It was November 2014, and winter was closing in at Great Basin National Park. Archeologist Eva Jensen was participating in a field survey of cultural resources in the park, and stumbled upon an artifact that would soon make international headlines.
Her team was finishing up lunch, when she decided to walk a short distance to a nearby rock outcrop. Perhaps it was nature calling, or she was just curious, but near this jumble of rocks is where she made her discovery. Leaning against an aging juniper tree, tucked back into the shadows, was an old rifle.
Not just any old rifle, but a Winchester Model 1873 lever action rifle, the classic rifle often described as the “Gun that won the west.” The rifle that Jimmy Stewart fought for in the 1950 western Winchester ’73. Yes, that rifle.
She found it resting vertically, the butt of the wooden stock resting in a mix of dirt and duff near the base of the tree, with the barrel pointing almost straight up to the sky. The rifle’s placement was tentative, almost dapper, as if the owner would return at any moment.
The stock was bleached to nearly the same color as the fissured gray wood of the juniper. The 24-inch-long rusted barrel was hidden just as cryptically, blending into the backround much like another branch. The rifle was easy to miss, but once it caught Eva’s eye, it was immediately recognizable.
Even for a seasoned archeologist, she was taken aback by the magnitude of her find. “I had to stop and let my heart slow down,” she would say later.
For Great Basin National Park, the goal for preserving the rifle was not to restore it, but to maintain it in a state of “arrested decay”—a euphemism for not letting it get any worse.
The park enlisted the talent of the Cody Firearms Museum in Wyoming to track down the serial number that was stamped on the rifle. Their records showed it was manufactured in 1882, along with 24,999 others just like it that year. Experts at the museum did an assessment of the rifle, including the use of an X-ray image, that revealed a black powder cartridge inside a compartment in the stock, stamped 1887 – 1911.
Curiously, they also discovered that the rifle had been altered to become a single shot rather than a repeating rifle. All of the other necessary metal parts to load and fire the gun were intact.
Based on the cartridge dates, the year of manufacture, and the condition of the rifle, one of the Cody Researchers made a rough estimate that the gun had been leaning against this juniper tree since at least 1930, possibly as early as 1900.
At a purchase cost of $25 in 1882, ($578 in today’s dollars), the Winchester ’73 was certainly a prize possession for most owners. So who would leave it resting so casually against a random tree in the mountains of east-central Nevada?
The National Park Service did their best to track down the owner. They put the word out in the media, and law enforcement ran the serial number through their databases. The Great Basin National Park staff hosted local viewings of the rifle in hope that they might lure the family of someone’s great-great grandfather that could produce some records of ownership. But none of the various leads panned out.
The park service combed the surrounding the area where the rifle was found. Perhaps a hunter met his demise? But no bones or other remains were found. Sheep camps were found throughout this area in the early 1900s, but no lingering signs of any of these, either. None of the local newspapers from that time period mentioned anyone who reported a lost or stolen rifle.
In what should be to no one’s surprise, a plethora of theories abound that would explain why someone would leave this rifle behind. The cynics think it could be a well-planned hoax to garner media attention and perplex the National Park staff. Maybe it was an abandoned movie prop? Others feel it might just have been an old rifle that had seen its day and was more costly to repair than replace, so the owner left it behind.
The only universal agreement is that no one would forget such a valuable weapon. But it is possible that someone might have lost or misplaced it, especially if there was alcohol involved—those juniper trees look an awful lot alike.
This enigmatic Winchester Model 1873—now 136 years old and counting—is mounted in a glass display case on permanent display at the Lehman Caves Visitor Center at Great Basin National Park in Baker, Nevada.
Kim Stone was a horticulturist, writer, and editor of several publications for the University of Arizona at Boyce Thompson Arboretum over the better part of three decades. He is now happily self-absorbed in freelance writing, travel, and content marketing.