“Old soldiers never die…” the .45-70

“Old soldiers never die…” the .45-70

Mayer, Scott E

Of all the cartridges that are truly “long in the tooth,” the .45-70 Gov’t stands out as not only an oldie but a goodie-and one that continues to get better.

Over the past 130 years, the .45-70 Gov’t cartridge has had its highs and lows. It’s a combat veteran and has taken countless numbers of game, small, big and real big. It has played movie roles, earned a distinguished place in competitive shooting and is a favorite among those who have a warm spot in their hearts for the wild frontier days. It is perhaps the only 130-year-old anything I can think of that is still real good in its original configuration, yet has also continued to evolve into a candidate for a “high-performance” title.

As originally loaded and adopted by the U.S. Army in 1873, the .45-70 Gov’t used 70 grs. of blackpowder to lob a 405-gr., all-lead bullet at a muzzle velocity somewhere between 1100 f.p.s. and 1300 f.p.s. depending on what reference material you check. A formidable enough load, it was quickly “improved” by increasing the bullet weight to 500 grs. in factory loadings.

Smokeless powder came along in 1884, and by 1892, the U.S. Army began to abandon the big blackpowder number in favor of the smokeless .30-40 Krag cartridge. And by the end of World War II, American sportsmen had mostly turned their backs on it, too.

But the .45-70 survived that law, seeing a revival ministered by the introduction of neat guns such as Ruger’s No. 1, and various reproductions of the Remington Rolling Block, Sharps and Springfield Trapdoor, and by Federal’s introduction of a 300-gr. JHP load for hunters. Even so, by the late 1970s, when I was old enough to have a mature interest in guns, it seemed to me that the popularity of the .45-70 was wallowing in a shallow pool of a few odd big game hunters and history buffs. Like many my age, I paid it no mind. That was the .45-70’s life cycle during what I would call my parent’s generation-the folks who are 60- to 70-somethings today.

For my generation, currently the 30- to 40-somethings, the .45-70 is off to a better start. Though Marlin had its Model 1895SS lever-action rifle in production during the last .45-70 lull, I credit Marlin’s introduction of the similar Model 1895G “Guide Gun” as the instigator of the latest surge in popularity of the .45-70 as a hunting load. I also credit the movie “Quigley Down Under” with popularizing Sharps-style rifles-many of which are found in .45-70 chambering, and are incredibly popular with blackpowder cartridge target shooters.

The ammunition companies haven’t

been sitting on the sidelines, either. Small specialty companies such as Garrett, Buffalo and Cor-Bon offer .45-70 loads that push the performance envelope so much that they’re not safe to fire in old or weak rifles and warn so on the boxes. But even among the manufacturers that comply with the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers Institute (SAAMI) standards, there are high-performance loadings. Remington has two perennial favorites which are standard performers by which the others can be judged: a 405-gr. jacketed soft-point and a 300-gr. jacketed hollow-point. The 405-gr. load is the only one of that bullet weight currently cataloged by a major ammunition manufacturer.With a muzzle velocity of 1330 f.p.s., that load closely duplicates the old .45-70-405 blackpowder load. Surprisingly, even though this bullet weighs 35 percent more than Remington’s 300-gr. bullet load, it’s not until the 300-yd. mark that the inertia of the heavier bullet gives it an edge in energy over the 300-gr. load (Fig. 1).

Federal quietly transformed its 300-gr..45-70 offering from a standard load into a high-performance load. As part of the combining of CCI/Speer with Federal under the Blount and, now, ATK names, Federal dropped the Sierra 300-gr. jacketed hollow-point bullet it was using in favor of Speer’s 300-gr. Hot-Cor bullet. Sierra’s 300-gr. .45-cal. JHP is a very good bullet, and its match with the .45-70 was a good one, but the Hot-Cor has the added benefit of being like a bonded bullet that can’t experience jacket/core separation and thus penetrates deeply. Most bullets are manufactured by putting a cold lead core into a copper jacket, and then swaging the two into shape. The Hot-Cor process involves pouring molten lead at 825 degrees F into the copper jacket. The result is a core that is gripped tightly into the jacket to prevent separation.

