Mystery of the 1882 Winchester Rifle

Had This 1882 Winchester Rifle Been Leaning on This Tree For Over 130 Years?

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. It was an 1882 Winchester rifle leaning up against a tree in the heart of the park.

Almost immediately, the park employees could tell that the rifle was old: the barrel had rusted and the wood of the stock was cracked and weathered.

1882 winchester rifle leans against a tree

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

Thinking that a hunter must have left it behind, it was brought in for analysis. The results were startling.

The rifle was a “Model 1873” and it was later determined that the gun was manufactured in 1882. Had the rifle been leaning against the tree for more than 130 years, undisturbed, with nobody stumbling across it until the end of 2014?

Gun historians and Winchester staff were able to fill in some of the blanks. 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. The rifle was so popular that it was known as “the gun that won the west.” They were manufactured between 1873 and 1919. There were approximately a staggering 720,000 manufactured over that timespan.

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.

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. Such efforts have not answered the main questions of who originally owned the rifle, how long had it been in the Park propped up against the tree, and when it was placed there. It’s possible that the rifle had been a family heirloom and was placed 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.

Researchers performed intensive analysis and did find that the rifle had been altered at some point of its history so that it was only able to fire a single shot.

Park historians were able to determine that the area where the rifle was found had never been the site of a fire or 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, may be in the thousands of dollars according to a pawn shop in Las Vegas.

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

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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Doug MacGowan

Doug MacGowan lives on the San Francisco peninsula with his wife, a dog, and far too many cats. He has published five books on the topic of historic true crime. In his free time he enjoys reading.

Historic Mysteries