‘Forgotten Winchester’ Rifle Now on Display at Buffalo Bill Center of the West

Forgotten Winchester
Forgotten Winchester
Buffalo Bill Center of the West
Buffalo Bill Center of the West

Cody, Wyoming –-(Ammoland.com)- 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 November 2014, archaeologists at Great Basin 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.”

Forgotten Winchester Rifle X-Ray
Forgotten Winchester Rifle X-Ray

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.

Union Metallic Cartridge Company .44 WCF cartridge.
Union Metallic Cartridge Company .44 WCF cartridge.

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.

“Why would you leave your rifle and not come back for it?” Hlebinsky asks. “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. “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.

Forgotten Winchester Conservation
Forgotten Winchester Conservation

For more information, contact Hlebinsky at [email protected] or 307-578-4092. Stay apprised of all the Center’s activities by following its event calendar at http://centerofthewest.org/calendar/.


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, an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, is now in its summer schedule, open daily 8 a.m. – 6 p.m. For additional information, visit centerofthewest.org or the Center’s pages on Facebook and Google+.

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Travis
Travis
6 years ago

There are several good points above. I live in MT and Mo Beers is correct in that we have very old slow growing trees in the area. This area is surprisingly arid and has extremely cold winters, both of which would help with condition. Also like Semachian had noted above the tree could have also helped with preservation from the elements. That being said, we have 100 year old barns, wagon wheels and other old farm equipment with similar patina that have been openly exposed to the same elements for 100+ years. The article noted that they loosened the butt… Read more »

Bob
Bob
6 years ago

Finding a rifle leaning against a tree after a long period of time is exactly how the town of Rifle, Colorado got its name. Many Historians from Rifle, CO can verify this. I live in Fruita, CO and have heard the story of how Rifle, CO got its name many a time.

w44wcf
w44wcf
6 years ago

Rifle was made in 1882. They know that the cartridge was made no later than 1911 because the head stamp U.M.C. was changed to Rem-Umc after that. However, the cartridges could have been in someone’s possession for many years before they were used. The rifle was missing its carrier which means that it could only be used as a single shot. Broken firing pin? Perhaps the owner became disgusted when the rifle no longer functioned and just left it there? Ammo no longer fired? The early Mercuric priming pretty much died after about 20-30 years. Same possible owner reaction as… Read more »

Mo Beers
Mo Beers
6 years ago

The tree pictured with the rifle leaning against looks to be a type of cedar. A very slow growing and long living tree. Have million of them in south central Colo. Alot of trees around Pueblo Resv. that are well over 100 yrs. old and no more than 12′ tall.

gene
gene
6 years ago

It also could have been stolen and hid…person could have been caught and jailed or??..Many guns have been stolen…I have lost @100 to thieves

fishunter
fishunter
6 years ago

I think that Ammoland should run a short-story contest about this lost gun. Just from reading the comments I can see that many readers have an imagination and are creative. Do it!

RumpelstiltsGUN
RumpelstiltsGUN
6 years ago

I am calling this one RumpelstiltsGUN – This one was lazy for 132 years. Yesterday I rcv’d the following email. Subject: My Gun Is So Lazy Yesterday I swung my front door wide open and placed my Remington 30.06 right in the doorway. I left 6 cartridges beside it, then left it alone and went about my business. While I was gone, the mailman delivered my mail, the neighbor boy across the street mowed the yard, a girl walked her dog down the street, and quite a few cars stopped at the stop sign near the front of my house.… Read more »

Duane
Duane
6 years ago

Maybe the guns owner was attacked by a bear or cougar and killed before they could get their gun. Look for bones around the tree site.

Bill k
Bill k
6 years ago

Hmmm,
Let’s see, 128 years. How did they know they would stop making the round in 1911? The gun had to have been handled sometime after 1911,and that would have placed the gun at only 103 years or less. That shell could have been around for some years after the dates marked on the case. But one thing is for sure, the gun wasn’t there for 128 years. If the serial number is readable a better time frame on when the gun was actually made may be determined.

Semachiah
Semachiah
6 years ago

If you look back to the first picture you will see that the rifle is leaning in the junction of a couple of trunks of the tree, it is not simply leaning against the trunk, thus as the tree grows the rifle moves but still sits in the junction without the tree growing into it. Second look at the difference between the first picture of the stock & the latter restored version. When they first took the picture the stock was in extremely rough shape. I used to live in Montana so I understand the weather in the region a… Read more »

James B. Towle
James B. Towle
6 years ago

I guess I missed it…did someone ask/trace the serial #?

Jeff Cantwell
Jeff Cantwell
6 years ago
Reply to  James B. Towle

May pre-date serial numbers being required.

gene
gene
6 years ago
Reply to  Jeff Cantwell

All Winchesters have or had serial numbers..the bullet is in the storage compartment intended for the cleaning rod….still leaves a lot of questions unanswered…I have had 3 1873’s and still have one made in 1890s according to number

Hank
Hank
6 years ago

That bullet isn’t backwards at all, and isn’t even in the action, so no worries about a malfunction there. The article states the ammo was made between 1887 and 1911 which automatically cuts back the date to be no more than 128 years. Where my skepticism sets in on this rifle sitting there for the full 128 years is that the tree it is leaning against would have been far smaller when the rifle was leaned against it and likely grown around the barrel to some degree. I would have a better idea if I knew the growth rate of… Read more »

Mike
Mike
6 years ago

In the x ray, the bullet appears backwards. Perhaps the weapon jammed and was set aside to be cleared later and forgotten.

Art Brown Sr.
Art Brown Sr.
6 years ago
Reply to  Mike

NO the bullet IS NOT backwards (note the trigger and lever position) and the upside down L is the buttplate with the screws in it.
Has any other artifacts been found in the area ( Have they looked)? May be bones, bullets, arrows, knives?
How about an old campsite? use the knowledge of western historians that can put a sense of a frontiersman’s mind to work.

Loyde Williams
Loyde Williams
6 years ago
Reply to  Mike

Mike you need to look closer at the x-ray? The bullet is not in the firing chamber (note it is behind the trigger housing.) Still it may have jammed as it looks a little lopsided to the tube, or in the tube. Just guessing LOL

Gary Gozzo
Gary Gozzo
6 years ago

He stopped to take a leak, an a bear et em

Charles Goff
Charles Goff
6 years ago
Reply to  Gary Gozzo

Duh, that’s kind of what I thought.

Martin Schenck
Martin Schenck
6 years ago

How old is the tree it was leaning against?

TEX
TEX
6 years ago

If the story about this rifle is true its really amazing. I kind of think its a hoax. Plus,who would leave a rifle leaning agains’t a tree and forget about it eps.back in those days ? Firearms were prized possessions. (as they still are today to most people including me) The rifle seems to be in too good of condition also.. Plus that tree would had died a long time ago.

Vanns40
Vanns40
6 years ago
Reply to  TEX

Who said the owner forgot it? That’s a complete assumption.

sgb
sgb
6 years ago
Reply to  TEX

looking at the rifle, its cool to see that it lasted that long in the wind and weather. you can see that the person that had it was thinking on not running out of ammo when they put the one in the butt stock like some of the 22 caliber rounds. I would say that there is a killer story that goes on to it. like the person that had it was wounded and died. he laid it up against the bush so that he could get it when he got better and didn’t. not unlikely in that time frame.… Read more »