Modern bullets and propellants have dramatically improved the performance of the cartridge compared to the original black powder load, but is hunting Cape Buffalo with the .45-70 Government a good idea?
Few topics in the realm of hunting in Africa are as contentious of a subject as hunting Cape Buffalo with the .45-70 Government cartridge. One one hand, some people consider the thought of pursuing Africa’s legendary “Black Death” with the cartridge both incredibly dangerous and the height of idiocy. On the other hand, there are a few hunters who declare the .45-70 an even better cartridge for hunting Cape Buffalo than the legendary .416 Rigby or .458 Lott. So, what’s the real deal with using the .45-70 on Cape Buffalo? As with most things, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
The .45-70 Government is a reliable old war horse with a loyal following, particularly among American hunters (and I’m one of them). In certain situations, the cartridge really excels. After all, the .45-70 got that great reputation as a bear defense round among guides in Alaska and Canada because hunters can count on it when the chips are down. Additionally, thousands of American Bison (to say nothing about untold numbers of deer, elk, moose, and other North American big game) have fallen to hunters using the cartridge over the years, which gives the .45-70 a certain amount of appeal to people nostalgic for particular aspects of the Old West.
Heck, if you’re looking for a cartridge that represents classic Americana, then the .45-70 Government ranks right up there with the .30-06 Springfield, the .30-30 Winchester, and the .45 Colt. Additionally, Tom Selleck’s use of a Sharps Buffalo Rifle in Quigley Down Under (even though he actually used a .45-110 cartridge in the movie) helped reignite interest in old black powder cartridges and rifles in the general hunting population and further enhanced the reputation of the .45-70.
For these reasons, it’s not surprising at all that many hunters have a desire to hunt Cape Buffalo with the .45-70. With all this in mind, I completely understand why someone would want to use their .45-70 on a Cape Buffalo hunt, particularly if they’d already taken an American Bison with the same rifle.
However, before you decide to bring your Shiloh Sharps or Marlin Model 1895 on a Cape buffalo hunt, consider the following questions first.
Will the .45-70 kill a Cape buffalo?
Yes, the .45-70 Government is capable of ethically killing a Cape Buffalo with the right bullets and proper shot placement. You don’t have to look very hard for examples of people successfully hunting Cape Buffalo with a .45-70. In fact, anecdotal reports from Africa indicate that the cartridge is capable of producing some very impressive results under the right conditions.
For instance, Brian Pearce famously killed a Cape buffalo bull a few years ago in Zimbabwe using factory Cor-Bon 405gr FP PEN loads in his Marlin 1895. During that hunt, he accidentally killed a buffalo cow standing unseen on the other side of the bull when his bullet penetrated through both shoulders and exited. Brian’s follow-up shot on the fleeing Cape Buffalo bull penetrated through nearly the bull’s entire body length-wise and was found in the brisket after it plowed through intestines, stomach, and the top of the heart. The bull barely ran 25 yards before expiring. This successful tale of a Cape Buffalo hunt with a .45-70 was immortalized in the March-April 2004 issue of Rifle Magazine (p30-35 and p73) and caused quite a stir in the hunting community when it was first published.
If Brian Pearce’s hunt is the first example of successful Cape Buffalo hunts with a .45-70 Government that people cite, then Vince Lupo is usually the second. If you’ve never heard of him before, Garrett Cartridges proudly advertises the fact that Mr. Lupo successfully took all of the African Big 6 (Cape Buffalo, Elephant, White Rhinoceros, Leopard, Lion, and Hippopotamus) with a lever-action Marlin chambered in .45-70 shooting Garret Hammerhead bullets during the course of a couple of hunts in South Africa during 2001 and 2002.
While Brian Pearce and Vince Lupo are far from the only examples of people safely and successfully hunting Cape Buffalo with the .45-70 cartridge, they are the most famous. Their hunts show that there is absolutely no doubt that it’s possible to kill a Cape Buffalo with the .45-70 Government under the right circumstances.
Is hunting Cape buffalo with a 45-70 Government legal?
So, we’ve established that you can indeed kill a Cape Buffalo with the .45-70 cartridge, but is doing so legal? Maybe, it depends on where you’re hunting.
Some countries (like Mozambique) do not have a minimum legal caliber or energy requirement for hunting buffalo (or any other game for that matter). Other countries (like Tanzania and Zambia) have a minimum caliber requirement of .375 for hunting Cape buffalo, but no energy requirement. So, it is indeed legal to hunt Cape buffalo with a .45-70 Government in those countries.
On the other hand, Zimbabwe requires a minimum caliber of 9.2mm and a minimum energy of 5,300 Joules (3,909 foot pounds) for hunting “Class A” game like buffalo, hippo, and elephant. Namibia has a minimum energy requirement of 5,400 Joules (3,982 foot pounds) for hunting buffalo, elephant, and rhino.
