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Mystery of The Forgotten Winchester

Seven years ago, a Winchester Model 1873 rifle discovered leaning against a juniper tree in Great Basin national Park, Nevada. Based on its condition, experts believe the weapon might have been abandoned in the forest more than a century ago. Until now, the park officials still don't know who it belonged to or why it was left there. No ownership records have been found.

The Forgotten Winchester (Image credit: Wikipedia)

The discovery of the Forgotten Winchester began in early November 2014 when Eva Jensen and her team of archaeologists were walking on a remote hillside in the massive park four hours northeast of Las Vegas. The group was searching for Native American artifacts or petroglyphs on unexplored terrain prior to a scheduled burning of vegetation.

Suddenly, one of the archaeologists notice something unusual.

Model number (Image credit: KUTV.com)

“The workers just happened to notice the rifle under the tree,” said Eva Jensen, Cultural Resource Program Manager for Great Basin National Park upon meeting the Center of the West staff. “It's as if someone propped it there as he sat down to have lunch. Then, he might have just walked off without it."

It was 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.

She circled the tree several times. There was no mistake about it. This was a Winchester. And there had to be a story behind it. Speculation started right there in the high-desert wilds.

The gun’s location — on a wooded, craggy hillside with a commanding view of the valley to the east — suggested a good strategic spot for a gun battle. Maybe the gun jammed and was abandoned. The .44-caliber rifle wasn’t loaded.

Every gun was stamped with its own serial number. The serial number was visible. So Jensen consulted the Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody, Wyo., and determined that the gun in her possession was made in 1882 — an eventful year in the Old West and beyond.

The rifle is a Winchester Repeating Arms Company Model 1873, the same type featured in the 1950 film Winchester '73. The rifle's serial number indicates that it was manufactured in 1882. Winchester mass-produced this model of .44-40 caliber rifle that became known as the "Gun that Won the West," making 25,000 of them in 1882 alone.

Jensen even found the weapon’s order number. She knew the rifle was shipped from the Connecticut warehouse that year. But she couldn’t locate who ordered the gun or where it went.

The mysterious rifle was 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.

The discovery was fortunate because the Strawberry Fire swept through the area in August 2016 and consumed the juniper tree the rifle had been leaning against.

The Mysterious Rifle on Display at Visitor Center of Great Basin National Park (Image credit: KUTV.com)

Later the Forgotten Winchester is on permanent display in the Lehman Caves Visitors Center of Great Basin National Park until today.

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