It was just another normal August day.
Laguna Beach resident Joey Sammut was hiking with a friend from Pomona on a trail that winds from his Arch Beach Heights neighborhood up to Top of the World Elementary, where he teaches ceramics to students after school.
The trail — a little dirt path that spits out onto the fire road between the two neighborhoods — isn’t exactly a secret, but it’s “only kind of known to people who live in the area,” Sammut said.
As the two walked, Sammut said he “happened to be looking down and to my left, just off the trail” when he noticed “this metal object sticking out of the ground.”
“They looked like a pair of gardening shears to me,” he said during a recent interview.
The object was heavier than he expected, though. It’s only when he saw the barrel, the trigger and the hammer that he turned and asked his friend, “Oh my God, is this a gun?”
He was shaking a little, he said, but wanted to take it home. His companion, however, had her doubts.
“She goes, ‘Are you sure? This ain’t no BB gun. This is a rifle. This is an actual gun,’” Sammut said, beaming. “That’s how I found it.”
After showing the gun to local law enforcement, Sammut said an officer advised him to be careful — as it could still have a corroded round in its chamber — but said it was otherwise likely safe to handle.
From there, Sammut turned his attention to the gun’s mysterious origins.
It was a logical next step. Sammut previously worked in a museum and considers himself an art collector.
“I always have my eyes open; it just happened to catch my attention,” he said.
In September, he reached out to several groups on Facebook, the Laguna Beach Historical Society and gun museums across the nation to try and identify the weathered weapon.
From what he gathered, he said the gun looks like a ’94 Winchester rifle — as in 1894, the year that particular model was introduced.
Careful cleaning also yielded the first few digits of the rifle’s serial number — 451, which the Cody Firearms Museum in Wyoming dates to between 1896 and 1908. The exact date would depend on whether or not the serial number has five or six digits, which can’t be determined given the rifle’s condition.
Clues as to how the gun wound up by a trail in Laguna Beach, however, have proven elusive. One of the museums Sammut contacted joked that if he dug around the trail, he might find the gun’s owner, too.
“Who did this belong to? How did this get lost?” Sammut said. “Was it some old rancher guy, or was it lost in the 1960s when some kid went into his grandparents’ closet and took the gun and left it there? It could be anything. Even though the gun is that old, it doesn’t mean that it was left in the ground at the time, but it could be.”
For his money, Sammut said he thinks the owner may have been a rancher or an early settler. After all, Laguna Beach was founded all the way back in 1887.
Sammut said museums didn’t show any interest in his find, so he decided to frame it and hang it up on his wall.
“It’s just been a very amazing experience to be able to find an old relic that people have literally walked past God knows how many times,” he said. “I’m the person who found it. I feel like I almost hit the lotto.”