Your run of the mill 300gr and 405gr .45-70 loads manufactured by Remington and Winchester push those bullets at 1,880 fps and 1,330 fps for muzzle energies of 2,355 fpe and 1,590 fpe respectively. Clearly, these loads do not come anywhere near the legal minimum for hunting buffalo in Namibia or Zimbabwe.
Now, it’s true that the ammunition manufacturers have to take all those old Trapdoor Springfield rifles out there into account when they sell ammunition under the .45-70 Government label. Modern rifles like the Marlin Model 1895 and especially the Ruger No. 1 can safely shoot much hotter loads. So, what about these specialty “Magnum” or “+P” loadings?
The maximum pressure “Magnum” load produced by Buffalo Bore pushes a 405gr bullet at an advertised velocity of 2,000fps for 3,597 foot pounds of energy at the muzzle. That’s impressive performance for sure, but it still falls well short of the legal minimum energy to hunt buffalo in Namibia and Zimbabwe.
What about the Cor-Bon load Brian Pearce used or those Garret Hammerheads that Vince Lupo took the Big 6 with? In his article, Brian said he chronographed those 405gr bullets at 1,793fps out of his Marlin Model 1895. This results in 2,890 foot pounds of energy at the muzzle, meaning his load was over 1,000 foot pounds of energy short of the legal requirement for his buffalo hunt in Zimbabwe. Garret advertises a muzzle velocity of 1,850fps for the 420gr Hammerheads Vince used on his leopard and lion and a muzzle velocity of 1,550fps for the 540gr Hammerheads he used on the buffalo, rhino, and elephant. At those velocities, the 420gr Hammerheads produce 3,192 foot pounds of energy and the 540gr Hammerheads produce 2,880 foot pounds of energy.
So, for all practical purposes, the .45-70 Government cartridge does not meet the minimum legal requirement for hunting Cape Buffalo in Zimbabwe or Namibia. That being said, it is legal to use the .45-70 on buffalo in just about every other country in Africa where they’re hunted.
Should you hunt Cape buffalo with a .45-70?
This is where things get tricky. Yes, you can kill a Cape Buffalo with the .45-70 and yes, it is technically legal to do so in several countries in Africa. But the question remans: is it a good idea to hunt Cape Buffalo with the .45-70? Well, as my mother always used to say: just because you can doesn’t mean you should.
First, let’s talk about the minimum energy requirements for hunting buffalo in Africa. We’ve established that it’s clearly possible to kill a buffalo with a cartridge that does not meet the minimum energy requirements for Namibia and Zimbabwe. However, those regulations exist for a reason and they came from many years of hard earned experience. Remember, African game departments developed those standards to help ensure that hunters use cartridges powerful enough to ethically and safely hunt Cape Buffalo. After all, it is quite possible to kill a deer with a .22 Long Rifle and an elephant with a 7mm Mauser, but there are laws against those practices for good reasons. While it is a somewhat imprecise way of doing so, these minimum standards are still a good guideline for selecting a buffalo hunting cartridge regardless of what country you’ll be hunting in.
Now, no game ranger or police officer is going to check your loads at the beginning of the hunt and issue you a ticket or throw you in jail if they aren’t powerful enough. People do disregard the minimum caliber and energy regulations on a regular basis and safely hunt all manner of game in Africa (including buffalo), but you ignore those regulations at your own peril.
Regardless of what you’re doing, it’s almost always better to be on the right side of the law. But truth be told, as long as your Professional Hunter (PH) gives you permission to do so, nobody really cares about the specific load you use on a hunt unless something bad happens. When things go as planned on a Cape Buffalo hunt, it’s a great experience. But when things go sideways, it can get scary really quickly. Buffalo charges are not nearly as common as you’d think from watching TV, but they do happen on a regular basis. After all, buffalo are classified as dangerous game for a reason.
Let’s say that you do decide to hunt Cape Buffalo with a .45-70 and events don’t follow the script. If somebody gets hurt, there will be an investigation. Regardless of whether it was actually your fault or not, the investigators will likely quickly focus on the fact that you were using a non-traditional cartridge that falls well short of the generally accepted minimum standards for hunting buffalo. Obviously this would be bad news for both you and the PH who allowed you to use a marginal cartridge like that.
Second, no matter what some people say, the .45-70 is a borderline cartridge for hunting Cape Buffalo and you should be very careful about hunting thick-skinned dangerous game with it. On paper, the cartridge falls well short of the most commonly used buffalo cartridges like the .375 H&H, the .416 Rigby, the .458 Winchester, and the .458 Lott. Indeed, both the .458 Winchester and .458 Lott will shoot a 500gr bullet faster than the .45-70 will shoot a 400gr bullet.
True, Cape Buffalo don’t care about the paper specifications of a cartridge. It’s also true that certain cartridges, like the 9.3x62mm Mauser, seem to perform better in real life than their specifications on paper would suggest.
