The .45-70 Government: Bone-Crushing Performance From An Old School Lever-Action

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The .45-70 Government: Bone-Crushing Performance From An Old School Lever-Action

Check out this article about the history, shortcomings, and recommended uses for the .45-70 Government.

Today I’ll be discussing a cartridge that, while popular in certain circles, does not get a lot of attention these days: .45-70 Government. The .45-70 delivers bone crushing power at close range, but is difficult to shoot accurately at longer ranges because its big, slow oseving bullets have a very steep trajectory. So, while the .45-70 is relatively popular among black powder silhouette shooters and among those who hunt big game in heavy cover, only a relatively small percentage of hunters utilize it.



.45-70 Government History

Designed in 1873 for use in the “Trapdoor” Springfield, the .45-70 (originally known as the .45-70-405) fired a 405 grain, .45 caliber bullet propelled by 70 grains of black powder. This original black powder load pushed a cast lead bullet at a velocity of about 1350 feet per second. With a muzzle energy of about 1600 foot pounds, this cartridge was one of the most powerful loads available at the time and was effectively used by the Army through the Indian Wars in the late 1800s. The Army continued to use this rifle and cartridge in limited numbers through the Spanish-American War and Philippine Insurrection in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

A .45-70 with a 350gr cast lead bullet compared to a 7.62x51mm (.308 Winchester) cartridge.

A .45-70 with a 350gr cast lead bullet compared to a 7.62x51mm cartridge.

Due to excellent the reputation it earned while in use with the Army, the .45-70 quickly became popular among sportsmen in the United States. In response to significant demand for good rifles chambered in the cartridge, the major manufacturers began building rifles specifically for the .45-70. Soon, hunters had access to quality rifles and repeaters such as the Remington Rolling Block, the Remington-Keene, the Sharps 1874 “Buffalo Rifle,” the Winchester-Hotchkiss, Winchester Model 1885 “High Wall,” and the Winchester Model 1886. Even when using the relatively simple solid lead bullets available at the time, the .45-70 was an extremely potent load when used on deer and black bear and still effective on the larger, tougher, and sometimes more dangerous species like moose, grizzly bear, and bison.

Modern .45-70 Government Ammunition

Using modern, smokeless powder, most of the ammunition manufacturers currently produce a wide variety of loads of varying power for the .45-70. What load you should use depends on the rifle you intend to use it in. If you have an older rifle such as a vintage Trapdoor Springfield or a Winchester Model 1886, you should stick to low pressure loads that mimic the original performance characteristics of the round. However, most modern rifles, such as the Marlin Model 1895, the Ruger Number 1, or a converted Siamese Mauser, can handle increased pressures and there are several loads in production that have significantly improved the performance of the original load.

As just a small sample of these more modern loads that improve upon the original factory load, Federal Premium ammunition makes a load firing a 300gr Power-Shok at 1850 feet per second, generating a 2280 foot pounds of energy at the muzzle. Hornady produces the “LEVERevolution”, which has a pointed, flexible, polymer tip which improves the ballistic coefficient of the normally flat tipped bullet. The 325gr bullet has an advertised muzzle velocity of 2050 feet per second and a muzzle energy of 3032 foot pounds. Buffalo Bore produces one of the hottest .45-70 loads available with a 405gr jacketed flat point bullet propelled at 2000 feet per second for a tooth rattling 3597 foot pounds of muzzle energy.

Combined with modern bullet construction, these enhanced loads dramatically improve the performance of the .45-70 on virtually all game species when compared to the original black powder load. This allows the hunter to ethically take game at longer ranges and still consistently penetrate deep enough to reach the vitals of the animal for a quick and ethical kill.

.45-70 Government Shortcomings

While the .45-70 is a very accurate round, it is difficult to shoot at longer ranges because the slow velocity and low ballistic coefficient of the bullet, even when using modern bullets such as Hornady’s “LEVERevolution,” combine to produce a pretty steep trajectory. At ranges past about 200 yards, precise range estimation and applying the proper hold over become extremely important. For instance, using the ballistics of the original black powder .45-70 load, a bullet will drop nearly 50 inches between 350 and 400 yards! For this reason, long range shooters using cartridges like the .45-70, such as buffalo hunters back in the late 1800s, used “tang” or “ladder” sights with Vernier scales that allowed for very precise elevation adjustments. As long as he estimated the range correctly, a skilled marksman using a high quality rifle and sight could accurately hit targets out past 1,000 yards using the cartridge.

