UPDATE, 10.19.2015: The Great Basin gun is no longer on display at the Center of the West, and will soon be headed home to Great Basin National Park.
Click here for a video of Cody Firearms Museum Curator Ashley Hlebinsky telling the story of the “Forgotten Winchester.” Video courtesy National Shooting Sports Foundation.
The Winchester Model 1873 lever-action rifle unearthed at Nevada’s Great Basin National Park is now on display in the Cody Firearms Museum at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming.
In November 2014, archaeologists at Great Basin National Park unexpectedly stumbled upon a man-made artifact leaning against a tree: a 132-year-old Winchester Model 1873 lever action rifle. Park employees posted a photograph of the rifle 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 attracted considerable national attention.
“The Winchester Model 1873 alone may be the most iconic western firearm of all time,” says Curator Ashley Hlebinsky of the Firearms Museum. “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.”
Park employees found the rifle—exposed to sun, wind, snow, and rain—leaning against a tree among some junipers in the park. The cracked wood stock, now weathered to gray, and the brown rusted barrel blended into the colors of the old juniper tree in a remote rocky outcrop, keeping the rifle camouflaged for more than a century.
“The workers just happened to notice the rifle under the tree,” said Great Basin’s Interpretation Chief Nichole Andler in an interview with KSL-TV of Salt Lake. “It looked like someone propped it up there, sat down to have lunch, and got up to walk off without it. It was one of those things, sort of the everyman’s rifle.”
Next, Park officials drove with the gun-in-case to the Center’s Cody Firearms Museum in Cody, Wyoming, for conservation and identification, as the Center holds the manufacturing records for Winchester firearms. When the rifle arrived, the wood was flaking and stained by white salts.
One of the first steps of Conservator Beverly Perkins, Hlebinsky, and Curatorial Assistant Dan Brumley was to “admit” the firearm 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 did have 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% Klucel G hydroxypropylcellulose) mixed in distilled water and ethanol.
The National Park Service’s Facebook page asked, “Why would you leave your rifle and not come back for it?” Hlebinsky adds, “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. The mysteries surrounding this Winchester 1873 have truly fueled its popularity.”
Hlebinsky encourages individuals to weigh in on how the Great Plains rifle came to rest for 132 years before workers discovered it. “What do you think happened?” she asks. “Enter 210 at iscout.bbcw.org to tell us why you think this rifle was left out in nature.”
The Great Basin gun is currently on display in the Firearms Museum where it will remain until fall 2015 when the Center returns it to Great Basin for its 30th anniversary and the hundredth anniversary of the National Park Service in 2016.
Since 1917, the award-winning Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming, has devoted itself to sharing the story of the authentic American West. The Center is an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution. For additional information, visit centerofthewest.org or the Center’s Facebook page.