February 09, 2018
By Craig Boddington
Centerfire priming was still new when three great cartridges were introduced in 1873: the .44 Win. Center Fire (.44-40), the .45 Colt, and, as it was originally called, the .45 Government, the great old .45-70. And despite the legend, it wasn't the lever-action .44-40 but the trapdoor Springfield .45-70 that won the West. It was carried as a carbine by saddle-sore troopers and rifle-musket by footsore infantrymen.
Purists might say the proper designation is ".45-70-405"—meaning .45 caliber, 70 grains of blackpowder and a 405-grain bullet. That was the original load and the original designation, but with the advent of the stronger Springfield 1884, the standard load changed to a 500-grain bullet — .45-70-500—which gave better long-range performance. The carbine load, however, had a reduced 55-grain powder charge. My guess is the lighter load was to reduce the vicious recoil in the light, handy cavalry carbine.
Like most U.S. military cartridges, the .45-70 transitioned to sporting use. It was chambered to most 19th century single-shots, but it's a stretch to say it was extremely popular. The cartridge was prevalent among dozens of large-caliber blackpowder cartridges thanks to the many thousands of trapdoor Springfields. It was not the most respected choice, though. Those honors might go to the .44-90 (Sharps or Remington) or the .50-90 Sharps, both of which were said to be more accurate.
It wasn't long, though, before the .45-70 made its transition to repeating rifles. Winchester's Centennial Model 1876 wasn't long enough for the .45-70; this lever action was introduced in .45-75 WCF, a shorter bottleneck cartridge using a shorter, lighter bullet. A decade later Winchester tried again with the John Browning-designed Model 1886, an action that was stronger, smoother and able to house much longer cartridges as well as handle smokeless powder.
We often regard the '86 as "the" .45-70 repeater of the blackpowder era, but there were others, including the Model 1879 Lee Magazine rifle and the Remington-Lee, early bolt actions used by the U.S. Navy until the mid-1890s.
Except for wartime breaks, the 1886 remained in production until 1935, and faithful reproductions have since been manufactured by both Browning and Winchester. Which is a good thing. Just try to find an original '86 in .45-70, and if you do, hang onto your hat because prices are dear. But unless you're a collector, there is really no need to seek out an original '86 in .45-70 because the reissues from Browning and Winchester are awesome.
The most common .45-70 repeater today is the Marlin Model 1895, a side-eject lever action readily adaptable to modern sighting equipment. Introduced in 1972, the Marlin 1895 takes its name from Marlin's Model of 1895, which was manufactured from 1895 until our entry into World War I. That original Model of 1895 was a big action chambered to large cases, including the .45-70, but it was a top-eject lever action.
In addition to the modern Marlin 1895 and the reissued 1886, Henry has offered a .45-70 version since 2012. At first glance its .45-70 looks a lot like the Marlin, but the Henry tubular magazine loads from a port in front of the fore-end rather than from a receiver loading gate.
Years ago, surplus Siamese Mausers converted to .45-70 were available for a song. This Mauser action had a slanted magazine to accommodate its 8x50R rimmed cartridge, but when ammo became unavailable, many of these rifles were converted. However, I checked a couple of on-line sites and was shocked at the prices these are now commanding. The lever actions are a better deal.
If you're looking for a single-shot, your choices increase. Ruger has offered several variants of its No. 1 in .45-70, and it's a standard chambering in Browning/Winchester's 1885 High Wall. Uberti's 1885 High Wall Big Game rifle is chambered only to .45-70, and the cartridge is almost always an option in Sharps and Remington rolling block reproductions. There are reproduction trapdoor Springfields as well.
Today Thompson/Center offers both G2 Contender and Encore barrels in .45-70, but that isn't new. Forty years ago, my first exposure to a .45-70 was with one of J.D. Jones' SSK barrels on a Contender handgun. In a pistol the .45-70 is quite a handful, but it was very accurate if you could hang onto it. Today Magnum Research offers its massive single-action BFR revolver in .45-70 as well.
