Great Basin National Park has a new permanent exhibition dedicated to the “Forgotten Winchester,” the historic firearm found leaning against a Juniper tree by park archaeologist Eva Jensen in November of 2014. The Winchester Model 1873 Lever Action Rifle, already iconic as “the gun that won the West,” became a viral hit for its weather-beaten appearance and casual pose as if it were just hanging out for a minute waiting for its owner to return.
The park sent it to the Cody Firearms Museum in Cody, Wyoming where experts examined it. They were able to find its serial number in their extensive archive of Winchester records and identified it as having been made in February 1882.
Before beginning the conservation process, the Cody team needed to ascertain that the gun wasn’t loaded. First they employed the wooden dowel test: inserting a wooden dowel to measure the length of the barrel to the breach. The dowel encountered some kind of blockage, so curators took the rifle to the local hospital for an X-ray to find out what was inside.
There was no bullet inside the barrel. The blockage didn’t show up on the X-ray, so curators suspect it was compacted organic material. The X-ray did find there was a live cartridge inside the buttstock. The Winchester had a trapdoor and a little storage tunnel in the buttstock that was usually used to keep cleaning supplies. Experts were able to open the trapdoor and remove the cartridge. They found it was a .44-40 Winchester Center Fire round made between from 1887 and 1911 by the Union Metallic Cartridge Company.
The rifle was carefully disassembled so it could be conserved in the same awesomely weathered condition in which it was found. Corrosion was removed from the metal parts and the flaking wood bound with adhesive to keep it from further loss. The rifle was then put on public display briefly at the Cody Museum, at various gun shows and at Great Basin National Park’s Lehman Caves Visitor Center.
The new permanent Forgotten Winchester exhibition puts the rifle in a display case that positions it as it was when it was found with a life-sized image of the tree as the backdrop. The live round found in the buttstock is also on display.
The exhibit also highlights the role the Model 1873 — one of the most popular guns on the Western frontier — played in the history of the West.
“The exhibit is a showcase for visitors to discover the rifle’s mysterious story and become inspired to imagine, investigate and care about a piece of their American history,” said Nichole Andler, the park’s chief of interpretation. […]
“It has been a fun and inspiring project to work on with our park staff and our partners to complete this exhibit and give the Forgotten Winchester a permanent home,” Andler said.
The Juniper tree that was its home for so long alas is no longer with us. Just two years after the rifle was found, a wildfire burned the hillside above Strawberry Creek where the Forgotten Winchester had resided. Its comfy leaning tree was devastated in the conflagration. All that is left of it is a black stick. Had Eva Jensen’s keen powers of observation not spotted the rifle — which had weather to such a consistently grey color that it looked practically indistinguishable from the tree — than it would have burned to nothingness and nobody alive would have known it ever existed.