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 moving bullets have a very steep trajectory.

So, while the .45-70 is 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 use it these days.

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.45-70 Government History

Designed in 1873 for use in the single-shot “Trapdoor” Springfield, the .45-70 (originally known as the .45-70-405) fired a 405 grain, .45 caliber bullet propelled by a powder charge of 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 U.S. 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.
.45-70 with a 350gr lead bullet compared to a 7.62x51mm

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 whitetail 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 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. 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 325 grain 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 405 grain jacketed flat nose bullet propelled at 2000 feet per second for a tooth rattling 3597 foot pounds of muzzle energy.

For a more detailed discussion on .45-70 Government hunting ammunition, read this article:

Best .45-70 Ammo For Hunting Deer, Bear, Moose, & Other Big Game

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” 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, 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 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, and other big game 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 and a Red Hartebeest

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 soft point 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.

For a more detailed discussion on hunting cape buffalo with the .45-70 Government, read this article:

Read This Before Hunting Cape Buffalo With The 45-70 Government

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 offers.

Though it’s not usually thought of as a “brush gun”, the AR platform also lends itself well to that sort of hunting, especially when chambered in a cartridge more powerful than the .223 Remington. Fortunately, there are several very good rifles chambered in .450 Bushmaster, .458 SOCOM, and/or .50 Beowulf these days. All of those cartridges are devastating at short range and are available in compact and easy to handle rifles.

To learn more about some more modern cartridges that are comparable to the .45-70 Govt in terms of power, but fit in an standard AR platform, read the article below:

450 Bushmaster vs 458 SOCOM vs 50 Beowulf: Battle Of The Big Bore AR Cartridges

The Lyman 50th Edition (p352-360) and Hornady 10th Edition (p754-761) reloading manuals were used as references for this article.

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NEXT: THE .35 REMINGTON: AN UNDERRATED BRUSH CARTRIDGE

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19 thoughts on “The .45-70 Government: Bone-Crushing Performance From An Old School Lever-Action”

  1. 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.

    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.

      Reply
      • Though I appreciate your comments, I must respectfully disagree with your conclusions. While a 525-535gr bullet at 1,500-1,600 feet per second is indeed a potent load, in my experience, that’s not enough velocity for adequate and consistent penetration on buffalo or other thick skinned dangerous game. I’m sure that will do a number on a grizzly bear, but you’re just asking for trouble with that load on a Cape Buffalo or elephant.

        Reply
  2. That is why you use hotter rounds like the Grizzly Hunter Xtreme 45-70..325 Grains
    Muzzle Velocity 2275 Feet Per Second
    Muzzle Energy 3735 Foot Pounds

    Why is everyone looking at slower rounds?

    Reply
    • Really hot loads like the Grizzly Hunter Xtreme are great for modern rifles, but they aren’t safe for use in older .45-70 rifles like the Trapdoor Springfield. This is something the ammunition companies have to keep in mind when loading up “run of the mill” .45-70 factory ammo.

      Reply
  3. I purchased an 1898 “Rod” Bayonet Springfield Trapdoor in the white a few years ago The bore is perfect. I use “Cowboy” rounds mostly, but somehow got a box of modern smokeless ammo from Aguila. I shot the whole box, with no discernable damage to the rifle or accuracy. The Springfield Trapdoor in 45.70 is one strong rifle.

    Reply
  4. John,
    Wild West guns manufactures a take down gun called the WWG Co-Pilot which is a .457 cal.. It fires a 350 grain .458 caliber bullet at 2,250 feet per second. Are you still faced with the same challenges of penetration on big game such as Cape buffalo or elephants with this weapon?

    Reply
  5. I recently shot a150 lb. Hog quarteringin my direction at about 40 yds and she looked like she was hit by a freight train. I used a marlin 1895 with 325 grain hornady ftx.

    Reply
  6. I have a TC Pro hunter that I handload 45-70 using the Nosler Silvertip 300 grain in front of 50 grains of RL 7. This is my go to load for brush hunting bears and hogs. A reasonably well placed shot is potent enough to use a single shot, and gives me time to eject and load another if needed, which has been so far never.

    Reply
  7. No doubt the 45/70 is a great round with either store bought ammo or reloads, yet it has limitations. Knowing the limitations will keep you safe and plenty of meat in the freezer. I personally use 405 grain had loads and never had any issues dropping Russian boar, Bears, Elk under 100 yards. For anything further out I Bring the .300 win mag or .375 h&h. It’s all relative to what you are comfortable with.

    Reply
    • As a follow up. I was lucky in taking a 700 pound Russian boar with my 45/70. 405 grain hand loaded to 2100 FPS. The round went through one shoulder and stopped imbedded in the opposite shoulder dropping the boar in his tracks. Even though he managed to stand up again he just fell over with nothing left to fight with. Such a amazing round.

      Reply

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