Regrettably, Harrington & Richardson ceased manufacturing in 2015. Its inexpensive break-open exposed hammer single-shot action was marketed not only under the H&R name but also as New England Arms and Wesson & Harrington—with several variants in .45-70. I have a Wesson & Harrington Model 1871 Buffalo Special, a nice .45-70 rifle with a notably long 32-inch barrel.
A few vintage double rifles were chambered to .45-70. A South African friend had an old Austrian exposed-hammer double in .45-70, perhaps ordered by an American. I borrowed it one evening and shot a nice warthog. Today the Pedersoli Kodiak Mk IV exposed-hammer double rifle is offered in .45-70. Surprisingly inexpensive, it shoots very well.
Surplus trapdoor Springfields kept the .45-70 alive until it was chambered to modern actions. God bless the Springfield, but this is also one of the cartridge's limitations. The trapdoor Springfield is not strong, and some that are still in use are nearly as old as the cartridge. Major manufacturers keep all factory loads at pressures low enough to permit use in trapdoor Springfields, which precludes the cartridge from reaching its full capability in factory loads.
In the early 1970s John Wootters took a Ruger No. 1 .45-70 on his first African safari, but he had it handloaded up to almost .458 Win. Mag. performance. Few actions are as strong as the Ruger No. 1, but such a load would be a bomb in a trapdoor Springfield.
Among the majors, only Remington still offers a "traditional" 405-grain .45-70 load. Instead of the original mil-spec paper-wrapped lead bullet at about 1,400 fps, the Remington 405-grain .45-70 features a jacketed soft point at 1,590. It's a hard-hitting load. We Americans are beguiled by velocity, but if I wanted to shoot really large game (moose, big bears) with a .45-70 and needed to use a standard factory load, this is the one I would choose.
Most factory loads today have increased velocity (but not pressure) by reducing bullet weight. Remington also offers a 300-grain JHP rated at 2,182 fps. Winchester's .45-70 load also features a 300-grain jacketed hollowpoint rated at 1,880 fps. These are all flat-point loads, another limitation because of the potential use in tubular-magazine lever actions.
Hornady's FlexTip bullet in its LeverEvolution line solves that problem. It offers two .45-70 loads with suggested velocities sort of in the middle: a 325-grain FTX at 2,050 fps and a 250-grain Monoflex bullet at 2,025 fps for hunters obligated to used lead-free bullets. Don't get wrapped around the axle with .45-70 velocities. There are variances depending on your rifle, but the .45-70 is always a slow cartridge propelling a heavy, large-caliber bullet.
There are other options. Garrett Cartridges offers an amazing array of .45-70 loads. Randy Garrett started the company with a 420-grain Super Hard-Cast lead flat point loaded to different velocities and thus pressures.
Read the fine print regarding which rifles these loads are suited for. Its 420-grain bullet is loaded at 1,350 fps for trapdoor Springfields, 1,650 fps for a long list of other actions, and 1,850 fps for the strongest modern actions. There are also options in the 500- and 540-grain bullet weights. Again, be sure to consult the company's website on which rifles these loads are suitable for.
Handloading is an obvious option, but this also creates a pressure dilemma. Most loading manuals solve this by offering multiple tables for the .45-70, sort of like hot sauce: mild, medium and extra-spicy. The most conservative data are intended for trapdoor Springfields and other not-so-strong actions, which includes my Wesson & Harrington. Then you have intermediate loads intended for modern lever actions.
Finally, there are "Ruger" data, which include the No. 1, other modern single shots and the Siamese Mauser. In the strongest actions the .45-70 can't quite come up to .458 Win. Mag. performance—it doesn't have the case capacity—but it comes close enough that no buffalo will know the difference.
For this article I happened to have on hand three .45-70 rifles: my Wesson & Harrington with a 32-inch barrel; a Marlin 1895 with a 26-inch barrel that belonged to the late Chub Eastman; and a Marlin 1895 Guide Gun from the Marlin custom shop with an 18-inch barrel.
