Ross Johnson photo The Winchester 1873 model on display at Great Basin National Park

Ross Johnson photo
The Winchester 1873 model on display at Great Basin National Park

On Saturday, Dec. 5, at the Lehman Caves Visitor Center of the Great Basin National Park, the National Park Service displayed a 133-year-old Winchester rifle discovered in the park over a year ago.

“It’s gotten a lot of attention,” said NPS archaeologist Eva Jensen.

Jensen found the .44-40 caliber Model 1873 rifle while surveying a remote northern area of the park Nov. 6, 2014. After briefly displaying it to the public, the park sent it to the Buffalo Bill Center of the West’s Cody Firearms Museum in Cody, Wyoming for further analysis.

Historical firearms experts used the rifle’s serial number to determine that Winchester manufactured it at their New Haven, Connecticut, factory and shipped it in 1882. Analysts then used an X-ray to discover a cartridge inside the stock.

After removing the round, they determined its manufacturer as Union Metallic Cartridge Co., which merged with Remington in 1912. Therefore, one of the rifle’s owners may have armed the weapon at the latest in 1911.

Experts at the museum believe it could have been as early as 1889. They also discovered the rifle had been modified. Normally, the Winchester’s repeating action allowed it to fire rapidly, but this rifle’s internal ammunition carrier had been removed, dramatically reducing its rate of fire. Several theories about the modification made their way through the crowd.

“Sometimes owners would alter it to keep it from repeating before they sold it to an Indian,” one attendee explained. “Or a rancher could have modified it for his children.”

With little other evidence, the rifle’s full story remains a mystery.

Jensen traveled last month to Wyoming to retrieve the rifle, and the park plans to keep it at its current location through 2016. They will then reassess its condition, and plan to move it to a permanent exhibit at the Park’s Visitor Center in Baker.

About two dozen people from the local region attended the event. For many, it was the first opportunity to view the artifact. The weapon has garnered media attention from around the world, including England, Germany, China, Japan and South Africa.

NPS is keeping the exact location of the rifle’s discovery confidential, in order to maintain the integrity of the area. They plan to return in the spring to search for further artifacts that could reveal more information about the rifle’s owner and circumstances.

After finishing her final report, Jensen plans to co-author a paper about the rifle with other conservators from the Park and Cody Center. Winchester and the Cody Center have also requested that the rifle be displayed at the January SHOT gun show in Las Vegas.