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Secret Service Audio:
The Moment Reagan Was Shot
Secret Service Audio:
The Moment Reagan Was Shot

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Secret Service Audio:
The Moment Reagan Was Shot

The scene at the Washington Hilton after John Hinckley Jr. fired six shots in an attempt to assassinate President Reagan on March 30, 1981.(AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)

photo of Marc Ambinder
March 11, 2011

A heretofore hidden soundtrack for the day President Reagan was shot has been revealed.

Reagan Assassination Attempt Radio Traffic on March 30, 1981


Secret Service Glossary

  • Rawhide  = Ronald Reagan
  • Jerry Parr, Special Agent In Charge, Reagan’s detail
  • Ray Shaddick, Shift Leader, Reagan’s detail
  • Horsepower = Presidential Protection Division Command Post
  • Crown = The White House
  • Rainbow = Nancy Reagan
  • Stagecoach = The president’s limo
  • Halfback = The president’s follow vehicle
  • Drew Unrue, the  Agent driving Stagecoach
  • Fencingmaster = Code name for the Secretary of the Treasury

The U.S. Secret Service has released its audio recording from the moments before John Hinckley Jr. fired his revolver at the president to the frantic arrival of first lady Nancy Reagan at George Washington University Medical Center, where her husband was undergoing emergency surgery.

The 10-minute recording, from March 30, 1981, of the Secret Service’s “OSCAR” channel, which linked the Presidential Protective Division agents around Reagan with the agency’s “Horsepower” command post at the White House, begins with an agent announcing Reagan’s exit from the side door of the Washington Hilton hotel.

Then came the six shots, fired closely in a row. These aren’t heard on the tape. Agents were instinctively reacting; the sequence of events is now familiar to anyone who has watched it.

Jerry Parr, the agent closest to Reagan, uses the broad surface area of his arm to bend Reagan down toward the presidential limousine.     

Ray Shaddick, the shift leader, pushes them both inside.  Agent Timothy McCarthy stretched his arms wide and blanches from a bullet strike. White House press secretary James Brady grimaces as another round sliced through his skull. Within three seconds, the limousine door was closed, and it accelerates out of the drop.

On the tape, Shaddick, now in the follow-up car, codenamed “Halfback,” radios the command post. 

“Advise, we’ve had shots fired. Shot fired. There are some injuries, ahh, lay one on.”

Parr runs his hands up Reagan’s torso; he appears fine. There's relief.

He radios Shaddick: “Stagecoach, Shaddick. Rawhide is okay, follow-up. Rawhide is okay.” Rawhide is the president's Secret Service code name. The stagecoach is the presidential limo.

An agent asks whether the limo will head to the hospital or to “Crown,” code name for the White House.

This is interrupted briefly by a burst of audio from the chaotic scene that the bulletproof limo has just left.

"Crown," replies Shaddick.

Another snippet of audio from the scene; an agent is trying to radio in a status report about the shooter.

Parr then confirms this. “Back to the White House,” he says slowly. “Back to the White House. Rawhide is O-Kay.” 

About 15 seconds of transmissions follow—the White House tries to get a status point, but Shaddick wants the air cleared—he doesn’t know if the Hilton incident is one part of a larger plot. “Rawhide is all right,” he assures the White House.

At this point, Parr sees an unusual nick in the glass of the limo and turns back to Reagan, who has begun to cough up blood.

Off the radio, he tells the driver of the limo to divert immediately off of Connecticut Avenue to George Washington Medical Center.

The driver of the limo messages the agent in charge of transportation for the motorcade—she’s in communication with the D.C. officers trying to catch up to the speeding limo —“…[We] want to go to the emergency room of George Washington.”

“Go to George Washington fast.”

Then Parr radios Shaddick.

“Shaddick—Parr. George Washington,”


“Get an ambulance, I mean, get the stretcher out there.”


The command post back at the White House immediately picks up an open line to George Washington.

Shaddick wants to make sure Horsepower knows about the revised destination.

“Horsepower—Shaddick, you copy, GW.’

“Correct. We’ve made the call.”

Then, sounds of police sirens screaming, and a burst of audio that sounds like “Connecticut Avenue.”

“Let’s hustle,” Shaddick tells his command post. He wants to get as many agents as possible to rush to George Washington to establish a secure perimeter.

When the limo arrives, no one is there to greet the team. Parr and Shaddick grab Reagan underneath his arms and carry him into the emergency room, where he collapses. It would later emerge that none of the bullets struck Reagan directly; in the process of doing his job, Parr accidentally pushed Reagan into the path of a jagged, flattened bullet that had ricocheted off a door frame.

The tape ends a few moments later with the arrival of “Rainbow,” Nancy Reagan, at the hospital’s 22nd Street entrance.

The Secret Service decided to release the tape after its public-affairs division learned that it existed, a spokesman said. The Washington Post’s Del Quentin Wilber had discovered its existence while interviewing agents for his book, “Rawhide Down,” about the day Reagan was shot.  The book is due out next week.

Since the assassination, the Secret Service’s protective methodology has changed significantly. 

And so has the geography of the assassination site: the president still attends numerous functions at the Hilton, but his limo now enters a special armored “drop” constructed on the exact spot of the Reagan attempt. (Never again would a president arrive and depart from a planned event without a secured location or a crowd that had been screened for weapons.)  

But a few things remain the same.

The presidential protective division uses the same frequency for its communications. (The digital encryption is impenetrable to outsiders, however.)

“Stagecoach” is still the code name for the limo. “Halfback” is code for the follow-up car. The PPD command post is still known as “Horsepower.” There’s still a direct line between the Secret Service and the George Washington University Hospital, which now sports an emergency trauma facility named after Reagan.

And Reagan, until the day he died, was always “Rawhide.”

An ABC cameraman, Hank Brown, recorded the famous video sequence; an Associated Press photographer, Ron Edmonds, received a Pulitzer Prize for his photographs of the moment.


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