The factory ammo I had on hand were Hornady's 250-grain Monoflex and 325-grain FTX. I wouldn't have thought the .45-70 was all that sensitive to barrel length, but in these three barrels it was. The 325-grain load, rated at 2,050 fps, delivered 2,009 fps in my 32-inch barrel, 1,875 fps in my 26-inch barrel and 1,745 fps in my 18-inch barrel.
The 250-grain Monoflex, rated at 2,025 fps, delivered 2,138 fps in my 32-inch barrel, 1,913 fps in my 26-inch barrel and 1,805 fps in my 18-inch barrel. Fourteen inches is a lot of difference in barrel length, but the variance was huge: 264 fps for the 325-grain bullet and 333 fps for the 250-grain bullet.
Regardless of velocity, you will feel this on the shooting bench. The .45-70 is not brutal in recoil, but you'll know things are happening when you touch one off. As for accuracy, most .45-70s are probably more accurate than their owners realize because we limit them with sighting equipment.
Both my Wesson & Harrington with aperture sight and Chub's Marlin 1895 with factory buckhorn sights can cut ragged holes at 50 yards. I can keep both on paper at 100 yards, but I can no longer resolve iron sights well enough to know what groups they're capable of. But for my purposes with this cartridge it really doesn't matter.
In the Philippines for sure and likely in Cuba, trapdoor Springfields were used for long-range sniping, 1,000 yards and beyond. I don't see the .45-70 in quite that light, so I've never worried about more than "field accuracy"—paper plate drills and such.
The custom shop Marlin was supplied with a Picatinny rail with an aperture sight at the rear. The aperture was dead-on at 50 yards—perfect—but the rail offered opportunities. I started with an Aimpoint. It grouped extremely well, so I switched it for a Minox ZA5 2.5-10X. This is more scope than I would put on a .45-70 for hunting, and it looked kind of silly, but magnification makes it a lot easier to shoot groups.
This rifle with an 18-inch barrel came in with an average of five five-shot groups (Hornady 325-grain FTX) of 1.32 inches. I'll take that any day. I wouldn't be surprised if my two .45-70s would come close, but I have no intention of scoping them to find out.
The .45-70 is a legendary "brush-busting" cartridge, which is, of course, a myth. No bullet can get through brushy obstructions with absolute reliability. The .45-70 is, however, a very good "buck buster"—and a good bear, boar and bison buster.
Over the years I've done quite a bit of hog hunting with various .45-70s. The faster loads with lighter bullets have performed just fine, and I think they would be okay for black bear and perhaps moose. However, the lighter bullets are designed to expand, which limits penetration. If you're serious about big stuff—big bears, bison, buffalo—you need to think about penetration rather than velocity.
I used the Wesson & Harrington on a huge bison bull, much larger than any Cape buffalo. I was using blackpowder loads, but I had them loaded up to .45-90, probably a bit over 1,500 fps with a 400-grain hard-cast bullet. The first shot felt good, but bison often show little initial reaction, so I kept shooting. All those hard-cast bullets penetrated completely and exited.
I have no particular desire to shoot a Cape buffalo with a .45-70, but if I did, I'd go with a tough hard-cast bullet. Mind you, plenty of buffaloes and a few elephants (with carefully loaded solids) have been taken with the .45-70.
It can do such things if you're careful, but for me it's a great brush and timber cartridge at close range. As I mentioned, I love hunting hogs with a .45-70. They go down fast and stay down. Big timber deer hunters love it, too, because it will put a buck down in its tracks—highly desirable for hunters on smaller parcels or in areas with lots of pressure. Over bait or with hounds it's also a great choice for black bear.
For most other hunting, I would prefer a more versatile choice, but that depends on both the area and your preferred technique. The .45-70 doesn't have any more wars to fight, but it still has a lot of hunting to do.