The Winchester Model 1873 lever-action rifle stumbled upon by archaeologists at a national park in Nevada last November is on display through this fall in the Cody Firearms Museum at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyo.
Upon its discovery, it was at once both a relic and an enigma: a 132-year-old Winchester Model 1873 .44-40 cal. rifle, discovered leaning against a juniper tree in Nevada’s Great Basin National Park, its stock gray and weathered after years of exposure to the elements. Park employees posted a photograph of the rifle, when it was found, 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, and the “Forgotten Winchester,” as some have called it, went viral online and received considerable national attention.
“The Winchester Model 1873 alone may be the most iconic Western firearm of all time,” said Firearms Museum Curator Ashley Hlebinsky. “This is especially true of its marketing slogan, ‘The Gun that Won the West.’ With all it’s been through, this particular gun has certainly carried on that legend.”
The rifle was taken by park personnel to the Cody facility early this year for conservation and identification, as the Center holds the manufacturing records for Winchester firearms.
One of the first steps taken by museum Conservator Beverly Perkins, Hlebinsky, and Curatorial Assistant Dan Brumley was to walk the rifle across the street to neighboring West Park Hospital’s radiology department for X-rays. The images quickly assured the Center’s employees that the gun was not loaded, but indicated a cartridge in the trap of the butt stock.
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 Company .44 WCF cartridge, dated 1887 – 1911. 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.”
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? The mysteries surrounding this Winchester 1873 have truly fueled its popularity.”
One thing is for certain, according to the museum curator, the rifle is the real deal.
“It’s not fraudulent, I can guarantee you that,” Hlebinsky said.
The Great Basin National Park gun will remain on display in the Cody Museum until fall 2015, when the Center will return it to Great Basin for its 30th anniversary and the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service in 2016.
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Top Photo: The rifle found against a tree in Great Basin National Park.