As an experienced hunter and shooting enthusiast, I have developed a deep appreciation for classic American firearm cartridges. And in my opinion, there’s no round more iconic than the venerable .45-70 Government. This old warhorse has a rich history stretching back nearly 150 years, and it remains a popular and versatile choice today among hunters, competitors, and collectors alike.
In this comprehensive guide, I’ll be exploring the origins, evolution, and ongoing legacy of this legendary cartridge. From its beginnings as a standard military round, to its role in taming the Wild West, to its current use by modern sportsmen—the .45-70 has a story like no other ammunition. I’ll also be getting into the nitty-gritty technical details, tackling topics like bullet weights, velocities, rifle compatibility, and ballistic performance.
So break out those lever guns and single-shots, and let’s delve into the fascinating history of the .45-70! No matter what your experience level with this classic all-American round, you’re bound to learn something new. And I guarantee by the end, you’ll have an even greater appreciation for this iconic cartridge.
Captain’s Key Points:
- The .45-70 originated as a military round for the Springfield 1873 Trapdoor Rifle, seeing action against Native Americans.
- It quickly spread West, becoming an icon of the frontier & Old West, used in classic lever guns and single-shot rifles.
- In addition to US forces, international militaries utilized the versatile .45-70 from the 1880s through early 1900s.
- The round continued evolving from black powder to smokeless, with new bullet weights and smokeless powders.
- After fading mid-century, the .45-70 roared back into popularity thanks to revived interest among hunters and competitive shooting circles.
- Classic American rifle platforms and specialty ammunition keep the legend alive, taking the 19th century .45-70 into the 21st century.
Origins in the U.S. Military
The .45-70 round traces its lineage back to the Springfield Armory and the quest to find an appropriate cartridge for the Allin-designed Springfield Model 1873 “Trapdoor” Rifle used by U.S. troops. This rifle had already demonstrated accuracy in trials, but lacked a suitable long-range cartridge.
The .45-70 designation refers to the round’s .45 caliber (0.458 inches bullet diameter) and 70 grains of black powder load. The “Government” suffix denotes its original status as the standard-issued U.S. military round, which the .45-70 maintained for over 20 years from 1873 to 1894.
The Springfield 1873 Trapdoor Rifle and newly developed .45-70 Government cartridge gained their first combat use against the Sioux and Cheyenne forces in the American Indian Wars. Overall, the Trapdoor/45-70 pairing proved effective and remained the U.S. Army’s principal rifle and ammunition until the adoption of the bolt-action Krag–Jørgensen in the early 1890s.
Spread of the .45-70 in the Old West
Beyond military applications, the .45-70 quickly gained popularity on the American frontier. The round was used to great effect by settlers, lawmen, hunters, and outlaws alike. Buffalo hunters in particular relied on the .45–70 due to its versatility in taking down larger game. Later it accompanied pioneers on their journeys out West, earning its status as an icon of the American Old West.
The cartridge was chambered in classic firearms like the Winchester Model 1886, Marlin Model 1895, and Colt Single Action Army “Peacemaker” revolver. Cowboys like Buffalo Bill, Theodore Roosevelt, and George Armstrong Custer carried .45-70 caliber weapons, cementing its fame in frontier lore and history. These associations still lend the .45/70 an air of nostalgia today among shooters and hunters.
Adoption by International Militaries
Beyond the USA, various foreign militaries also adopted the 45/70 in the 19th and early 20th centuries. For example, the cartridge was used on a large scale by Russian forces against the Imperial Japanese Army in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. Mexico likewise purchased .45-70 chambered Winchester Model 1895 muskets for their forces under President Porfirio Diaz. Various South American and Caribbean militaries also used .45-70 weapons supplied by European or North American arms dealers.
So while the .45-70 is largely considered the quintessential “American” cartridge, it did see service with international military forces from around the world. Even today, it remains in limited use by the U.S. Navy for line-throwing and signaling applications.
Now let’s talk some ballistics! As originally designed, the .45-70 fired a heavy 405-grain pure lead bullet wrapped in thick paper patch sufficient to engage man-sized targets out to 500+ yards. With the introduction of smokeless powder, velocities increased, resulting in flatter trajectories and greater efficiencies.
Later technical iterations included the .45-70-405 (405-grain bullet), .45-70-500 (500-grain), and -550 grain loadings. Additionally, bullet design evolved from simple lead to jacketed spitzers, further enhancing long-range capabilities. Specialty loadings also emerged for short or mid-range use like the .45-70-300 and .45-70-350.
With these developments, the .45-70 demonstrated itself capable of taking game from deer all the way up to thick-skinned dangerous bears and lions. Its versatility further expanded in the modern era for long-range target competitions like the BPCR disciplines. Not bad for a 19th-century design!
Resurgence Among Modern Hunters
While supplanted by newer military cartridges like the .30-06 Springfield and .308 Winchester, the .45-70 never went away in the world of hunting and competition shooting. Following a lull in the mid 20th century, the round exploded back into popularity thanks to interest from specialty manufacturers like Winchester, Hornady, and Buffalo Bore.
These companies brought the venerable .45/70 into the modern era with new propellants and advanced bullet designs. Soon hunters were taking notice, impressed by the round’s hard-hitting knockdown power and effective range. Integrating modern ballistics resulted in a vintage cartridge ideal for large North American game like elk, moose, bear and more.
Shooting Disciplines Keep the .45-70 Alive
The .45-70 round also maintains an avid following among shooting sports disciplines like Cowboy Action and black powder silhouette competitions. These matches often require period-specific weapons, with the .45-70 as popular a choice today as it was over a century ago.
The annual Mountain Man competitions at the NRA Whittington Center in New Mexico likewise showcase the .45-70’s long-range accuracy in special single-shot and lever-action divisions. In all these sports, the .45-70 gets to shine as a precise, hard-hitting round putting vintage steel targets down with authority.
Modern Firearms Chambered for the .45-70
Thanks to this renewed popularity, nearly every major gun manufacturer offers .45-70 chambered rifles today optimized for hunting and competitive shooting applications. Among the most popular platforms are the Winchester Model 1886, Marlin Model 1895, Ruger No. 1, and H&R/NEF single-shot rifles.
Notably, Ruger and Marlin have adapted and miniaturized the 45-70 for use in lever-action guide guns with 16-18” barrels. Major ammunition brands like Federal, Hornady, Winchester, and Remington likewise cater to current .45-70 shooters with a wide selection of loads. Specialty boutique ammunition firms sell handloads pushing velocities and energies to maximize performance.
Clearly, despite its 19th-century roots – the old 45-70 is still going strong in the 21st!
I hope this detailed history and profile has provided a comprehensive picture of the .45-70’s genesis and continued legacy. As you can see, there’s much more to this iconic cartridge than meets the eye. It’s a survivor and true American classic! Now get out there and keep making history with the one and only .45-70 Government! Also, see my 45-70 vs 30-30 comparison face-off post.
As one final side note, I welcome any questions, comments, or sharing your own firsthand experiences with this classic all-American round. Its history belongs to all of us who hunt, compete, collect and love this hobby. Thanks Captian Hunter
Captain Hunter is a seasoned hunting mentor with over 20 years of experience in the field. His passion began as a young man on trips with his father and grandfather in the Colorado mountains. Today, he shares his unmatched skills in survival, tracking, and marksmanship through his website CaptainHunter.com. When he's not volunteering with youth hunting programs, you can find Captain Hunter providing expert hunting tips, gear reviews, and answers to your most pressing questions. His decades of experience make him the trusted guide to help any outdoorsman master the sport.