132-Year-Old Winchester ’73 Rifle Found Propped on a Tree

   01.15.15

132-Year-Old Winchester ’73 Rifle Found Propped on a Tree

Now why can’t I ever find stuff like this in the woods?

It’s a Winchester Model 1873, chambered for 44-40 Winchester, and it was not loaded. Archaeologists reportedly found the gun in November 2014 while surveying part of Grand Basin National Park in Nevada.

The rifle was leaning placidly on a juniper tree, as it had done for untold years. Part of the wooden forearm was gone. The steel parts were badly rusted. The butt stock was weathered, cracked, and began falling apart when the rifle was moved.

Surveyors' flagging was used to tie the butt stock together when the gun was recovered.
Surveyors’ flagging was used to tie the butt stock together when the gun was recovered. (NPS photo)

But it was there. The serial number and other markings were still legible, indicating the rifle’s model, caliber, and age.

The tale of this rifle contains more questions than answers.

How long was it there? Winchester records indicate that it was one of 25,000 1873s manufactured in 1882.

Who left it there? The area was not known for Indian fights, although that’s always possible.

Why was it left behind? A rifle was an essential tool in most of the USA for many years and still is in some places. Would someone voluntarily part with one? If not, what forced its owner to leave it behind?

Why was it unloaded? Had the owner emptied it while hunting and left it behind to haul out his game? Did he shoot the gun dry fighting for his life? Did he run out of ammo signaling for help, then lay down and die? Did he try and fail to take some much-needed game, and then quietly starve to death in the wilderness?

It’s very likely that we will never know the answers to those questions. Winchester records only indicate a warehouse to which the rifle was shipped, and nothing else.

After all these years, "Model 1873" can still be read on the rifle's tang.
After all these years, “Model 1873” can still be read on the rifle’s tang. (NPS photo)

Many people, especially Winchester fans, like to refer to the Model 1873 as the gun that won the west. That’s because they were so popular and widespread and provided their owners with the ability to fire many rounds in rapid succession.

Some articles have indicated the so-called “low price” of the 1873 in 1882: $25. What they fail to consider is just how tough it often was to come up with $25 back then. But one thing may help with that. The area where the rifle was found was “primarily a mining site” at the time the gun was new, so perhaps a fortunate miner purchased the gun with his findings.

The rifle will be displayed for public viewing, then will be sent away for conservation. Unlike restoration, conservation seeks to preserve a relic in its present state, so the rifle will not be repaired or restored to operating condition.

In 2016, the rifle will be displayed “as part of the park’s 30th birthday and the NPS centennial celebration.”

I tell ya… I’ve spent a lot of time hunting, hiking, and surveying in the woods, and I haven’t found anything like that. Maybe someday…

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