132-year-old Winchester ’73 found leaning against tree

Eva Jensen, Cultural Resource Program Manager at Great Basin National Park in eastern Nevada’s Snake mountain range, was exploring the park with the archaeology team looking for Native American artifacts on November 6th, 2014, when she spotted an object leaning against a Juniper tree. Upon closer examination, she saw that it was a rifle so cracked and weathered that it was perfectly camouflaged by the cracked and weathered tree behind it.

The grayed wood stock was embedded in the dirt, leaves and rocks at the base of the tree. Eva Jensen had to carefully dig away the debris in order to liberate the rifle. Once able to examine the whole thing, the team spied “Model 1873” engraved on the iron gun body, the classic imprimatur of the Winchester ’73, “the gun that won the West.” Its characteristic crescent-shaped buttstock identified it as the lever-action repeating rifle form (Winchester also made carbine and musket forms of the Model 1873). The octagonal barrel is chambered for .44-40 cartridges, the original caliber that was manufactured from 1873 until production stopped on the model in 1916, but the rifle was found uncharged.

The team then wrapped the stock in non-adhesive orange flagging to keep it from falling apart. They then placed the rifle on a clean white cloth and in a gun case and transported it to the park’s museum storage. Jensen began researching the weapon starting with looking up the serial number on the lower tang. She turned to the Cody Firearms Museum‘s records office in Cody, Wyoming, which has original factory data for select Winchester serial numbers. The Great Basin Winchester’s serial number identifies it as having been manufactured and shipped from the Connecticut warehouse in 1882, but there was no further information, nothing about who ordered it or where it was shipped to.

So Jensen consulted newspapers of the day — the Ward Reflex and White Pine County Record — that chronicled the then-thriving mining industry in northern Nevada. She found tantalizing tidbits, including ads from dry goods stores selling Winchester rifles, even the name of a gunsmith in the area.

But there were no stories of any gun battle or outlaw search that might have put a history to the gun. She found a picture of a member of a prominent family holding a Winchester, but it was the wrong model.

Jensen and the cultural resource staff will continue to search periodicals and family archives in the likely vain attempt to pinpoint the history of this found rifle, one of the 720,610 the company manufactured during the model’s incredibly successful run. The year this Winchester 73 was made was particularly fruitful thanks to a price drop from $50 to $25 engendered by the decline in the iron and steel industries that ushered in a recession that would last three years; more than 25,000 Winchester Model 1873s were made in 1882.

The rifle will be on display Friday from 11:00 AM to 1:00 PM at the Great Basin Visitor Center classroom, and at the Old Sheepherders Gathering at the Border Inn in Baker on Saturday, January 17th, from 2:30 until 5:00 PM. These brief glimpses are all we’ll get for a while. The rifle’s wood needs to be stabilized and conserved for future display. They will not be restoring it, thankfully. The aim of conservation will be to keep it in the condition in which is was found because it’s cool. Once conservation is complete, it will go on display at the Great Basin National Park as part of the celebrations of its 30th anniversary and the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary in 2016.

12 thoughts on “132-year-old Winchester ’73 found leaning against tree

  1. “The aim of conservation will be to keep it in the condition in which is was found because it’s cool.”

    Best reason ever!

  2. Really hoping that at the sheepherder’s gathering somebody will remember granddaddy chuckling about great-granddaddy grumbling over the year he lost “the greatest gun” he ever had. Because as long as this was an inadvertent misplacement of property, instead of a grave marker (which would also be cool), it would certainly be remembered as, “rats, that was a really good gun, too.”

  3. What a great find! I recall my delight in spotting a few pioneer artifacts along the route of the Mormon trail in Wyoming – friends who had a ranch in the area told me how often such things still turned up even after a century in the open air. But most of the things we saw were small items or fragments, nothing like that rifel!

  4. It’s usually gussied-up in scholarly language, but “because it’s cool” is the driving principle behind just about all science.

  5. Some of these rocks look in fact so ‘regular’ in shape and size, almost as if a Taunton cat might be buried underneath. Also, why is there a flag attached to that ‘tree’, or what is left of it. In general, ‘Guns in the US’ are maybe not that much of a novelty, as if they were a hundred years ago.

    The ‘Great Basin’ seems to be huge. The main centers seem to be places labelled ‘Las Vegas’ or ‘Reno’. Therefore, what is known about the exact region were the find was made ? Could the weapon be a voluntary deposit ? Similar to the seemingly modern flag, a landmark maybe ?

  6. One of the points that doesn’t get mentioned is how long the rifle has been there. All that is known for sure is that it is post-1882. The weathering on the stock is typical for wood in an arid environment that has been there for decades. My guess, based on artifacts that I have seen left out in the weather in Wyoming, is that it has been there at least 50 years but possibly much longer.

    The fact that it is unloaded may indicate that it was just forgotten when someone was packing up after a rest rather than during hunting, etc.. In that environment one tree looks a lot like another and even a diligent search of the area might not find a misplaced rifle.

  7. I notice that the trigger is not in the right position and appears to have been broken before the rifle was left behind, otherwise the weather would have frozen it in place. That clue, plus the fact the rifle was unloaded leads me to believe that the rifle was worn out,and broken. I feel like the owner probably unloaded the cartridges and leaned the old worn out broken rifle against the tree and walked/rode away. The worn rifle in those days probably were not worth fixing or trading. Based on my (2) nineteen century lever action rifles and the one newer lever action winchester 22 (received 1970)repairs, The rifle was probably left behind sometime between 1910 to 1920 maybe later.

    A remarkable find never the less, and no one will ever know the complete story…

  8. Great story. Would suggest. CAREFULLY remove or loosen butt plate.
    Often people had a gunsmith carve a hollow for emergency money, identification etc., replace butt plate.

    My suspicion is someone left the gun as he was out of ammo, stashed it as it was too heavy to lug was on his way to a “nearby camp” & intended to come back but didn’t make it due to accident or indians. Rifle then too valuable to forget. Many possible explanations.

    Scan local news papers of the day (1882-1883, 1884).

  9. The cowboy sat low in his saddle, hungry, thirsty, and exhausted, from a long chase with a blood thirsty lench mob who wanted him for suspected cattle rustling. After running over 50 miles on his trusty steed Thunder, he now reaches the end of his limits. After killing 5 of the mob, and battling for many weary days, he uses his last bullet to spare his horse Thunder a long miserable death from a broken leg. The poor cowboy now bleeding from a gun shot wound to his belly, knows his time is short. Now moments from death he lays down his trusty riffle that his young loving wife to be gave him as a present on the day he left on an ill fated cattle drive that brought him to this god forsaken land. The gun comes to rest on a small Juniper sapling just starting his life in this hot dry land. As the young cowboy lays down for the final time the small sprouting Juniper will rise into the sky after years of growth to lift erect the cowboys riffle to stand forever as a monument for the short life of this once brave and strong young cowboy.

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