There are plenty of myths and misunderstandings out there regarding the capabilities of the .45-70 Government. Here’s what you need to know about hunting with the 45-70 Govt today.
Most hunters in North America are probably familiar with the .45-70 Government. However, while the .45-70 Govt was beloved by hunters during the 1800s, popularity of the cartridge has dropped off in recent years. A loyal segment of hunters and shooters still use the cartridge, but many others are skeptical of the capabilities of the venerable .45-70, especially when compared to more modern cartridge options.
Indeed, the .45-70 Government was one of the very first centerfire rifle cartridges ever invented and was originally designed to use black powder. Though modern loadings using smokeless powder have certainly improved the performance of the cartridge, the ballistics of the .45-70 on paper simply can’t compete with many newer options like the .444 Marlin, the .450 Marlin, and the .458 Win Mag.
So, while the .45-70 is about as American as apple pie, the .30-30 Winchester, the .30-06 Springfield, and the .45 Colt, only a relatively small percentage of dedicated hunters and shooters still use it these days. This is for a variety of reasons, but there are more than a few hunters out there who are skeptical of the capabilities of the cartridge when they see its somewhat anemic looking ballistics on paper.
In this article, I’m going to do a detailed analysis of the .45-70 Government in an effort to cut through some of the myths and misunderstandings out there regarding the capabilities of the .45-70 Govt so you can make an informed decision regarding whether or not you should hunt with one.
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.45-70 Government History
Designed in 1873 for use in the single-shot “Trapdoor” Springfield, the original .45-70 Government cartridge loading fired a 405 grain bullet propelled by a powder charge of 70 grains of black powder in a copper case.
In case you were wondering, the name of the cartridge comes from the black powder naming convention in common use at the time that consisted of the caliber of the cartridge followed by the standard load of powder in grains (like the .50-110 Winchester for instance). Since the new cartridge was designed at the United States government operated Springfield Armory and used a 405 grain, .45 caliber bullet (.458″ diameter) propelled by 70 grains of powder, the cartridge received the designation “.45-70-405.”
Commercial publications and catalogs also soon began referring to the cartridge as the “.45-70 Government” (.45-70 Govt or .45-70 Gov for short).
This original black powder load pushed a cast lead bullet at a velocity of about 1350 feet per second. With more than 1600 foot pounds of muzzle energy, 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 U.S. Army continued to use various models of this rifle and cartridge in limited numbers through the Spanish-American War and Philippine Insurrection in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In addition to the many variations of the Trapdoor Springfield the Army used, several early Gatling Gun models fired the .45-70 Government cartridge. The US Navy and Marine Corps also used the cartridge in a few different rifles as well.
Due to excellent the reputation it earned while in use with the Army, the .45-70 Govt also quickly became popular among sportsmen in the United States. In response to significant demand for good rifles chambered in the cartridge, it didn’t take long for the major manufacturers to began building .45-70 Govt rifles specifically marketed and designed for civilian hunters.
Soon, hunters had access to quality lever action and single shot 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 effective on game ranging from whitetail deer and black bear all the way up to the larger, tougher, and sometimes more dangerous species like moose, grizzly bear, and bison.
Typical 45-70 ballistics with modern factory ammo are a 300gr bullet at 2,350fps (3,678 ft-lbs), a 325gr bullet at 2,050fps (3,032 ft-lbs), and a 405gr bullet at 1,330fps (1,591 ft-lbs). The .45-70 Govt is very effective out to around 150 yards with minimal bullet drop, but it’s capable of great accuracy and longer range shooting as well.
Using modern, smokeless powder, most of the ammunition manufacturers currently produce a wide variety of loads of varying power for the .45-70. Indeed, there are several .45-70 ammo options out there that provide vastly improved ballistics when compared to the original black powder loading.
Not all 45-70 ammunition is safe to use in all .45-70 rifles though. So, what ammo you should use depends on the rifle you intend to shoot it in.
If you have an older rifle such as a vintage Trapdoor Springfield or a Winchester Model 1886, you should avoid modern ammunition (especially anything labeled “Magnum” or “+P”) and instead stick to low pressure loads that mimic the original performance characteristics of the round.
Using modern, high pressure ammunition in one of those older rifles can be very dangerous. Fortunately, there are still some good options out there that are plenty safe to use in those older rifles.
However, most modern handguns and rifles, such as the Marlin Model 1895, the Ruger Number 1, or a converted Siamese Mauser bolt action rifle, can handle increased pressures and there are several loads in production that have significantly improved ballistics when compared to the original black powder .45-70 loading.
For instance, 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.
Since the .45-70 Govt is very popular in lever-action rifles with tubular magazines, most loads feature a round nosed or flat-tipped bullet. This is because bullets are stacked one in front of the other and recoil could potentially cause a bullet with a pointed tip to detonate the primer of the cartridge in front of it.
Unfortunately, those bullets have a low ballistic coefficient and poor downrange performance.
Well, designers at Hornady attempted to solve that problem with their “LEVERevolution”, line of ammunition for cartridges like the .30-30 Winchester, .35 Remington, and .45-70 Govt that are popular in lever guns. This ammo is loaded with bullets that have a pointed, flexible, polymer tip.
