Not many things created by the hands of mortal man were built to last for 135 years, but the old .45-70 Government has done just that. While it has not made the ammunition manufacturers’ Top 10 list of best-selling cartridges in a very long time, the ammo continues to sell steadily. In other words, more than a few hunters are keeping the old-timer alive.
The .45-70, along with the Trapdoor Springfield single-shot rifle for which it was developed, was adopted by the U.S. Army in 1873 and remained the official service cartridge until being replaced by the .30 caliber Krag repeater in 1892. The .45-70 also holds the distinction of being used in the first rapid-fire weapon adopted by Uncle Sam, the Gatling gun.
Its official designation of .45-70-405 indicated a .45 caliber bullet weighing 405 grains seated atop 70 grains of blackpowder. Muzzle velocity was around 1,365 fps.
Other loadings were eventually developed, including one with a 500-grain bullet and a softer-recoiling option called the .45-55-405 intended for use in the lighter, carbine version of the Model 1873 rifle which was issued to the cavalry. Another variation called the military guard load contained three lead balls weighing 108 grains each.
By today’s standards the .45-70 can be considered nothing more than a close-range cartridge, but there was a time when it was thought to be quite suitable for shooting at great distances.
According to a report filed in 1880 by the Secretary of War, a Mr. R.T. Hare who worked at Springfield Armory “hit a six-foot bullseye at 2500 yards with three different 1873 Springfield rifles.” For an encore, the marksman backed off to 3,200 yards and repeated his performance.
When performing long-range penetration tests, the U.S. Army found that the 500-grain lead bullet of the service load consistently penetrated three one-inch pine boards at 3,500 yards and then continued on to an average depth of five inches into a sand backstop. Average bullet flight time at that distance was 20.8 seconds.
The very first rifle in .45-70 I shot belonged to a neighbor whose farm was up the road apiece from ours. I was around 12 years old and just beginning to become interested in hunting deer. The rifle was a genuine Trapdoor Springfield carbine.
I managed to come up with enough money to buy a box of factory ammunition, and once it was shot up I reloaded the cases with blackpowder and lead balls cast in a Lyman mold, making the .45-70 the first cartridge I ever reloaded.
Anytime a cartridge is adopted by the U.S. military, you are safe in wagering good money that it will become popular among civilians, and the .45-70 was no exception. Early on, Winchester offered several hunting loads with various bullet weights, including 330 and 350 grains.
The most unusual load offered by that company during the early 1900s was developed for indoor target practice. It contained a 60-grain, .26 caliber bullet enclosed by a wooden sabot (and you thought Remington’s Accelerator ammo was a new idea when it was introduced). Just as interesting, the practice cartridge contained a duplex powder charge consisting of three grains of blackpowder and seven grains of smokeless.
Early on, single-shot sporting rifles in .45-70 were offered by several companies, and two bolt-action rifles–the Winchester Hotchkiss and the Remington Keene–were also chambered for it. But lever-action rifles such as the Winchester Model 1886 and Marlin Model 1895 put it on the map among hunters on into the 20th century.
Then came bolt-action rifles chambered for flat-shooting cartridges, and popularity of the .45-70 began to wane. Winchester ceased production of the Model ’86 in 1935, and if not for an event that took place in 1972, the grand old cartridge might now be obsolete.
That was the year Marlin added the .45-70 chambering to a slightly modified version of the Model 336 rifle and introduced it as the New Model 1895. Shortly thereafter, the .45-70 chambering became available in the Ruger No. 3, Ruger No. 1, Browning B78 and a reproduction of the Trapdoor Springfield carbine from Harrington & Richardson. The old warhorse was once again off and running.
Along about that same time, several gunsmiths started building custom rifles in .45-70 on the Siamese Mauser action, and that too added a bit of fuel to the fire.
The .45-70 was back in business, but it took the ammunition companies a while to notice. At the time, both Remington and Winchester offered .45-70 ammunition, but it was available only with a 405-grain bullet loaded to a velocity of 1,320 fps. With the exception of its jacketed bullet, that load pretty much duplicated the performance of the original 1800s loading.
Then Sierra, Speer and Hornady offered new jacketed bullets weighing from 300 to 400 grains, and hand-loaders began to greatly exceed factory load performance with the new generation of rifles. That prompted Federal to introduce a new loading with a 300-grain jacketed hollowpoint bullet at more than 1,800 fps; Remington and Winchester eventually followed suit. The new loads delivered more energy at 100 yards than the old load did at the muzzle, and they shot a bit flatter to boot.
When reloading the .45-70, keep in mind that the many different rifles which have been chambered for it over the past 134 years vary considerably in strength. This is why load data published by various sources are usually separated into two or three categories–with the lightest loads suitable for use in the Trapdoor Springfield, which is representative of the weaker group of rifles.
Then we have medium-power loads for the New Model Marlin 1895, and from there we move up to damn-the-torpedoes data for rifles such as the Ruger No. 1 and Browning Model 1885.