‘Mysterious’ Winchester Rifle From 1882 Found Leaning Against Tree in Nevada National Park

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.

The 1882 Winchester rifle as it was found, nearly invisible, propped against a juniper tree. (NPS)

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.

An engraving on the mechanism reveals the rifle’s model, “Model 1873,” one of the most popular rifles of its day. (NPS)

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.

[Learn about another archaeological find from the Old West: “Fancy ‘Mustache Cup,’ Card-Cheater’s Cufflinks Unearthed in Montana Frontier Town“]
Winchester rifle excavation
Park archaeologist Eva Jensen works to remove years of built up dirt and debris from around the stock. (NPS)

“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.”

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  1. becky whitener

    Hello…love the discovery. We were thinking check the military. Maybe Calvery. Maybe that’s why you can’t locate any info. The calvery was enlisted to chase native americans. The military was issued a lot of guns during that time. Also search area for human bones??? Hope this helps.

    1. pat

      The us cavalry were never issued Winchester rifles…….in 1882 and until the late 90s they were issued single shot springfield rifles…..and all issued arms were property marked……..once again, us army never carried winchesters

  2. C. Reszka

    Loved the article about the Winchester rifle. Here’s a thought. It may be possible that the rifle was positioned that way to be used as a grave marker. Perhaps, the owner of the rifle died and was buried at the exact spot of the rifle. Wonder if the archaeologist, Eva Jensen and her team dug up the area, they would find skeletal remains.

  3. Vincent B. Talbot

    It is unlikely that the Winchester ’73 they found would have been US Army issue. The Cavalry was never issued lever action rifles. It may have been a personal arm. The Cavalry was issued single shot Springfield trap door carbines in .45-70 caliber.

    I was thinking the same thing about it being a grave marker, but to leave a functioning rifle there would be unlikely. Better to carve the guy’s name into the tree.

  4. A Brutto

    Great find. No one during that time would lose or leave this rifle and rarely would the 73 be unloaded. My theory is there was an altercation. The party spent his ammo defending himself, set the rifle down and went for his pistol. He was probably killed. Look for the spent brass with electronic equipment. Also the park could build a prop scene with the rifle leaning against the juniper from pictures taken for their museum. Dont give up. Thanks

  5. Oliver

    Wouldn’t the tree have grown into the rifle over 100 years? I wonder how old the tree is?

  6. Robert Lefebvre

    I love it
    Let me tell you about another old gun discovery that took place about 40 years ago in a small place right beside the vermont border that was called Moores corner ( today St. Armand ) Qc. That area was the place where the patriots of Lower Canada during the Rebellion of 1837 to become a Republic woul used to bring guns across and got ambushed by the local milicia.Some patriot were kill or wounded and taken prisonner .A Gentleman who had bought a small house and barn decided to have the barn demolished because of it’s poor condition and after reaching the stone foundation , decided to salvage all the nice flat ones to discover a very old musket ( percussion) that two expert claim are of German influence but American made.The unbelieve discovery of this gun ,is that the barrel is forget on top with wide approx 3/4 inch letters : REPUPLIC R. C. FOR ( REPUBLIC OF CANADA )
    The arthefact is presently in a show case in the National Museum of the 1837 Patriot Revolution in St. Denis sur Richelieu, Qc.


    very interesting! I wonder if it might not have been a shoot out, and the person did run out of cartridges. threw the rifle up against the tree, pull out his pistol, and then was shot dead somewhere nearby? i miss place things, but not any of my firearms. they cost too much to lose!

  8. Lee McCullough

    It is easy to lose your bearings in country like that. Just possibly the rifle was leaned against some brush while its owner moved forward a little way without it and was unable to retrace his steps.