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Mystery Winchester: we'll never know why an 1873 was abandoned by its owner, but it still can tell us a story.

It is a fairly safe bet that most of us, at one time or another, have dreamt of finding a long-lost rifle leaning against a tree somewhere. But on November 2014 that is exactly what happened to a group of archeologists from the Great Basin National Park, a remote and scenic wilderness sandwiched between the Sierra Nevada and Wasatch mountains in Nevada. There, while investigating a rugged granite outcropping, they discovered the weathered remains of a Winchester 1873 rifle, one of the most iconic guns of the American frontier and rightfully called "The Gun That Won The West."

A successor to the Henry rifle and the Winchester Model 1866, the Model 1873 established the reputation of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company and ensured its dominance in the firearms world for decades.

With its durable iron receiver (rather than the softer brass of the Henry and Model '66 rifles) and a sliding dust cover to protect its toggle-link action, the Model 1873 was a dramatic improvement over Oliver Winchester's earlier guns. The rifle was further enhanced in 1884, when its iron forgings were changed to steel.

But one of the biggest attributes of the Winchester '73 was the cartridge developed specifically for it: the .44-40, the world's first commercially successful reloadable centerfire.

The Winchester 1873 was produced in rifle, carbine, sporting rifle and musket configurations, most of which came with a three-piece cleaning rod stored in the butt. And although the Model '73 was eventually chambered in .38-40, .32-20 and even .22 rimfire, the .44-40 proved most popular, especially in the rifle configuration.

So it was not surprising that a standard 24-inch, octagon barreled rifle chambered in .44-40 was the gun archeologists discovered one autumn day. What was surprising, however, was they found it at all. Which immediately brought up the mystery of why the original owner did not retrieve his rifle after propping it up against a juniper tree so many years ago. Did he wander off and was then unable to remember where he left it? Did some critter get to him before he could get to his Winchester? Did he suffer a fatal fall or heart attack? It is highly unlikely the Winchester was abandoned on purpose. Firearms were far too valuable, and not having a rifle in such country would be inviting disaster.

One of the archeologists took the photo you see here with his cellphone. Then, to prevent further deterioration of the rifle and hopefully to obtain some answers to the mystery of the "Forgotten Winchester," as it has become known, they brought it to the Cody Firearms Museum at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming. But first they posted a photo of the Winchester '73, just as it was found, on the Great Basin National Park's Facebook page, with the caption, "Can you find the man-made object in this image?"

The story went viral--spurred, in part, by the fact that the grayed and weathered Winchester did indeed seem to blend in with the grayed and weathered gnarly juniper that had watched over it for so long.

At the museum, which has Winchester's original records, it was determined from the rifle's serial number it had been shipped from the factory in 1882. Next, Cody museum officials wanted to make sure the Winchester wasn't still loaded--not an easy task considering its action was rusted shut. They carried it across the street to neighboring West Park Hospital to have it X-rayed.

They discovered not only was the rifle not loaded, there was a single round in the buttstock in the space normally allocated for the three-piece cleaning rod. This was a common practice for owners of Winchester '73s, when extra ammo might be needed to supplement the 13 rounds carried in the rifle's tubular magazine. The X-rays also revealed another interesting fact: The cartridge carrier of the toggle link action was missing, which basically had turned the lever-action repeater into a single-shot.

Had the owner become frustrated with this handicap and simply decided to leave his rifle and trek off to civilization to buy another one? Hardly likely. A gunsmith could have fixed this problem for far less than the cost of a new rifle. Further, in such wilderness even a single-shot would be better than no shot.

Back at the museum, a drop of penetrating oil was used to open the rusted cover in the steel buttstock, and the .44-40 cartridge that had been stored there was carefully withdrawn, yielding yet another clue. The cartridge head was stamped U.M.C. for Union Metallic Cartridge--a major ammunition producer at the time but it also bore the nomenclature". 44 C.F.W." The common mark for the cartridge was W.C.F. for Winchester Center Fire, but in an era when many companies did not wish to promote the ubiquitous Winchester name, the Union Metallic Cartridge company settled upon C.F.W., which, according to the Remington Historical Society, stood for Center Fire Western. It was still the same .44-40 cartridge, but with a different headstamp.

Moreover, this particular head-stamp was used by U.M.C. only from 1887 until 1911, narrowing the time frame. The rifle may have been leaning against that juniper tree for at least 103 years, and possibly as long as 127 years. However, one cannot ignore the fact that back then--as today--shooters tend to use ammo years after they purchased it. Therefore it's impossible to pinpoint exactly how long the rifle had been exposed to the elements, although judging by its condition, it was probably during a time that was more or less contemporary with the gun.

The Winchester was treated to prevent further deterioration of its grayed and cracked stock and rusted metal, and it was displayed at the Cody Museum until October 2015. It has now has been transferred to Great Basin National Park for exhibition throughout 2016 to celebrate the park's 30th anniversary, as well as the 100th anniversary of National Park Service. In honor of the occasion, the Cody Museum has generously donated the display it created for the rifle to the National Park Service.

"We have been extremely fortunate to have worked with the Great Basin National Park in preserving a firearm with a such unique and mysterious story," said Cody Museum curator Ashley Hlebinsky.

And yet the mystery of the Forgotten Winchester remains unsolved, as the only person who knows the answer can no longer tell us what happened on that fateful day, when he left his rifle and never returned for it.
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Title Annotation:LANDS & GROOVES; Winchester 1873 rifle
Author:Hacker, Rick
Publication:Petersen's Rifle Shooter
Geographic Code:1U8NV
Date:Mar 1, 2016
Previous Article:More cartridge comments.
Next Article:.45-70 Gov't vs .444 Marlin.

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