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The .45-70 Gov't

Originally published in American Hunter magazine.

AUGUST 20, 1877 - Chief Joseph's band of Nez Perce', on their way to Canada, struggled to evade the US military. Captain Norwood's Volunteers out of Ft. Ellis, Montana Territory, intercepted the Indians at Camas Meadows, near Kilgore, Idaho. Perhaps the Nez Perce' found the Volunteers first, because they were quickly pinned down in the old lava beds. The Indians held the troops there most of the day, killing at least one soldier whose monument marks the skirmish site. Walking through the lava beds, one can still find the rifle pits they dug out and the breastworks built of lava rock. Spent cartridge cases in .45-70 Gov't, might be found if you scuff your feet or search the crevices of the rock. Inhale sharply, and you may smell dust and sweat on the breeze and just maybe, with some imagination, the acrid smell of black powder.

In 1873, the US military adopted the .45-70 as the first official metallic rifle cartridge. The .45-70-405 was a .45 caliber round, loaded with 70 grains of black powder and a 405 grain lead bullet. The .45-70 continued as the Army's primary cartridge until replaced by the .30-40 Krag and the bolt action repeater in 1892.

Chambered in trapdoor, rolling block and falling block single shots, as well as lever and bolt action repeaters, the .45-70 almost faded from the scene when it was dropped by most companies in the 1930s. Currently however, a variety of .45-70 guns are available from Browning, Ruger, Marlin, Shiloh and C. Sharps, Pedersoli and Thompson Center Arms.

Successfully hunting public land during the general season, is not easy. Hunting elk of any sort is a challenge worth taking and a successful hunt fills the freezer with the best meat there is. If you'd like consistent success, you need to be willing to take any legal bull and really ought to consider spike or antlerless only hunts.

4570 Cartridge Headstamp

What can the .45-70 really do? The Hornady reloading manual list three catagories of .45-70 loads. Low pressures at 25,000 c.u.p., for weaker actions such as the 1873 Trapdoor Springfield (factory ammo is kept to this pressure level, for use in any rifle). Medium pressures of 40,000 c.u.p., for the 1895 Marlin lever action. High pressures of 50,000 c.u.p., for strong actions such as the Ruger No.1.

4570 Contender

My personal .45-70 is a Thompson/Center Contender Carbine. The strength of this action falls in the same catagory as the Trapdoor, loads should never exceed this pressure. Loadbooks USA produced a loading manual specifically for the Contender. Using data developed by Sierra Bullets, recommended loads for the 300 grain hollowpoint range from 1600 fps to 1900 fps.

Though some individuals have loaded Contender pistols with 500 grain solids for use on elephant and cape buffalo, my own needs aren't so exotic. I use it specifically on elk in the timber at ranges under 150 yards. I find this 5 to 5.5 lb. gun to be fully adequate with a 300 grain bullet.

Evaluating cartridges for performance, we most often look to velocity and energy data. These tables give useful information for sighting in, and help determine maximum range for a specific cartridge. Maximum range is a function of three things; trajectory, down range energy and target species. Generally, sighting in 3 inches high at 100 yards will help you get the most out of any cartridge. A look at the trajectory table shows the .45-70 to be a 150 yard cartridge. Although, some heavy loads in strong actions might be pushed to 200 yards, a safe limit is 150 yards.

The size of game to be hunted determines the down range energy required. It's generally accepted that deer require a minimum of 900 ft.lbs.. Larger game such as elk or moose require more energy (See P.O. Ackley's Handbook for Shooters). The energy table indicates prudent limits at 150 yards

I also like to make a comparison using Taylor's KO scale. John Taylor was an African hunter, with considerable experience with a variety of cartridges and game. The KO scale gives equal consideration to caliber, bullet weight, and velocity.

(caliber) X (bullet weight) X (velocity) = KO value 7000

This provides a means to compare the relative effectiveness of cartridges. Review the accompanying table, and you'll find the .45-70 rates very well. Depending upon the load, it's in the same range as the .338 and .458 magnums. This doesn't mean that the .45-70 is really better than the .30-06 or .300 mag, it simply implies that at ranges under 150 yards, the .45-70 should put game down very quickly. And in practice it does.

