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1882 Winchester Rifle Mystery

by Doug MacGowan

The researchers and archeologists are trying to solve the mystery surrounding the 1882 Winchester rifle found in eastern Nevada in 2014. The rifle was leaning against a tree in Nevada’s Great Basin National Park. The wooden base of the rifle was partially burred. It had also turned gray suggesting that it was lying in that place for more than 100 years. How the gun remained undisturbed for so many years is still a mystery.

Discovery of the 1882 Winchester Rifle

In November of 2014, employees of the Great Basin National Park in Nevada were searching the park as they had done hundreds of times before. This time they came across the unexpected. NPS archeologist Eva Jensen found a Winchester Model 1873 rifle leaning up against a tree in the heart of the park.

The park official could immediately tell that the rifle was old. The barrel had rusted. The wood of the stock was cracked and weathered. However, the serial number helped in determining the manufacture date of the rifle.

1882 winchester rifle leans against a tree

Photo of the rifle leaning against a tree and the model number. (U.S. National Parks Service)

The park officials still don’t know who left the rifle against the tree or to whom it belonged, even after 5 years of its discovery.  The popular theory is that a hunter might have laid the rifle against the tree and walked off without it.

Description of 1882 Winchester rifle

The rifle was a “Model 1873”. It was later determined that the gun was manufactured in 1882. It was one of the most popular and successful Winchester rifles. The rifle was so popular that it was known as “the gun that won the west”. The manufactured date was between 1873 and 1919. There were 3 variations of the 1873 model – a 24-inch barrel rifle, a 20-inch barrel carbine, and a musket. The musket was mainly for military contracts.

By 1882, a new Model 1873 would have sold for about $25, equal to about $500 in today’s money. In 1882 there were approximately 25,000 rifles of that model manufactured. There were approximately a staggering 720,000 manufactured over that timespan.

Owner?

Gun historians and Winchester staff were able to fill in some of the blanks. A spokesman for the Winchester company stated that the mystery rifle may have originally belonged to “a lone cowboy riding the high range” or a gold prospector who abandoned the rifle for some unknown reasons.

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Researchers have even gone so far as to have the rifle x-rayed at a hospital and have treated the wood to stop further deterioration. Despite such efforts, the main questions remained unanswered.  The questions like who is the owner of the rifle, who placed it there and when. It’s possible that the rifle had been a family heirloom and was at the discovery site fairly recently. It seems hard to believe that sightseers and tourists tromping over the grounds of the area since the early 1880s would not have come across it.

Analysis of the rifle

The researchers performed an intensive analysis. They find that there was some alteration with the rifle in its history so that it was only able to fire a single shot. The park historians were able to determine that the specific area had never been the site of a fire. Or, some other natural disaster that could have helped determine how long the rifle had been in the found location. Similarly, searches of the nearby area did not find any clues in the soil or among the native plants.

As of July of 2015, the mystery is far from solved. A staff member of the Cody Firearms Museum in Wyoming has speculated that the puzzle will continue. He stated that because nobody knows how the rifle remained undiscovered for more than a century lends itself to the attention of amateur detectives.

The value of the gun, due to its bizarre history, maybe in the thousands of dollars according to a pawn shop in Las Vegas.

The rifle currently, along with 7,000 other guns, is at the Cody Firearms Museum. It will eventually be returned to the Great Basin Park for permanent display.

Sources:
Rifle from 1882 found leaning on tree in Nevada park” BBC News website, January 16, 2015.
Mystery deepens: Who left 130-year-old rifle in NV desert?” FOX News website, July 18, 2015.

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