A mysterious 132-year-old Winchester rifle has arrived at the Cody Firearms Museum for a little TLC after being exposed to years of inclement weather in Nevada’s Snake Mountains.
The Winchester Model 1873 lever-action rifle received international attention after it was found leaning against a juniper tree last November by an archaeologist working in Nevada’s Great Basin National Park, four hours northeast of Las Vegas.
“One thing we all assumed was that someone here had a very bad day,” park archaeologist Eva Jensen, who found the rifle, told the Associated Press at the time. “One of the staff said, ‘Why do you set your gun down and forget where you put it? That just doesn’t happen.’”
Well, that’s not entirely true.
“There are people I know who’ve lost their firearms,” said Ashley Hlebinsky, curator of the Cody Firearms Museum. “So it’s not unheard of.”
The “Forgotten Winchester,” as some have called it, went viral online after park employees posted a photograph of the rifle on the park’s Facebook page. The post asked, “Can you find the man-made object in this image?”
That one question sparked a media sensation.
“It has crossed all demographics,” Hlebinsky said. She has had calls from CNN and even talked to people from Europe who have heard the story about the unusual rifle. “People like a mystery.”
Park officials recently delivered the rifle to the Buffalo Bill Center of the West’s Cody Firearms Museum for conservation and identification. The center also holds the manufacturing records for Winchester firearms.
After years with little protection from sun, rain, wind and snow, the rifle had a cracked wooden stock that had weathered to gray and the barrel had rusted to a deep brown. The natural colors helped the rifle blend into its surroundings in a remote rocky outcrop, keeping the rifle camouflaged for years.
When the rifle arrived in Cody, the wood was flaking and stained by white salts. One of the first steps of conservator Beverly Perkins, Hlebinsky and curatorial assistant Dan Brumley was to “admit” the firearm to neighboring West Park Hospital’s radiology department for X-rays. The images showed that the gun was not loaded, but did have a cartridge in the trap of the butt stock, which was created to hold cleaning rods. A crack in the stock had also been repaired with metal pins.
The door to the butt stock was loosened with a drop of penetrating oil, and the object was removed and identified as a Union Metallic Cartridge Co. .44 caliber WCF cartridge, dated 1887-1911.
Because of the age of the cartridge, Hlebinsky noted that the longest the rifle could have been sitting out was since 1887. But she personally doesn’t believe it was that long, since the tree hadn’t grown around the rifle.
Examination of the rifle also showed that the lifter arm, a mechanism that lifts a cartridge into the chamber from the magazine, had been removed. Without that feature, the rifle had become a single-shot firearm.
To stop further flaking of the wood, Perkins used an adhesive (2 percent Klucel G hydroxypropylcellulose) mixed in distilled water and ethanol.
“We kept anything that has fallen off of the gun for testing, including dirt that fell out of the trap door in the butt stock,” Hlebinsky said. “That can be dated.”
She added that the they had to move “very, very cautiously” when handling the rifle because it was so fragile.
Known as “The Gun that Won the West,” Hlebinsky called the Winchester Model 1873 possibly “the most iconic western firearm of all time,” which probably adds to the allure of the mystery.
“With all it’s been through, this particular gun has certainly carried on that legend,” she said in a press release.
The abandoned rifle is shrouded in a mystery that will likely never be solved.
“Why would you leave your rifle and not come back for it?” Hlebinsky asked. “How many years was it hidden? Why was it left leaning against a tree? We here at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West and the staff at Great Basin are both asking the same questions. The mysteries surrounding this Winchester 1873 have truly fueled its popularity.”
Hlebinsky encouraged the public to weigh in on why they think the rifle was abandoned.
“What do you think happened?” she asked. “Enter 210 at bbcw.iscout.org to tell us why you think this rifle was left out in nature.”
She said the museum has already received several comments from the public, including those who think that it’s a fake.
“It’s not fraudulent, I can guarantee you that,” Hlebinsky said.
The rifle is on display in the Firearms Museum, where it will remain until fall when the center will return it to Great Basin National Park for its 30th anniversary and the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service in 2016.