Laguna art teacher unearths antique rifle on TOW hiking trail
By Daniel Langhorne, Special to the Independent
On Aug. 20, Joey Sammut and a friend were on a trail he regularly uses to hike from his Arch Beach Heights home to teach ceramics at Top of the World Elementary.
Just off the trail, he spotted what he thought were rusty gardening shears. A gun barrel emerged from the dirt when Sammut pulled the hunk of metal.
“I look at it, and I can see the hammer and I can see the trigger,” Sammut recalled.
His friend figured he found an old BB gun, but the history buff knew immediately he had discovered something special. Sammut covered the antique weapon with leaves and returned to collect it later that day. He showed the rifle to a Laguna Beach police officer who said it’s probably safe but may have a corroded round in the chamber.
After posting a photo of the rifle on a Winchester Facebook group, Sammut learned it’s a Winchester Model 1894 carbine. Based on its serial number, the weapon was likely manufactured in 1896, which predates Orange County’s official incorporation on Aug. 1, 1889.
To learn more about the rifle’s history, Sammut reached out to the Cody Dug Up Gun Museum in Cody, Wyoming. He was told by a museum staffer that it would be very unlikely that the original owner lost the weapon, because a rifle was a person’s lifeline in the late 1800s.
A more likely scenario is that the owner was injured and died nearby. The fact that a saddle ring is still attached to the rifle, indicates it was used on horseback, Sammut said.
One of the first resources Sammut reached out to was the Laguna Beach Historical Society. He thought local historians might be able to find clues about the rifle’s original owner, but that turned out not to be the case.
Johanna Ellis, a board member of the Laguna Beach Historical Society, said she was happy to learn about Sammut’s discovery, but wanted to clarify information posted on the Laguna Locals Facebook group. She claims Sammut never offered to donate the rifle to the Historical Society.
“All items that are significant to the history of Laguna Beach are worthy of consideration to be displayed at our Murphy Smith Bungalow,” Ellis said. “We take all donations and offers seriously. The displays are ultimately decided by our archivist based on space and perceived visitor interest.”
Sammut said the heavy storm that drenched Orange County on Valentine’s Day likely eroded away the soil that covered the rifle for a century.
“It makes me wonder what else is out there,” he said.