132-year-old rifle found propped up against tree in Nevada desert
Archaeologists say the rusted Winchester Model 1873 rifle may have been left at the same spot more than a century ago
An 1882 Winchester rifle which was found leaning against a juniper tree in a clutch of rocks and branches on a remote Nevada range has confounded the archaeologists who happened upon it, standing as if casually left there more than 100 years ago.
The rifle, which is remarkably well preserved, was found by a team of archaeologists in Great Basin national park in November. It will go on display this weekend at the park, the chief of interpretation, Nichole Andler, said.
How the rifle arrived at its resting place, vulnerable to the elements, a curious animal or covetous passerby, is a mystery. “We just don’t know,” Andler said, pointing out that there were no other artifacts in the immediate vicinity that could hint at who put the rifle there.
Andler said the rifle was discovered with its wooden stock partially buried, its barrel rusted and its body so browned that it “really camouflaged in with the bark and shading of the juniper tree”.
An engraving of “Model 1873” on the rifle’s side identifies it as one of the most popular guns of its era. Winchester manufactured more than 700,000 of the rifles, which Andler said were “fairly inexpensive” for the time and became known as “the gun that won the west”.
Winchester made the gun from 1873 to 1916. Until 1966, the Great Basin desert contained wilderness, ranches and mining camps; some metallic relics of the miners of Snake Valley are still scattered around the park.
Rangers, miners, settlers, ranchers or Native Americans are the likely candidates to have owned the rifle, but Andler said the owner could have been almost anyone.
“Humans have been in this valley for a very long time,” she said.
Nevertheless, park archaeologists will still search for any trace of the lost rifle in newspapers from the era, Andler said.
After its initial display, conservators will try to maintain the rifle’s good condition, which Andler attributed to the arid climate and shelter provided by the tree.
• An earlier Reuters version of this story was amended on 16 January 2015 to correct the model of gun mentioned. It is a Winchester Model 1873, not a 1773, as we first said. The headline was also changed to make it clear that an old gun had been found, not a decrepit cowboy.