The Great Basin Winchester ’73 is now on display!
The hot topic of the past few days here at the Cody Firearms Museum has been the mysterious Great Basin Winchester ’73. This firearm has all of the makings of museum magic. Even before I had applied to be an intern here at the Cody Firearms Museum I had read about the gun being found in the Great Basin National Park in Nevada. Last summer, I participated in an archaeological field school at Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest to try my hand at archaeology. While my passion and endeavors are geared toward the American West and Museum Studies, I learned a lot and truly enjoyed my time in field school. When I found a quarter from the late 19th century I was thrilled, and upon reading the article about Great Basin archaeologists finding such an amazing piece of Western history I understood just how exciting that moment must have been. After reading about the discovery of the rifle and its future at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West I was even more excited, as I would get to see the rifle in person and have a hand in displaying it at the Cody Firearms Museum! It was definitely one of those “pinch me, I must be dreaming” kind of moments.
As I arrived at the Center and saw the rifle for the first time I was immediately awe struck by its condition. Not in the sense that it was a rusty old rifle, but that it was a 132 year old piece of history that was in great condition considering it being placed out in the elements for so long. My first task as an intern was to find a representative Winchester ’73 that was in good repair to display as a contrast to the condition of the Great Basin Winchester. After locating a similar Winchester ’73, placing them side-by-side was just as fascinating. My thoughts began racing with ideas why the Great Basin gun was left against that tree, and how it may have looked just like the Winchester in good condition when left there. I was equally as intrigued by the conservation needed to make sure this gun did not deteriorate any further. It amazed me how the firearm lasted for so long with only the protection of the Juniper tree it sat under, but when ever so gently moved or manipulated by human hands it’s incredible fragility would allow it to flake or worse. The chief conservator, Beverly Perkins, did an outstanding job in keeping the rifle in stable condition. After reading the conservation report I learned even more about the rifle’s internal state, which added even more mystery to the story. Not only was a .44-40 WCF cartridge found in the trap in the stock (dated between 1887 and 1911), but the rifle is missing the carrier block and the carrier lever! These components to the rifle’s internal mechanisms allow the gun to be a repeating rifle. Without them, it makes the gun a single shot rifle. This could still be used effectively for hunting, but would lack the rapid fire capability to be a sound defense weapon.
A 132 year old forgotten rifle, not just any rifle, a Winchester ’73. Left in the woods leaning up against a Juniper tree in the Nevada wilderness. Missing critical components for the rifle’s primary function as a repeater, but one cartridge still remained in the trap in the stock. It is fitting that such mystery surrounds such a legendary rifle, “The Gun that Won the West.” I’ve been racking my brain daily thinking about what could have possibly happened to allow someone to go off without their rifle? I would imagine an experienced hunter would not have been so careless to leave their rifle behind to explore elsewhere. Many have said that the owner must have experienced some perilous encounter with a ferocious animal or even a posse of bandits or lawmen. Whatever the reason, I’m glad that the rifle has ended up here at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. I love this rifle, and I love its story (or lack thereof). It wraps up all of my personal interests and excitement of history, archaeology, preservation, and the American West, all in one mysterious package. The rifle is a very special artifact because of how little we know about it. Rarely do we have an opportunity to make up our own stories about an artifact. This rifle is much more than a rusty old gun found out in the woods, but it gives visitors a chance to think back to the days of the Wild West and the romance of the untamed frontier. And when people can envision and share their own tall tales about the Great Basin Winchester, it allows the history to come alive and seem that much m0re interesting and tangible.
So, now that I’ve said what I think….what do you think?! You can learn more about the Forgotten Winchester here; https://centerofthewest.org/2015/07/02/forgotten-winchester-now-on-display-in-center-of-the-wests-cody-firearms-museum/
We also encourage our visitors and readers to say why they think the Winchester was left against the tree in the Great Basin National Park! You can do so by going to iscout.bbcw.org and entering code 210.
Feel free to leave questions or comments on this post, and have a happy and safe 4th of July!