The Winchester Model 1873 repeating rifle has often been called “The Gun that Won the West.” For 133 years, one of these rifles lay hidden in plain sight propped up against a tree in Nevada’s Great Basin National Park. Archaeologists found the rifle last November in a remote rocky outcrop hidden far away from human eyes, but questions remained over the history of the gun. Who left it there, and why? Were they in danger, or was the rifle left behind out of carelessness? Exposed to wind, snow, rain, and the constant beating of the sun, the weathered rifle offered a unique challenge to park officials, and they were eager to plumb its mysteries.
”’Model 1873′ distinctively engraved on the mechanism identify the rifle as the Winchester Model 1873 repeating rifle,” park staffers posted on Facebook after some sleuthing. “The serial number on the lower tang corresponds in Winchester records held at the Center for the West, Cody Firearms Museum in Cody, Wyoming, with a manufacture and shipping date of 1882. Currently, the detailed history of this rifle is unknown. Winchester records do not indicate who purchased the rifle from the warehouse or where it was shipped.”
The Winchester Model 1873 was wildly popular during its time, and hundreds of thousands were shipped across the United States and abroad. Manufactured between 1873 and 1919, the Model 1873 was chambered for cartridges like .44-40, .38-40, and .32-20. The Model 1873 was sold in rifle, carbine, and musket forms, and could be had for as little as $25 (the equivalent of several hundred dollars today, accounting for inflation). Its affordability made it commonplace among frontiersmen who needed a reliable repeater, and by the end of its production run Winchester sold more than 720,000 Model 1873s. The company brought back the Model 1873 in 2013, which is now manufactured under license in Japan.
“In 1882 alone, over 25,000 were made,” stated Great Basin researchers. “Selling for about $50 when they first came out, the rifles reduced in price to $25 in 1882 and were accessible and popular as ‘everyman’s’ rifle. The Winchester business plan included selling large lots of rifles to dealers or ‘jobbers’ who would distribute the firearms to smaller sales outlets.”
Tracing the history of one particular firearm out of 720,000 is no easy task. The Great Basin staff is currently searching for mentions of the rifle or its owner in old local newspapers and delving into family histories in the hope of getting some answers. It would make a great story, and add to the deep mosaic of Great Basin National Park’s history. The park plans on eventually sending the rifle to expert conservators to restore it to museum quality, and it will eventually be displayed as part of the park’s 30th Birthday and the National Park Service’s Centennial celebration.
Images courtesy Great Basin National Park