The Rusty Firing Pin
Conspiracy researchers try doggedly to show that Oswald’s Mannlicher-Carcano (recovered on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository) could not have killed John Kennedy. One argument they make involved the condition of the Mannlicher Carcano’s firing pin.
In the classic conspiracy book Accessories After the Fact, Sylvia Meagher claims that the men who test fired CE 139, aka Oswald’s Mannlicher Carcano, were too scared to dry fire the weapon because the firing pin was so rusted it may very well break (102). Robert Sam Anson claims in They’ve Killed the President that “[the Mannlicher Carcano] was in such bad shape that the experts who later test-fired it for the Commission declined to practice with it ‘because of concern with breaking the firing pin’” (75). Edward Dorsch Jr. says in his essay in the Dealey Plaza Echo that “[t]he rifle had a firing pin so rusted the original riflemen who tested it were afraid to dry fire it for fear it would break” (11). These are just a few of many examples.
But just what evidence do these authors cite? Among these three sources, all have cited the Warren Commission. Meagher begins by citing page 193 of the Warren Report which states, “[The marksmen] had not even pulled the trigger because of concern about breaking the firing pin.” Anson in his book cites this passage as well1. This passage is rather ambiguous by itself but makes sense once it is put in context. This passage is a paraphrase of Ronald Simmons testimony on pg. 447 Vol. 3 of the Warren Commission Hearings as cited by Dorsch. In this testimony Mr. Simmons states, “[the marksmen] had each attempted the exercise without the use of ammunition, and had worked the bolt as they tried the exercise. They had not pulled the trigger during the exercise, however, because we were concerned about breaking the firing pin” (3 H 447). In this statement there is no mention of rust, only concern for breaking the firing pin.
In order to find out where the claims of rust come from we have to turn to Meagher’s citation of CE 2974. CE 2974 is a letter from J. Edgar Hoover to Dr. Lee Rankin, Warren Commission general counsel, which contains information about the examination of CE 139. Mr. Rankin inquired what the term “plunger” meant, whether the firing pin had been replaced, and did the FBI have information on where replacement parts could be found. Hoover informed Rankin that “plunger” was a synonym for firing pin and that because the firing pin on CE 139 had “been used extensively” and that there was “rust on the firing pin and its spring” the pin had not been replaced. Finally, Hoover says the pin was “well oiled” and that the oil had to have been applied after the rust formed. There is no mention that this rust compromised the integrity of the pin. So why do conspiracy theorists claim rust on the pin was the reason the marksmen testing CE 139 were afraid to dry fire it?
This entire claim is an ad hoc assumption. Mr. Simmons never once mentioned that rust was of concern to the men testing the weapon. In fact, dry firing a weapon is a risky practice without “dummy” ammunition. Older rifles had notoriously brittle firing pins and further more were not designed to be fired without live ammunition in the chamber. Most firing pins are designed to be cushioned by the primer caps which they strike. Firing a pin into open air can cause the pin to over extend, rattle, and retract in an unsafe way damaging the pin2. All of the men working on CE 139 were firearms experts and knew of this fact. Odds are that the rust present on the firing pin would have been very hard to detect in the field and it is not logical to assume that these men thoroughly inspected CE 139’s firing pin and concluded that dry firing it would be dangerous. Rather, it is more reasonable to posit that they chose not to dry fire the rifle because of the rifle’s age and expert knowledge of handling firearms. Various tests on the Oswald Mannlicher-Carcano (not an “exemplar rifle”) were conducted at the direction of the Warren Commission. The Commission wanted to know if the rifle was accurate, reliable, and whether or not Oswald could have fired three rounds within the purported time frame. All the tests were conducted at Edgewood Arsenal. Firearms expert Robert Frazier fired “four groups of three shots at a distance of 100 yards in 5.9, 6.2, 5.6, and 6.5 seconds. Each series of three shots landed within areas ranging in diameter from 3 to 5 inches” (WR 194). As shown by these results, CE 139 proved to be an accurate and reliable weapon, and rust on the firing pin did not compromise its performance.
There is no reason to believe that the firing pin in CE 139 was severely damaged by rust.
(1) Actually the book says "WCR pg. 181", however, there is no such mention of the firing pin on pg. 181 and this is a poor citation by Anson
(2) Cheaper Than Dirt's (Discount Online Firearms Store) guide to dry firing