WASHINGTON — It was a moment frozen in time — a Model 1873 Winchester repeating rifle propped up against the trunk of a juniper tree exactly where its owner had left it more than a hundred years ago.
Eva Jensen, an archeologist scouring the hillsides of Nevada’s arid Snake Mountains for American Indian artefacts, let out an involuntary cry of surprise when she stumbled across the find, and then fell into silence.
“I recognized it instantly, but it takes your brain a little while to catch up,” she said. “I let out an exclamation and the rest of my staff thought I must have fallen off a cliff or something, because I just couldn’t say anything else after that.”
The find was pure chance, the rusted barrel of the rifle catching the late afternoon sun. Otherwise it was almost perfectly camouflaged — the wooden stock that had once been a rich, burnished walnut was bleached grey and rendered indistinguishable from the juniper wood.
From the first moment of the rifle’s discovery in November, Ms. Jensen and her staff at the Great Basin National Park have been speculating about how it came to be abandoned in the hills.
“Everyone gathered around and the questions began right away,” she recalled. “Who would just leave their rifle?”
To add to the sense of serendipity, Ms. Jensen and her team were sweeping the hills 480 kilometres north of Las Vegas to check for artifacts before a controlled vegetation burn. If they had missed the rifle, it would almost certainly have been destroyed by the fire.
Carefully, using tape to hold the crumbling stock together, park officials removed the gun from where it had been placed all those years ago, its butt nestled between two rocks. It was not loaded.
Most likely, said Ms. Jensen, it belonged to one of the many mining prospectors who, from 1869, filed claims in the high desert mountains for silver, copper and tungsten, littering the area with mines, none of which were profitable.
Some basic detective work revealed that the gun was one of more than 700,000 examples produced by Winchester’s factory between 1873 and 1916. The Model 1873 was so popular that it became known as the “weapon that won the West.” Experts said the gun, which originally sold for $50, the equivalent of more than $1,000 today, would have no more than curiosity value to collectors who pay up to $15,000 for mint-condition examples.
A unique serial number that Winchester stamped on all its rifles enabled researchers to establish that the weapon had been manufactured and shipped in 1882. In that year alone more than 25,000 left Winchester’s Connecticut factory, as the Model 1873, with its distinctive action capable of firing 15 shots without reloading, quickly became the “everyman” rifle of the settling of the West. But there the trail went cold, since Winchester shipped the rifles in batches to local “jobbers” or dealers whose records — if they ever kept them — no longer exist.
Despite Ms. Jensen spending hours trawling through local newspapers and family histories to try to trace the gun’s owner, or any record of an incident — a gunfight, a sudden storm — that might explain why it was left behind, she drew a blank.
There is one last hope, when staff show off the piece at a local inn hosting the annual Old Sheepherders Gathering this weekend. “Just maybe somebody, somewhere has a family history that tells how ‘grandpa lost his rifle up in the mountains there,’ ” said Ms. Jensen. “Perhaps we’ll find out, you just never know.”
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