movements using modern analysys were of a neuromuscular

      According to modern ballistics science the movement of Kennedy’s head has to do with impact analysis rather than “neuromuscular” reaction.
      . . .
      German wound ballistic researcher Bernd Karger, states initial transfer of energy causes the target to move minutely into the force and against the line of fire, prior to target movement with the force of the moving bullet. Karger found greater the transferred energy, the more pronounced the forward movement (Karger, 2008). Wound ballistic researcher Robin Coupland used high-speed photography to confirm and document the forward movement into the line of fire referenced by Karger (Coupland, 2011). Researchers Karger and Coupland noted the force in a moving bullet is energy of motion, or kinetic energy. Upon impact, the bullet pushes against the head, and initially, as the weight of the head is greater than the weight of the bullet, the head moves against the line of fire. As the projectile slows, more kinetic energy transfers to the target. A overcoming the weight of the head with a sufficient transfer of energy causes the target to move with the continued direction of force of the moving bullet. Application of contemporary wound ballistics research to the movement observed in the Zapruder film indicates a minute forward motion followed by more pronounced rearward movement—consistent with a single shot from the front.
      [See:CSI Sherry Fiester:

  2. J.Hébert says:

    I don’t buy the fact that Kennedy’s movement from the headshot was caused by neuro muscular action. If the headshot came by the rear, the powerful direction of the energy would have thrown the head to the front and right in the first place even with neuro muscular action coming in afterward. Everything surrounding the killing of JFK stinks…

  3. Gerry Simone says:

    Some SBT proponents will incredibly argue that it’s adoption had nothing to do with Tague in that there was no other explanation for a back and throat wound coupled with the absence of any other damage to the limo’s interior for this bullet.

    Even if you believe in a back to throat trajectory, which by all accounts is irreconcilable, the reality is that it’s highly unlikely, if not impossible, for a head shot fragment to have struck Tague when two of the heaviest fragments supposedly from said shot were found in the limo.

    The FBI’s initial report (3 shots, 3 hits) is more along the lines of Occam’s Razor (but not without its own problems) had Tague not appeared in Dealey Plaza.

    But Tague was there and could not be ignored, so the SBT was adopted by necessity to fit what essentially, was a pre-determined scenario.

  4. Paul Turner says:

    Because of the debris that hit James Tague’s cheek, history was indeed changed, but not enough for the Warren Commission to say there was a conspiracy to kill JFK. As silly as the SBT made the final report look, it was still inconclusive to say whether or not there was one or more than one shooter. Having said this, as this clip reports, Specter knew Oswald couldn’t have fired 4 shots in 8 seconds, so he had to have considered the strong possibility of two or more shooters.

    • Photon says:

      And the first AP bulletin said what?
      There is no physical evidence whatsoever that four shots were fired at JFK on Nov. 22, 1963.
      The overwhelming contemporary witness testimony supported 2 or 3 shots.
      The only thing silly about the SBT is the critics total inability to address where the round that went through JFK went. Actually the SBT was entirely consistant with Connolly’s testimony. He assumed that the first shot hit JFK; as he heard the shot without being harmed he assumed that he and JFK were hit separately. CTers tend to ignore the fact that Connolly never saw JFK during the assassination and only surmised the nature of the President’s wounds when he saw brain tissue on his pants leg. Connolly’s testimony supported the facts as we now know- the first shot,recognized by some missed; the second shot hit Connolly ( leaving him totally aware of what had happened to JFK). In shock (both physical and emotional) Connolly never heard the third shot.
      The fact that people like Stone have to resort to falsely portraying the positions of Connolly and JFK in the limo says more about their interest in driving an agenda instead of looking for the truth.Why lie if you have the facts on your side?

      • Photon says:

        Totally UNAWARE of what happened to JFK-my bad.

      • The HSCA report based on the dictabelt also documented the timing between the shots to the nearest one-tenth second. Between shots one and two, 1.6 seconds elapsed; between shots two and three, 6.0 seconds elapsed, and between shots three and four, 0.7 seconds elapsed.]
        There are 5 shots on the dictabelt recording, this has now been synced to the Zapruder film, and the shots are heard exactly when the hits are seen on the victims in the limousine.

        • Photon says:

          And they were wrong

          • “And they were wrong”~Photon

            A bold assertion indeed. To hold to this opinion in the face of the discovery that these shots on the dictabelt sync perfectly with the imagery of the hits on the Zapruder film. To posit that some arbitrary sounds could just by some chance of fate sync up perfectly – 1/100th to 5/100ths of a second – is frankly absurd.

      • “Connolly’s testimony supported the facts as we now know..” ~Photon

        This is simply not true:
        ournalist Martin Agronsky interviewed Connally from his Parkland Memorial Hospital room on Nov. 27, 1963, five days after the assassination. The governor insisted he was hit by the second shot, not the same shot that hit JFK:

        And then we had just turned the corner [from Houston onto Elm], we heard a shot; I turned to my left

        I was sitting in the jump seat. I turned to my left to look in the back seat – the president had slumped. He had said nothing. Almost simultaneously, as I turned, I was hit and I knew I had been hit badly. I knew the president had been hit and I said, “My God, they are going to kill us all.”

