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While on a business trip to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company in New Haven, Connecticut, preeminent gun designer Marsh Williams is urgently summoned home to North Carolina by his wife Maggie. Once there, Marsh learns that his young son David has been the victim of vicious schoolyard gossip targeted at Marsh. To explain the situation to David, Marsh turns to his old friend Capt. H. T. "Cap" Peoples, the warden at Central Prison, North Carolina. Marsh drives David to the prison to meet Cap, and there Cap explains that Marsh was convicted of murder and recounts the story of his incarceration: As a boy, Marsh, a rugged individualist and one of eleven children, impetuously quits school to join the Navy. After several hitches, Marsh is discharged and returns home to marry Maggie, his boyhood sweetheart. When Marsh asks his strict father Claude for his share of the family farm, Claude sternly declares that Marsh must work for two years to prove that he deserves the land. Impatient, Marsh renounces his claim to the property and takes a menial job laying railroad tracks so that he can afford to marry Maggie. To supplement his meager income, Marsh builds a distillery with fellow moonshiners Redwick Karson and Sam Markley. When one of the local moonshiners is killed by revenue agent Jesse Rimmer, Marsh warns Rimmer to stay away from him. Marsh continues to expand his business, telling Maggie that his newfound prosperity is due to his hard work at the railroad, until one day a still explodes, severely scalding him. When Maggie learns that Marsh has been lying to her, she threatens to leave him unless he stops moonshining. Soon after, revenue agents come to the distillery to arrest Marsh, sparking a gunfight between the moonshiners and the agents. Marsh escapes into the woods, and later, Maggie finds him in their secret hiding place and informs him that Rimmer was killed in the shootout. When Maggie swears to stand by Marsh, he turns himself in and is arrested for murdering the agent, even though several other men participated in the fatal gunfight. Once the jury returns a deadlocked verdict, Claude demands a second trial for his son and the state offers a reduced charge of second degree murder. After accepting the state's offer, Marsh is sentenced to thirty years of hard labor. Bitter, Marsh refuses to communicate with his family. One day, in the prison yard, several prisoners stab an informer, and although Marsh refused to participate in the attack, he is sentenced to work on the chain gang with the others. After doing his time on the brutal chain gang, Marsh is transferred to the Caledonia Prison Farm, where he meets Capt. Peoples, the warden there. Although Maggie writes Marsh regularly, he discards her letters without reading them. Maggie complains to the warden about her husband's unresponsiveness, Cap summons Marsh to his office and orders him to respond to his wife's letters, but Marsh sullenly challenges his authority. While working in the fields one day, Marsh grabs Cap's gun to shoot a rattlesnake that is about to strike. When Marsh voluntarily relinquishes the weapon, he begins to win Cap's respect. Soon after, "Dutch" Kruger, one of Marsh's bunk mates, suffers a debilitating bout of malaria, and when Marsh stays behind to take care of him, Cap punishes him for being late to dinner and sentences him to solitary confinement until he recognizes the warden's authority. Marsh defiantly holds out for thirty days until the prison doctor authorizes his release. Afterward, Cap summons Marsh to his office and tells him that Maggie is waiting outside to see him. After Cap grants Marsh a twenty-four hour leave to spend with his wife, Marsh begins to respect the warden. On a picnic with her husband, Maggie reaffirms her love and then tells Marsh that she wants to have his child. When Marsh returns to prison on time, Cap honors his request to work at the blacksmith shop. After Marsh starts to sketch the design for a rifle he conceived of during his long days in solitary, Cap reluctantly allows him to continue his drawing. In secret, Marsh builds his gun in the prison workshop, and one day, Dutch and another inmate try to steal it to use in a prison break. Although Marsh successfully resists them, Cap is furious that Marsh actually built the weapon. When Marsh explains his revolutionary design for a new, light automatic rifle, however, Cap, impressed, allows him to continue work on the gun and writes Maggie that Marsh's determination has changed him. Marsh becomes a model prisoner, and six years later, finally perfects his rifle. When newspaper headlines trumpet the story of a convicted killer who builds guns in prison, Cap and Marsh are called before the prison board to defend themselves. After Cap defends Marsh's right to test his gun and offers to complete the convict's sentence if he tries to escape, the board, impressed, grants him permission. Once the gun is successfully tested, Joseph Winchester, the head of Winchester rifles, offers Marsh a contract. Several months later, with his father and Cap's support, Marsh is pardoned by the governor. His story finished, Cap returns to the present and concludes that Marsh's designs revolutionized the automatic rifle, a weapon that helped win the war for the U.S. With new respect, David then runs into his father's arms.