Due to these constraints, few modern hunters use the .45-70 at ranges past 200 yards. Fortunately, this cartridge excels at short ranges where the heavy, slow moving bullets deliver the bone crushing power and deep penetration necessary for hunting large, tough animals such as moose and grizzly bear. At the same time, the low velocity bullets do not produce large amounts of ruined, blood shot meat on thin skinned animals such as deer that high velocity cartridges do.

.45-70 Government Advantages

Another advantage of the .45-70 is that most of the rifles chambered for the cartridge are short barreled lever action rifles like the Marlin Model 1895. These rifles are often easy to carry, whether on foot or on horseback, and are quick to mount and fire. For these reasons, the .45-70 is an ideal cartridge for hunting in thick woods or heavy cover where short range shots (>100 yards) are common.

300gr Nosler Partitions retrieved from a feral hog (L) and a Red Hartebeest (R).

300gr Nosler Partitions retrieved from a feral hog (L) and a Red Hartebeest (R).

In addition to use on North American game, the .45-70 can also be a very effective cartridge for an African Safari. While it would not be my first choice for the longer range shots that are sometimes encountered in areas like the Kalahari Desert or Serengeti Plain, the cartridge shines when taking shots in the thick bushy conditions often encountered in the Lowveld or Mopani Bush areas common in many parts of Africa. Using high quality bullets, there is no plains game animal that I would hesitate to use the cartridge on at short range. Even very large animals like the eland should present no problems as long as a heavy for caliber, controlled expansion bullet is used and placed appropriately.

While I know it has been done before, I would be very cautious about using the .45-70 on thick skinned dangerous game like buffalo and elephant. For one thing, even when using very high pressure loads designed for modern rifles, the cartridge only produces between 3,000 and 3,600 foot pounds of energy at the muzzle, which falls short of the legal minimum energy requirement of some countries for use on dangerous game. Additionally, at .204, .238, and .276 respectively, the 300, 350 and 405gr bullets most commonly used in .45-70 fall short of the commonly recommended minimum sectional density of .300 to reliably penetrate deep enough to reach the vitals on a buffalo or elephant.

As a remnant from a bygone age in American history, there are few other cartridges that have as long and storied of a history as the .45-70. While it certainly has its limitations, the .45-70 is still an extremely effective cartridge when used under the proper conditions. There are few modern cartridges that can match balance of power and portability that the .45-70 offers.

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If you liked this article on the .45-70 Government, you’ll probably also like my articles on the .30 Carbine, the .32 Remington, the .35 Remington, the 9.3x62mm Mauser, the .375 H&H, the .375 Ruger, the .416 Rigby, the .577-450 Martini-Henry, and the .50-110 Winchester as well.
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3 Comments

  1. Joh Monaghan March 18, 2014 at 3:45 pm - Reply

    Thank You for this excellent article on the 45-70 cartridge. I would however like to point out that when handloading cast bullets ypu can obtain 525 to 535 grain bullets with a brinnel reading of 25. The latter bullet has a sectional density of .364 with the former being .357. Also Lyman gives a trapdoor load with this bullet over46.5 grains of Varget giving a muzzle velocity of 1520 fps with a C.U.P. of 18000. This load I am confident will take anything on this planet.

    • Tim July 10, 2017 at 5:54 pm - Reply

      Agree. A 525 grain Beartooth Piledriver started off at around 1,600fps or a little higher will do the trick on anything, if your placement is good.

  2. Zebra Information and Lifestyle November 16, 2014 at 4:20 pm - Reply

    […] a short range shot is likely, such as many places in Zimbabwe, cartridges like the .444 Marlin, .45-70 Government, and .35 Whelen can be counted upon to deliver the bone crushing power necessary to ethically kill […]

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