Usually you need to head into a museum to see what turned up in the backcountry of Great Basin National Park: A 132-year-old Winchester rifle.
The find left park staff wondering why someone would leave their rifle and not come back? Numerous questions such as that one surround the small piece of American heritage found and recovered by park archaeologists in November.
According to Nichole Andler, chief of Interpretation at Great Basin:
The rifle, exposed for all those years to sun, wind, snow and rain, was found leaning against a tree in the park. The cracked wood stock, weathered to grey, and the brown rusted barrel blended into the colors of the old juniper tree in a remote rocky outcrop, keeping the rifle hidden for many years.
Engraved on the rifle is 'Model 1873,' identifying it distinctly as a Winchester Model 1873 repeating rifle. The serial number on the lower tang corresponds in Winchester records held at the Center for the West at the Cody Firearms Museum in Cody, Wyoming, with a manufacture and shipping date of 1882. But the detailed history of this rifle is as yet unknown. Winchester records do not indicate who purchased the rifle from the warehouse or where it was shipped.
Winchester Model 1873 rifles hold a prominent place in Western history and lore. The rifles are referred to as 'the gun that won the West." A total of 720,610 were manufactured between 1873 and 1916, when production ended. In 1882 alone, more than 25,000 were made.
Selling for about $50 when they first came out, the rifles were reduced in price to $25 in 1882 and were accessible and popular as 'everyman's' rifle. The Winchester business plan included selling large lots of rifles to dealers or 'jobbers' who would distribute the firearms to smaller sales outlets.
This rifle may provide its own bit of lore. 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.
The park will provide a viewing opportunity for the community before sending the rifle to conservators to stabilize the wood and apply museum conservation techniques. The treatment will keep the gun looking as it was found and prevent further deterioration.
When the rifle is returned to the park, it will be displayed as part of the park's 30th birthday and the NPS centennial celebration.