Archaeologists surveying the remote reaches of Nevada‘s Great Basin National Park came upon a tantalizing find from the Old West — a weathered, 132-year-old Winchester repeating rifle, discovered propped up against a juniper tree, just as it had been left when it was abandoned.
Park archaeologist Eva Jensen made the find in November, while she and her colleagues were surveying a hilly corner of the park that had not previously been explored, before a controlled burn was to be conducted.
The rifle’s rusted barrel and worn wooden stock, grayed by more than a century of sun and snow, made it almost invisible at first.
But after circling the site a few times, Jensen was able to identify it: a Winchester engraved with its model number, “Model 1873.”
After documenting the site, archaeologists removed the artifact and found a serial number on the tang, or metal shank, near the rear of the frame.
They then referenced the number to the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Wyoming, which houses records from the Winchester, Marlin, and L. C. Smith gun manufacturers.
But all the records revealed was that the firearm was manufactured and shipped in 1882.
The rest of the weapon’s story, from who bought it, to how it found its way to this rocky outcrop in eastern Nevada, remains a mystery.
“Currently, the detailed history of this rifle is unknown,” officials from the park said in a press statement.
“Numerous questions surround the small piece of American heritage in Great Basin National Park.”
The rifle had clearly not been moved in many years, the butt of its stock firmly lodged in the ground among some rocks.
It’s not yet clear whether the firearm — a .44 caliber lever-action — might have still been in working condition when it was abandoned, but it was found unloaded.
Since November, Jensen has been poring over historic newspapers, searching for advertisements and old photographs that may contain either a trace of the rifle itself, or an account of someone —such as a prospector or an outlaw — who had disappeared in these mountains. [Read about an important recent find nearby: “Nevada Petroglyphs Are the Oldest in North America, Study Finds“]
But the Model 1873s is proving to be a difficult artifact to track, because it was one of the West’s most popular firearms.
According to the park, Winchester manufactured 25,000 Model 1873s in 1882 alone, and it was also the year that the gun manufacturer cut their price in half, from $50 to $25.
“[They] were accessible and popular as an ‘everyman’s’ rifle,” park officials pointed out.
“The Winchester business plan included selling large lots of rifles to dealers or ‘jobbers’ who would distribute the firearms to smaller sales outlets.”
For now, conservators are stabilizing the cracked wooden stock and preparing the rifle for permanent display in the park.
Meanwhile, Jensen and others will continue to ply through historical records, in the hopes of uncovering the story of the Great Basin Winchester.
“This rifle may provide its own bit of lore,” the park said in its statement.
“Mysteries of the rifle’s journey through time spur creative and lively discussion.
“Who left the rifle? When and why it was leaned against the tree? And, why was it never retrieved?
“The Great Basin cultural resource staff is continuing research in old newspapers and family histories hoping to resolve some of the mystery and fill in details about the story of this rifle.”