Two men compete for a rifle, and then the loser steals it from the winner, who hunts him down to settle an old score amid gun battles with Indians and criminals.
Lin McAdam (James Stewart) and High Spade (Millard Mitchell) arrive in Dodge City and surrender their guns to Marshal Wyatt Earp (Will Geer). On July 4 a shooting contest is held for a rare Winchester rifle. Lin and Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally) tie several times, and then Lin wins the rifle. Lin goes to his room, where he is jumped by Dutch, who takes the rifle and leaves town with two men.
Dutch and his men stop at Riker’s place and want to buy three guns from Joe Lamont (John McIntire), who asks for $300. Dutch has $80 and loses it in poker to Joe, who gives him $300 and three revolvers for the Winchester. Dutch then loses the $300 too.
Joe offers to sell guns to Indians, and Young Bull (Rock Hudson) kills him for the Winchester. Lola Manners (Shelley Winters) goes with Steve Miller (Charles Drake) to his ranch, and Indians chase them. Steve leaves her and goes for help. They escape to the cavalry but are surrounded by Indians. Lin and High Spade ride at night and are chased by Indians to the cavalry. Lin tells Sergeant Wilkes (Jay C. Flippen) that Indians don’t attack at night.
In the morning Lin says that since Custer died, the Indians have repeating rifles. They attack, and Lin shoots Chief Young Bull, causing the Indians to leave. Lola gives Lin his gun back, and he leaves. Sergeant Wilkes finds the Winchester and gives it to Steve.
Steve and Lola arrive at the Jameson ranch. Waco Johnnie Dean (Dan Duryea) and two men rush in during a gun battle. Marshal Noonan tells Waco to let the women and children out. Lola persuades gunslinger Waco to let Mrs. Jameson and her two children leave, but he makes Lola stay. Waco wants to buy the Winchester from Steve and bullies him. Steve tries to draw, and Waco kills him. Noonan sets the house on fire. Waco takes Lola on his horse and gets away.
They go to Dutch’s place, and Dutch says the Winchester is his. Lola sees a photo of Dutch and Lin with an older man. Dutch and Waco plan a bank robbery.
Lola plays piano in Tascosa. Lin and High Spade find her, and she says that Waco killed Steve. Lin asks Waco where Dutch is and forces him to tell him. Waco draws, and Lin kills him. Lin fights with one of the men. Dutch comes out of the bank with money and wounds Lola in the arm. Lin chases Dutch. High Spade tells Lola that Dutch is Lin’s brother and killed their father. Dutch is on a mountain and shoots down at Lin, wasting his ammunition. Finally Lin kills Dutch. Lin comes back and embraces Lola.
Admiration for a repeating rifle reflects the values of this violent western in which shooting skill often determines who lives or dies. Life is cheap and is a gamble, but the fantasy is kept “moral” by having the good guy kill the bad guys and Indians.