Jun 30, 2015

Century-old rifle mysteriously abandoned in Nevada now on display in Cody

A 132-year-old rifle left up against a tree and mysteriously abandoned for years in the Nevada desert is now in a far more prominent position in Cody.

The Winchester Model 1873 lever-action rifle, discovered in Nevada’s Great Basin National Park last year, is now on display in the Cody Firearms Museum at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.

Buffalo Bill Center of the West Security Manager Mike Brown and Cody Firearms Museum Curator Ashley Hlebinsky take a closer look at the Model 1873 Winchester. Photo courtesy Buffalo Bill Center of the West
How the ancient Winchester came to be abandoned has been the subject of much speculation across the Internet, and Firearms Museum Curator Ashley Hlebinsky is encouraging amateur sleuths to weigh in with their theories on the Buffalo Bill Center of the West website.

“Who owned the firearm and why it was there may remain a mystery, but that allure is what’s so cool about this 'forgotten' rifle,” Hlebinsky wrote in a blog post for Outdoor Life

Archaeologists at Great Basin just happened to spot the artifact in November 2014.

The gun's cracked wood stock, now weathered to gray, and its brown rusted barrel blended in with the old juniper tree it was left leaning against, helping camouflage the rifle for who knows how many years.

Great Basin National Park employees posted a photograph of the leaning rifle on the park’s Facebook page in January and asked, “Can you find the man-made object in this image?” That and follow-up posts helped spur the “Forgotten Winchester” to become a viral sensation online.

The old Winchester, in the spot where it was found. Photo courtesy Great Basin National Park
After the rifle's discovery, Great Basin National Park officials took it to the Center of the West’s Cody Firearms Museum for conservation and identification. Staff at the center, which holds the manufacturing records for Winchester firearms, determined the forgotten gun had been manufactured in 1883. They also applied an adhesive to stop the rifle's flaking wood from degrading further and, with the help of West Park Hospital, took a look inside the weapon.

“After exhausting conventional methods to see if the gun was loaded, we literally walked across the street, gun in hand, to have it x-rayed at a neighboring hospital,” Hlebinsky explained in the Outdoor Life post. “And only in a cowboy town like Cody would no one give us a second look.”

The x-ray images provided reassurance that the gun wasn't loaded, but revealed a cartridge in the trap of the butt stock. The round was ultimately identified as a Union Metallic Cartridge Company .44 WCF cartridge, made sometime between 1887 and 1911.

One of the images from the x-ray session at West Park Hospital.
Hlebinsky said the mysteries around the Winchester 1873 have fueled its popularity and interest.

“Why would you leave your rifle and not come back for it?” Hlebinsky asked in a center news release. “How many years was it hidden? Why was it left leaning against a tree? We here at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West and the staff at Great Basin are both asking the same questions.”

Many people across the country have asked those questions and offered their guesses, too.

“In a gravelly voice, it may recite a yarn of weary settlers swaying on horses' backs in the parched, rocky Nevada wilderness,” suggested a CNN piece on the firearm's discovery.

“That part of Nevada, there was tons of silver mines around there. It was most likely a prospector," offered Pawn Stars star Rick Harrison, in in an interview with Fox News. “And the only thing I can imagine is he was not far from the gun and something happened to the owner. I mean, back then people did not leave a gun behind.”

“Whatever the actual story, it has the makings of a great campfire tale,” writer Scott Engen posted on the Winchester website.

“Perhaps it belonged to a lone cowboy riding the high range. Perhaps it was set aside by a sourdough prospector in his search for a vein of rich ore,” wrote Winchester writer Scott Engen, in a posting on the company's website. “Whatever the actual story, it has the makings of a great campfire tale.”

The rifle will remain on display in the Cody Firearms Museum until this fall, when it will be returned to Great Basin.

~By CJ Baker, cj@codynewscompany.com

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