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.