Game is killed by tissue destruction and the resulting blood loss. Tissue destruction occurs through bullet penetration and expansion, velocity and trajectory simply enable us to place the bullet where it needs to go. Expansion and penetration are tied together, the more a bullet expands, the less it penetrates. The reverse is also true.

Generally, with today's quality bullets, we don't have to give up ample penetration in order to get adequate expansion. However in the .45-70, if I had to choose, I'd opt for penetration. Without expansion, the wound channel is adequate. With expansion, the wound channel is impressive! I took a spike elk at twenty yards with a Hornady 300 grain hollowpoint at 1900 ft./sec.. The bull went down in ten yards, and when I recovered the bullet it had expanded to .85 caliber!

I took another bull with a Federal factory round at 150 yards. The 300 gr. hollowpoint shattered the big upper leg bone driving fragments into the lungs. After destroying the lungs, the bullet bounced off the far ribs and failed to exit. However, the bull was down within 50 yards. Many long range cartridges won't drop them any faster.

The .45-70 Gov't is an excellent short range hunting cartridge. If you're willing to live within its range limitations it won't let you down. Whether your interest is nostalgic or if you want a lightweight brush gun , or even a short range powerhouse for the really big stuff, you can match a load to any big game in North America.

Ballistics Charts

Down Range Trajectory

This trajectory data was found in Hornadys reloading manual, which separates loads by action type and pressure levels.
Bullet Weight (grains) Muzzle Velocity (ft./sec) Trajectory at 50 yards (inches) Trajectory at 100 yards (inches) Trajectory at 150 yards (inches) Trajectory at 200 yards (inches)
300 1300 2.5 0 -9.9 -28.8
  1600 3.9 4.7 0 -11.1
  1900 2.4 3.2 0 -8.0
  2000 2.0 2.7 0 -7.2
350 1500 1.8 0 -7.9 -23.0
  1700 3.3 4.2 0 -10.1
  1900 2.4 3.2 0 -8.0
  2200 1.5 2.2 0 -5.7
500 1800 0.9 0 -12.7 -44.0
*Careful matching of load data with the strength of your particular rifle is required.

Down Range Energy

Action Type (pressure levels) Bullet Weight (grains) Muzzle Velocity (ft./sec) Muzzle Energy (ft.lbs) Energy at 100 yards (ft.lbs) Energy at 150 yards (ft.lbs) Energy at 200 yards (ft.lbs)
1873 Trapdoor & Contender 25,000 cup 300 1300 1126 761 657 576
300 1600 1706 1057 864 734
300 1900 2405 1501 1178 944
1895 Marlin lever action 40,000 cup 300 1600 1706 1057 864 731
300 2000 2665 1689 1324 1047
350 1500 1749 1100 914 786
350 1900 2806 1751 1374 1101
Ruger No.1 single shot 50,000 cup* 350 1700 2447 1383 1107 919
350 2200 3762 2404 1911 1498
500 1800 3598 2762 2457 2625
Check with reloading manuals, and/or a competent gunsmith for the strength of your particular action. *For 300 gr. HP, use 1895 data.

Relative Effectiveness

(Caliber X Weight X Velocity) / 7000 = KO Value
Cartridge Caliber Bullet Weight Muzzle Velocity KO Value at Muzzle Velocity at 100 yards KO Value at 100 yards
.30-30 .30 170 2200 16.0 1783 12.9
.35 Rem .35 200 1900 19.0 1704 17.4
.30-06 .30 180 2700 20.8 2488 19.2
.30 220 2500 23.6 2122 20.0
.300 Mag .30 180 3000 23.1 2774 21.4
.30 220 2600 24.5 2211 20.8
.338 Mag .338 250 2600 31.4 2291 27.7
(match loads with action strength*)
.458 300 1800 35.3 1421 27.9
.458 300 2000 39.3 1592 31.2
.458 350 2100 48.1 1674 38.3
.458 500 1700 55.6 1480 48.4
.458 Mag .458 350 2450 56.1 2156 49.3
.458 500 2100 68.7 1846 60.4
This data was derived from Hornady's reloading manual, which separates loads by action strength and pressure levels.*Careful matching of load data with the strength of your particular rifle is required.

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