At the beginning of this film we are told “This is a story of the Winchester Rifle Model 1873 ‘The gun that won the West.’” I’m not trying to pick on the filmmakers here, but this story proves itself to be more a story of worth than pure skill as the title frame implies. Throughout the film, the Winchester changes hands half a dozen times, challenging the audience to determine whether its current owner is man enough to carry the ultimate symbol of masculinity.
Let’s just say the audience is let down more than a few times. We are encouraged to believe that the gun’s first owner is its rightful one. Not only by the decree of ownership, but because we have, within the first few minutes, seen glimpses of masculinity emulating from Lin McAdams. He strolls into town, gun on hip, but quickly surrenders it to the Sergeant. A display of lawfulness. And, by the time he has won the rifle, he has tipped the boy tying up his horse, stood up for the damsel in distress, and shown his skill in sharpshooting. He is, naturally, a man. But, when his gun is stolen it is revealed that this natural manhood is not so easy to come by.
It is first relinquished to Dutch Henry Brown, who, just by way of acquisition cannot be man enough. He has stolen the gun from McAdams, and a true man is lawful. Along the same lines is our distrust for the Winchester’s next owner, an Indian trader. Clearly, anyone who trades with the enemy isn’t worthy of carrying the staple of manhood. It is then lost to Young Bull. He, through the eyes of the white man, is not only less than an upstanding man; he is not really a man at all—a savage. It is assumed that he will hold the gun for next to no period of time; surely he will be defeated by the men who can really shoot. But, after that certainty occurs, it belongs to Steve, who may be less of a man than the Indian chief. Steve is not only broke, as he tells Lola, but fails to protect his woman. This utter failure to assert his manhood soon leaves him gun-less and lifeless. Outlaws soon come to take ownership of the gun. First, Waco Johnny Dean, who we perceive as just as worthless a man as Steve because of his treatment of Lola, and then Dutch Henry Brown again. We’ve already decided he’s no good. Clearly, these men are too preoccupied to assert themselves a true, worthy man.
Lin is anything but preoccupied. He has one goal: to vanquish Dutch Henry Brown. The others may have needed the gun to define themselves as “men,” but Lin does not. He has manhood radiating from him throughout the film. When he defeats Dutch, his manhood is only heightened by finally coming back into rightful possession of the Winchester ‘73. And we are relieved. The true man has got the gun.