President Reagan had delivered a routine speech on an ordinary day when he exited a Washington hotel with his right-hand man, Michael Deaver, by his side.
"I think we were telling a joke, Brady and the president and I, walking out," Deaver recalls.
Suddenly, there was gunfire. John Hinckley Jr. fired six shots. Press Secretary James Brady, Secret Service agent Tim McCarthy and Washington D.C. police officer Thomas Delahanty also went down. The presidential limousine raced to George Washington University Hospital.
"The door opens and Reagan gets out!" Deaver says. "We're walking right behind him and the instant he got to the doorframe, he collapsed — the knees went out from underneath him."
At the White House, there was near chaos and fears of a conspiracy. Secretary of State Al Haig was visibly distraught.
"As of now, I am in control here," Haig told the nation.
With U.S. and Soviet nuclear missiles targeting each other, the overriding concern was to show that the government was stable — and the president functioning.
White House aide Lynn Nofziger informed the media of Mr. Reagan's remark to wife Nancy: "He told Mrs. Reagan, 'Honey, I forgot to duck.'"
"What? Forgot to duck?" reporters called out.
"I forgot to duck!" Nofziger repeated
But the president was more grievously injured than anyone knew. Three days later, he developed an infection and a high fever that lasted nearly a week.
"To me, that's when I thought, there was a chance at that point that he might not make it," Deaver recalls.
The assassination attempt changed the way presidents are protected, but did it change Ronald Reagan?
"It made him a lot more stubborn," Deaver says. "He said, 'You know, I think there's a reason I've been spared, and I'm gonna follow my own instincts from here on out' And he did."
Reagan was released from the hospital still a stiff old man. But just four weeks after being shot, he emerged from seclusion to a hero's welcome in Congress — and only three months into his presidency, already a legend.