The Winchester rifle was spotted leaning against a tree in Great Basin National Park. (Courtesy of National Park Service)

Archaeologists conducting surveys in Nevada’s Great Basin National Park came upon a gun frozen in time:  a .44-40 Winchester rifle manufactured in 1882. It was propped up against a juniper tree.

“They just happened to notice the rifle under the tree,” said Nichole Andler, Basin National Park’s chief of interpretation. The public will get a chance to view the rifle over the weekend.

Although staff have no idea how the rifle ended up there, “it looked like someone propped it up there, sat down to have their lunch and got up to walk off without it,” Andler said.

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It’s remarkable that anyone was able to spot the gun back in November, as it had blended in so well with its surroundings. The unloaded gun appears to have been left undisturbed for more than 100 years; its wooden base had turned gray and was partially buried, and the barrel had rusted.


Courtesy of National Park Service

Though not in very good shape, the rifle is certainly salvageable, Andler said, and it will be preserved so it remains in its current state.

While the rifle’s back story remains a mystery, the history of the place offers some clues: Great Basin was primarily a mining site at the time, but could have also been home to grazing cattle and sheep. The gun may have also been the relic of game hunting in the area.

This particular model of Winchester rifle was quite popular at the time, so it wasn’t necessarily a rare and precious item for a person to leave behind. The year this particular rifle was made, 25,000 others were also manufactured. In fact, the prevalence of the gun may have contributed to a massive price drop, from costing $50 in 1873 to $25 in 1882. Here is a close-up of the rifle:


Courtesy of National Park Service

“It was one of those things, sort of the everyman’s rifle,” Andler said. The gun is often referred to “as the gun that won the West,” she added.

Park staff are now combing through old newspaper articles and records to try and unearth any information as to how the rifle ended up against that tree.

“It probably has a very good and interesting story,” Andler said, “but it probably is a story that could have happened to almost anyone living this sort of extraordinary existence out here in the Great Basin Desert.”

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