This improves the ballistic coefficient of the normally round nosed or flat tipped bullet, but is still safe to use in a rifle with a tubular magazine. Not only does this ammunition use more aerodynamic bullets, but it’s also quite a bit more powerful than traditional .45-70 ammo.
.45-70 LEVERevolution ammunition is available with either a 250 grain MonoFlex or a 325 grain FTX bullet. The 250 grain load has an advertised muzzle velocity of 2025 feet per second (2,276 foot pounds of energy) and the 325 grain load has an advertise muzzle velocity of 2050 feet per second (muzzle energy of 3032 foot pounds) with a 24″ barrel length.
Finally, Buffalo Bore produces some of the hottest .45-70 loads available. Among other options, they offer a load featuring a 405 grain jacketed flat nose 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.
For a more detailed discussion on .45-70 Government hunting ammunition, read this article:
Make no mistake: the .45-70 is capable of excellent accuracy in the right hands. The effective range of the cartridge is also quite a bit longer than many people probably think at first.
Unfortunately, the .45-70 Govt 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.
That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to shoot the .45-70 at longer range, it just means doing so is very challenging.
This is illustrated in the table below comparing a two different .45-70 Govt loads to a pretty typical .30-06 load.
One .45-70 load approximates the performance of the original .45-70 Govt black powder loading of a 405 grain bullet (.307 BC) at 1350 feet per second while the other is a 325gr Hornady LEVERevolution factory load (.230 BC). The .30-06 Springfield load is a 150 grain Nosler Partition (.387 BC) at 3,000 feet per second.
All three loads used a 100 yard zero.
As you can see, there’s a pretty stark contrast between the trajectory of the older .45-70 Govt load and the newer Hornady .45-70 load. At the same time, there’s an even bigger difference between the newer .45-70 load and the .30-06 Springfield load.
This table illustrates just how important precise range estimation and applying the proper hold over become at ranges past about 200 yards with the .45-70. For instance, using the ballistics of the original black powder .45-70 load, a bullet will drop nearly 90 inches between 300 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” iron 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, while the .45-70 Govt is popular among black powder silhouette shooters, few modern hunters use the cartridge at ranges past 200 yards.
.45-70 Govt Advantages
Even though there are some very real challenges associated with using the .45-70 in certain situations, the cartridge also offers some significant advantages to hunters as well.
For one thing, the .45-70 Govt delivers the bone crushing power and deep penetration necessary for hunting large, tough animals such as moose and grizzly bear. Not only are those animals extremely large and, in the case of the big bears, potentially very dangerous, those hunting situations very rarely necessitate longer range shooting.
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 and the Henry .45-70. 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 deer, black bear, feral hogs, moose, brown bear, and other big game in thick woods or heavy cover where short range shots (>100 yards) are common.
After all, there’s a reason why the Marlin Model 1895G Guide Gun is so popular among hunters and outfitters in Alaska. There are few other rifles I’d rather have in my hands if I had to deal with a charging brown bear than an easy to handle lever action loaded with heavy hitting modern .45-70 ammo!
At the same time, don’t let anybody tell you that the .45-70 Govt is a bad choice for deer hunting because it’s “overkill” or because it “ruins a lot of meat.” On the contrary, unlike high velocity cartridges (like the .300 Win Mag), the low velocity bullets used by the 45-70 do not produce large amounts of ruined, blood shot meat on thin skinned animals such as deer.
In addition to use on North American game, the .45-70 Govt 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 soft point bullets, the cartridge can be absolutely deadly on plains game like blue wildebeest and kudu at short range. I took a Marlin 1895 to Namibia many years ago and successfully used it to take a gemsbok and red hartebeest with excellent results.
With all that in mind, there is no plains game animal that I would hesitate to use the cartridge on at ranges out to 100-150 yards. 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.
With all that being said, I would be very cautious about using the .45-70 Government on thick skinned dangerous game like buffalo and elephant though.
Yes, I know it’s been done before, but that doesn’t mean hunting cape buffalo with the .45-70 is a good idea.
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. This falls short of the legal minimum energy requirement of some countries (namely Namibia and Zimbabwe) 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.
For a more detailed discussion on hunting cape buffalo with the .45-70 Government, read this article:
Before we wrap up, I wanted to touch on how the .45-70 Government stacks up against the .30-30 Winchester. Those are the two most popular cartridges among hunters who use lever-action rifles in North America.
I’ve actually written a very detailed and comprehensive article on how those two fantastic lever action cartridges compare to each other. Click the link below to learn all about the pros and cons of the .30-30 Winchester vs the .45-70 Government.
.45-70 Government Conclusions
Buffalo and elephant aside, the .45-70 Govt is a wonderfully capable rifle for hunting virtually any species of big game in the world. Get a good hunting rifle, learn to shoot it well, use quality bullets, and you’ll be all set for most hunting situations.
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 Govt 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 Government offers.
Are you just itching to take a rifle chambered in .45-70 on a hunt?
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To learn more about some more modern big bore centerfire rifle cartridges that are either comparable to, or far exceed, the .45-70 Govt in terms of power, read the articles below: