The Humanitarian Rifle

Conspiracy theorists have, of course, been keen on proving that the 6.5mm Mannlicher Carcano used by Oswald was unfit to kill the President. One of their claims has been that the entire line of 6.5mm Mannlicher Carcanos were inherently inaccurate. Conspiracy theorists even claim that rifle had earned a nickname of “humanitarian rifle” from the Italian soldiers who used it. They claim that this nickname originated because the gun was inaccurate and “could not hurt anyone on purpose” (Meagher 101). But where did all this talk come from?

The earliest conspiracy book that makes mention of the Mannlicher Carcano being a “humanitarian rifle” is Accessories After the Fact by Sylvia Meagher. The claim resurfaces in "They've Killed The President!" The Search for the Murderers of John F. Kennedy by Robert Sam Anson on page 75, The Assassination of John F. Kennedy: A New Review by Ian Macfarlane on page 40, Conspiracy to Kill a President by Brian Russel and Charles Sellier on page 25, JFK: The CIA, Vietnam, and the Plot to Assassinate JFK by Fletcher Prouty (famously “Mr. X” in Oliver Stone’s “JFK”) on page XIX, False Mystery: Essays on the Assassination of JFK by Vincent Salandria on page 136, and finally in Vincent Salandria’s essay “The Design of the Warren Report, to Fall to Pieces.” Given that this is found in so many places, it would seem to be well-sourced; however, all these sources cite Meagher or Meagher’s primary source. So what is this convincing piece of evidence that has sparked so much discussion on the accuracy of the Mannlicher Carcano?

Meagher cites a letter to the editor written by John P. Conlon dated June of 1964 in the magazine Analog. However, Analog is a science fiction magazine and at the time acted as a public forum for critics of literature, science fact, and aspiring authors. It seems rather odd that Meagher would cite a letter to the editor in science-fiction magazine as her source for such a bold claim.

But it’s worse than that. Meagher actually misrepresented what Conlon wrote.

In the issue prior to Mr. Conlon’s letter, there was a piece about the Kennedy Assassination in Analog and Mr. Conlon was responding to a few of the claims made by the author. The specific claim he was addressing was whether or not a modern rifle could kill a man at a mile’s distance. He asserted that yes a modern rifle could kill someone from a mile away but that it was a ludicrous claim to bring up in context of the assassination considering that Oswald was nowhere near that far away from Kennedy.

He then states that the “old 6.5 Carcano” never received high marks from the Italian Army for accuracy because the Italian Army relied heavily on machine guns, mortars, and artillery. It is in this context he says that “[s]ome humorous Italian soldiers called it the ‘Humanitarian Rifle’ since they claimed it couldn’t hurt anyone on purpose.” Mr. Conlon then went on to defend the accuracy of the Mannlicher Carcano within 200 yards, explaining:

“When we come closer, the performance increases, to the point where below 200 yards, a good marksman with scope-sighted rifle very rarely misses, given a chance to rest his support arm, and clear vision.”

Thus Meagher misrepresented the thrust of Conlon’s letter, ripping one phrase quite out of context.

The tone of Conlon’s letter is sober enough, and he may have some expertise in firearms, but if he does, then his conclusion that the Mannlicher-Carcano was quite adequate to kill Kennedy should be accepted. But we might wonder what well-credentialed experts had to say about the accuracy of the rifle.

“Three FBI experts each fired three shots from the weapon at 15 yards…each man’s shot landed within the size of a dime…At 25 yards landed within in an area of 2 inches and 5 inches respectively…At a distance of 100 yards…Each series of three shots landed within areas ranging in diameter from 3 to 5 inches…Based on these tests the experts agreed that the assassination rifle was an accurate weapon. (Ronald) Simmons described it as ‘quite accurate.” (WR 194)

But if Meagher was remiss in using a suspect source and then misrepresenting it, what are we to make of all the other authors (listed above) did not check Meagher’s original source but merely accepted her characterization of it? As with so much JFK assassination literature, bogus claims get embraced and passed along without scrutiny.

It’s tempting to believe that if an assertion is found in multiple books and articles that it must be true. But when authors have just repeated factoids, not bothering to check the veracity of the original claim, a “widely accepted” idea can easily turn out to be nonsense.

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