In the era of 5.56 rifles, it’s hard to imagine that the .45-70 was once the cartridge of choice for the U.S. military. It offered plenty of stopping power and impressive accuracy relative to its 1873 release date, and the government soon adopted the cartridge and the Trapdoor Springfield as the standard rifle/cartridge combo for cavalry soldiers.
A product of the blackpowder era, the original .45-70 Gov’t cartridge fired a 405-grain .458-inch bullet at velocities over 1,300 fps, and as westward expansion prompted conflicts between the U.S. government and Native American nations it was the .45-70 Trapdoor Springfield that became the weapon of choice for warring parties on both sides.
By the early 20th century, though, the .45-70 was being usurped by faster, lighter, flatter-shooting cartridges like the .30-06, .30-30 Win. and 7mm Mauser. The old, broad-shouldered .45-70 was a dinosaur, and it faded to the edge of obscurity.
This popularity decline was expedited by the fact that Trapdoor Springfield rifles were not as strong as later lever-action designs, and those, in turn, were not as robust as single-shots such as the Winchester 1885. That meant that the .45-70’s capabilities were limited by action type.
There were still a lot of lever gun fans in the early to mid-1900s, and they longed for a cartridge that provided more power than the .30 and .35 caliber offerings of the time. By the 1960s, the .44 Mag. had taken off in popularity, and Marlin engineers had a simple idea: By lengthening the .44 case, they created a more powerful lever-action cartridge that could utilize .429-inch bullets designed for the .44 Mag. That new rifle cartridge became known as the .444 Marlin, and it effectively filled the existing over-.40 gap in lever guns.
Realistically, the .45-70 and .444 Marlin are not as similar as they may initially seem. The .45-70 was originally designed with heavier 350- to 500-grain bullets at velocities hovering around 2,000 fps, though lighter, flatter-shooting offerings in the 250- to 300-grain range are now more com-mon.
The .444 Marlin favors bullets from 240 to 300 grains, and many rifles are effectively limited by their 1:38 twist rate—advantage .45-70—but the popularity of the .44 Mag. and the resulting cache of new .429 bullets were a boon for .444 fans.
In terms of available ammo, there are about three .45-70 factory loads for every .444 Marlin offering, another advantage for the old soldier. In addi-tion, there are a host of different rifles available in .45-70 like the “new” Winchester 1886, the Marlin 1895 and vari-ous replicas from Uberti and others.
With more rifles, more ammo, and a wider range of bullet weights available it seems the .45-70 is rolling over the maligned .444. Not so fast. There are a bunch of .44 Mag. owners, and if they handload, the idea of a rifle that shoots the same bullets is appealing.
In addition, a factory .444 Marlin loaded with a lighter bullet shoots flat-ter than a comparable .45-70. Case in point, Hornady’s FTX LeverEvolution line. The 265-grain .444 Marlin load has a muzzle velocity that is almost 300 fps faster than the 325-grain .45-70 load, it generates more energy out to 300 yards and, when sighted in three inches high at 100 yards, drops three inches less at 200 yards than the .45-70. It’s not exactly a sheep rifle, but a flatter trajectory curve does make longer shots easier.
The .45-70 is also handicapped by the fact that a lot of the factory ammo out there doesn’t take the cartridge to its fullest—due to the wide range of rifles old and new, as well as action type.
But at least you can find a variety of .45-70 rifles. Even the .444’s parent offers only a single lever action cham-bered for it.