Have you been hankering to see the bullets that killed President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas on that fateful day in 1963? Researchers sometimes ask the U.S. National Archives and Record Administration (NARA) if they can see the bullets, but the U.S. government doesn’t like to give people access given their fragility. That’s going to change soon, and starting next year, anyone with an Internet connection will be able to examine the bullets up close, all thanks to 3D scanning technology.
NARA asked the ballistics team at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to digitally preserve the infamous bullets – creating new still photos and highly detailed 3D scans to be made available online.
There are two fragments from the single bullet that fatally wounded the president, but there is also one full bullet that hit both Kennedy and Texas Governor John Connally, known as the stretcher bullet, which gets its name because it was found later near Connally at the hospital. Skeptics who believe that Lee Harvey Oswald wasn’t a lone assassin have a different name for it: the “magic bullet”.
Connally, who was sitting just in front of the president, survived.
Fragment from the bullet that fatally wounded President John F. Kennedy Photo: NIST
The bullet scans have a lateral resolution of 4 micrometers, roughly a tenth the size of a human hair, and a vertical resolution of 0.5 micrometers. Needless to say, you’ll really be able to get a good look at the bullets that killed President Kennedy, if that’s what blows your hair back.
“The virtual artifacts are as close as possible to the real things,” Martha Murphy, deputy director of government information services at the National Archives, said in a statement. “In some respects, they are better than the originals in that you can zoom in to see microscopic details.”
Why did NARA turn to NIST? The government agency is working on different processes to help make bullet forensics more reliable. And while NIST didn’t examine the JFK bullets and reach any conclusions, it had the tools necessary to scan the bullets and allow independent researchers to do their own analysis.
The NIST ballistics team is developing methods for comparing bullets using 3D surface maps, which can provide greater detail and accuracy than comparing two-dimensional images. It’s also developing methods so that, instead of just saying whether or not two bullets appear to match, forensic examiners will be able to statistically quantify their degree of similarity. This research is part of a larger effort by NIST to strengthen forensic science so that judges, juries and investigators have reliable, science-based information when deciding guilt or innocence.
Robert Thompson, the NIST forensic firearms expert who oversaw the project, said that the bullet fragments from the Kennedy assassination were bent and distorted in ways that made them difficult to image. “The techniques we developed to image those artifacts will be useful in criminal cases that involve similarly challenging evidence.”
The NIST has even created a video of the preservation process, which shows off the equipment that the agency is using.
“You’re going to see every groove in the bullet, every nick; it’s going to be a very true representation of the original,” Murphy says in the video.
“I think that the public will find that by conducting these scans and making the data of the enhanced, magnified images of the bullets available, that they will have more access than they’ve ever had to these materials.”
All images: NIST