Some hunters might see jacket/core separation as a good thing in a big, slow load such as the .45-70. The jacket alone of a .45-cal. 300-gr. JHP weighs between 50 and 75 grs. depending on whose bullet you use, which makes it a formidable secondary projectile in its own right. Of all the commercial SAAM-spec 300-gr. .45-70 loads, the Federal load has the flattest trajectory, dropping “only” about 40″ at 300 yds. with a 100-yd. zero. At that range, the difference in velocity among the various factory loads is splitting hairs, and not really worth discussing.

Terminally, the Federal load with Speer 300-gr. Hot-Cor bullet is a stellar performer. As you can see in the nearby illustration (Fig. 2), the load is easily capable of wrecking the vitals of an animal the size of a whitetail deer. But that should be considered the starting point regarding the size of the game for which this load is suited. I wouldn’t blink if asked whether it is enough for elk, moose or even bear.

But not all hunters feel the same way about the .45-70. I was recently guided on a black bear hunt by world famous writer and hunter Jim Shocky. Jim wasn’t happy that I didn’t know who Shania Twain was, and he wasn’t too happy with me using a .45-70, either. Shocky doesn’t like to fool around when it comes to big bears. He wants them down on the first shot, and he wants them down in their tracks and uses a .338 Ultra Mag as his backup gun when guiding hunters. As much as I wanted to use my .400 Marlin wildcat on this hunt, I chose Marlin’s Model 1895G Guide Gun in .45-70 instead.

We were hunting on Vancouver Island where bears are fairly big. Shania aside, big bears have big bones so I knew I needed a bullet with a proven high-performance record on big game. I wanted a bullet that would deliver everything it had and that was sure to exit in case we needed to blood trail the bear into the dense, old growth forest. A Nosler Partition bullet would fill that bill, and thankfully, Winchester ammunition and Nosler teamed a few years ago to produce a Combined Technology load for the .45-70 in the form of the Partition Gold bullet.

Though the Hoxie and other bullets came before it, I consider the Nosler Partition the world’s first successful “mechanical” bullet. A machine is a tool designed to do work, and the work the Nosler Partition is designed to do is to initially expand violently, then penetrate reliably. The result of that work is usually the complete and instantaneous disruption of the internal workings of a big game animal. That kind of designed performance is achieved by using a dual-core configuration, with the cores separated by a sturdy, copper web, or partition (hence the name) between the cores. As you can see in the nearby illustration (Fig. 3), the front core, being soft lead, expands reliably, opening up the bullet to about two times its diameter. The expansion stops at the partition, and the rear half of the bullet plows through as if it were a flat-point, full– diameter solid bullet.

Winchester’s 300-gr..45-70 Partition Gold load falls into its “CXP3” category for large, heavy game according to Winchester’s “Expansion Performance Guide.” Properties of bullets in that category are “Delayed, controlled expansion. Deep penetration through thick, tough skin, heavy muscle tissue and bone.” Though my shot on a bear was only at about 75 yds., that performance promise came true on the 500-lb. boar. The bullet entered just behind the left shoulder, wrecked both lungs and punched through the other side– no problem.

Some have told me that, lately, there’s been another downturn in .45-70 interest, though you wouldn’t know it from looking at what blackpowder cartridge competitors are shooting. But in the field, it’s understandable considering all the attention given the current generation of “short magnums.” Consider, though, that today there is truly high-performance .45-70 ammunition and that there are robust single-shots from makers such as Ruger, and nimble lever-actions from Marlin and Winchester and even a magazine-fed bolt-action from Gibbs Rifle Co. and I think you’ll agree that any downturn is just another temporary blip in the .45-70’s long history of highs and lows.

By Scott E. Mayer, Shooting Editor

Copyright National Rifle Association of America Mar 2003

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