This is usually where people who think it’s a good idea to hunt Cape Buffalo with the .45-70 Government point to experiments by Randy Garrett that show how the .45-70 actually penetrates deeper than the .458 Winchester and .458 Lott in wet newspaper. Mr. Garrett concluded that the .45-70 bullets penetrated deeper because of their lower velocity. I’m not disputing the results of his experiment or the conclusion he drew from it.
However, I am saying that his experiments do not tell the whole story. For one thing, Cape Buffalo are not made out of wet newspaper, or ballistic gelatin, or any other homogenous material people use to test the ballistic performance of bullets. Bullets perform differently in those mediums than they do in creatures made of flesh, blood, and bone. But for the sake of argument, let’s assume that the results of his bullet penetration experiments transfer 100% to hunting Cape Buffalo. After all, the idea that slightly lower impact velocities result in deeper bullet penetration is not a new concept and other hunters and ballistic experts have noted the phenomenon as well.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never read a single account stating that any of the most popular buffalo cartridges (including the .458 Lott and modern .458 Winchester loads) suffer from inadequate penetration. So what if a bullet fired from a .45-70 penetrates deeper than an identical bullet fired from a .458 Lott? Bullet penetration is important, but only to a certain point. As long as the bullet reaches the vitals of the buffalo, you don’t gain much more if it penetrates a few extra inches or feet afterwards.
In fact, as Brian Pearce learned, it’s possible to have too much penetration. Shooting two buffalo with one shot is often a recipe for disaster, so he was fortunate that his shot killed the cow outright instead of merely wounding it. Since everyone’s attention is focused on the target buffalo, it’s often the other buffalo hit by the exiting bullet that kills or injures someone in the hunting party simply because nobody is expecting it.
While bullet penetration is a very important characteristic when hunting buffalo, it’s not the only thing that matters. One of the reasons the Cor-Bon and Garrett Hammerhead .45-70 bullets penetrate so well is because they are designed not to expand. These bullets do have a larger than average meplat, so they cut a bigger hole than a typical non-expanding bullet of the same diameter. Even so, they still don’t create as big of a wound channel as a good quality expanding bullet from a .458 Winchester or Lott. An expanding bullet from either of these cartridges will probably not penetrate as deep as a non-expanding bullet from a .45-70, but it will still get far enough enough to get the job done at normal shooting angles and it will cause much more tissue damage than the non-expanding .45-70 bullet.
Therein lies the crux of the problem with hunting buffalo with the .45-70 Government: it shoots at just the right velocity for extreme penetration with well constructed, non-expanding bullets, but too low of a velocity for many premium quality controlled expansion bullets to open up. This often results in them behaving like a non-expanding bullet, thus penetrating too far and causing less tissue damage than they otherwise would. If more rapidly expanding bullets are used that will open up at the lower velocities obtained from the .45-70, they quite often will not penetrate deep enough to reach the vitals on a Cape Buffalo.
Concluding Thoughts On Hunting Cape Buffalo With A .45-70
Cape Buffalo are incredibly tough, unpredictable, and aggressive animals. Since they often inhabit thickly wooded areas, shooting distances are usually pretty short, sometimes less than 50 yards. This can make for some fast paced encounters at close range, especially when shooting a bull out of a herd or when following up a wounded buffalo. Not surprisingly, these encounters to get a little too exciting every now and then. Like I said earlier: Cape Buffalo are called dangerous game for a reason and they kill or injure hundreds of people each year.
With all of this in mind, do you really want to handicap yourself by using anything other than the best cartridge, rifle, and ammunition? When you’re hunting buffalo, you’re literally putting your life, as well as the life of the trackers and your PH on the line, so I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that you should be doing everything possible to stack the odds as much in your favor as possible.
If you are still adamant about hunting Cape Buffalo with the .45-70, make sure you discuss this with your PH prior to the hunt and get his approval first. After all, if things go south, he’ll be the one that has to pick up the pieces and is the most likely person to get injured. If he approves of your use of the cartridge, make sure you also discuss the subject of backing shots. Are you okay with flying halfway around the world and spending thousands of dollars just to have your PH back you with his rifle in order to stop a charge or prevent a wounded buffalo from escaping because you used a marginal cartridge for the job?
Please don’t misunderstand me: I’m not trying to bash the .45-70 Government. It’s a fine cartridge, but I just want to make the potential risks involved with trying to use it on buffalo clear. Like I’ve said several times in the article, the .45-70 is not the best tool for the job, but it is certainly capable of killing a Cape Buffalo. As long as you understand and accept the risks of trying to hunt Cape Buffalo with the .45-70, and as long as your PH is fine with you using the cartridge, then by all means bring it on your Cape Buffalo hunt.
Africa’s Most Dangerous by Kevin Robertson (2nd Edition, p 117 & 122) was used as a reference for this article.