        Then there was a third shot and the president was hit again and we thought then very seriously. I had still retained consciousness but the president had slumped in Mrs. Kennedy’s lap, and when he was hit the second time she said, “Oh, my God, they have killed my husband – Jack, Jack.”

        After the third shot, the next thing that occurred – I was conscious, the Secret Service man, of course, the chauffeur had pulled out of the line, they said, “Get out of here”; on the radios they said, “Get us to a hospital immediately” and we pulled out, of course, immediately, as fast as we could go and got to the hospital. In the space of a few seconds, it is unbelievable what can happen, Martin. We went from great joy, anticipation, wonderful crowds, wonderful throngs, to great tragedy.

        On April 21, 1964, Connally testified to the Warren Commission, telling essentially the same story – that he was hit by the second shot. Connally testified:

        Gov. Connally: We had just made the turn … when I heard what I thought was a shot. I heard this noise, which I immediately took to be a rifle shot. I instinctively turned to my right because the sound appeared to come from over my right shoulder, so I turned to look back over my right shoulder, and I saw nothing unusual except just people in the crowd, but I did catch the president in the corner of my eye, and I was interested, because once I heard the shot in my own mind I identified it as a rifle shot, and I immediately – the only thought that crossed my mind was that this is an assassination attempt.

        So I looked, failing to see him, I was turning to look back over my left shoulder into the back seat, but I never got that far in my turn. I got about in the position I am now in facing you, looking a little bit to the left of center, and then I felt like somebody had hit me in the back.


      • Bob Prudhomme says:

        I’m sure you have spent a lot of time working on this summation of the shooting but, I’m afraid your conclusions are quite wrong and, in fact, just plain silly.

        Your claim that Connally never saw JFK during the assassination is absurd, and is proven absurd by the Zapruder film, in which we see Connally looking directly at JFK for a goodly portion of this film. This more than trumps any testimony from Connally about not seeing JFK, unless we are to believe Connally had his eyes closed while facing to the rear. Did Connally testify to having his eyes closed while facing JFK?

        As to the round that went “through” JFK, there is no proof that a bullet actually went through JFK. However, there is proof, from the medical reports and testimony of Parkland surgeons, that a bullet entered the top of JFK’s right lung, at about the level of thoracic vertebra T3, stayed in his right lung and caused a pneumothorax in that lung.

      • Paul Turner says:

        Photon, you say “driving an agenda instead of looking for the truth”. I’d say that’s what the WC, as ordered by ringleader John E. Hoover at the FBI, did.

      • Paul Turner says:

        If he never saw JFK during the assassination, what did he mean when he said “My God, they’re going to kill us all!”. That is, what did his “us all” mean? I’ll throw in my two cents and suggest he was referring to JFK as part of the “us all”.

        • Dave says:

          Not to mention he also said “they” are going to kill us all…

          • Photon says:

            I am sure that the exclamations of a dying man are always totally accurate and based on incontrovertible evidence.
            So Jackie Kennedy’s comment ” they have killed my husband” proves that there was a conspiracy? So her statement about not changing her clothes so ” they can see what they have done” proves it was a conspiracy?

          • Paul Turner says:

            yes…his “THEY” is quite important. Wouldn’t it have been something if he had added “It wasn’t supposed to be like THIS!!”?

  5. > “Dr. Robertson’s Study of the assassination of President Kennedy has resulted in his being able to synchronize the Zapruder movie film with the DictaBelt tape that recorded at least 5 gunshots in Dealey Plaza. This first successful synchronization of the two media, within 5/100ths of a second, establishes that at least 5 shots came from 3 different locations and 3 different shooters. The acoustics, mathematics, and Zapruder film together, prove mathematically that Governor Connally was not hit by the same bullet that passed through the President’s back and neck; that President Kennedy was killed by 2 shots to his head taken from 2 different directions; and that at least 3 shooters conspired to accomplish the murder of the President. Ipso facto, the assassination was a conspiracy.”

    . . . . .
    I agree with the 5 shots evidence, however I disagree with the “2 shots to the head”, because this assertion doesn’t account for the shot to Kennedy’s back. It is falsely asserted that, “the same bullet that passed through the President’s back and neck”.
    The neck wound was an entry wound.
    The track of the bullet that entered Kennedy’s back was never dissected [orders given to Boswell from a general in the gallery of the morgue].
    So the theory that the bullet is the same for both neck and back is conjecture that does not take all the known facts into account.
    The final point in this is that according to modern ballistics as analyzed by CSI Sherry Fiester, there was only one shot to Kennedy’s head, and it was a frontal shot from the end of the picket fence nearest the Triple Underpass.

  6. Bob Prudhomme says:

    “It wasn’t quite as preposterous as Oliver Stone suggested but it contradicted the best available witness testimony and strained common sense. It still does.”

    I beg to differ. I would say the SBT is even more preposterous than Oliver Stone suggested, simply because I doubt Stone has a thorough understanding of the anatomy of the human neck, and what an impossible barrier to the SBT the cervical vertebrae are.

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