Captain Hunter’s Key Points
- The 45-70 packs a bigger punch than the 30-30, with nearly double the bullet diameter and energy. But with great power comes great recoil — the 45-70 kicks like an angry mule compared to the milder 30-30.
- The 30-30 is cheaper, more readily available, and has a flatter trajectory than the dinosaur-slaying 45-70. It’s easy on the shoulder and great for deer within 200 yards.
- If you want a versatile big bore thumper for larger game like elk, moose, and bear, go with the 45-70. Just be prepared to pay for ammo and master taming the recoil.
- There’s no universally “better” choice between these classic American cartridges. Let your hunting needs and skill level help decide if you want a specialty round (.45-70) or an everyday workhorse (.30-30).
Introduction to the 45-70 and 30-30 Calibers
As I sit writing this in my worn, trusty old cabin, I like to think about the history behind these walls. The notches etched on the door frame for each buck I’ve bagged, the cracks and scratches that could tell quite a tale if they could talk.
My cabin itself was built over a century ago when lever action rifles firing big bore cartridges ruled the American wilderness. Two calibers in particular rose to popularity back in the late 1800s and still conjure up images of weathered deer hunters returning home with full game bags. I’m talking about the fabled .45-70 Government and .30-30 Winchester.
These classic rounds have an undeniable nostalgic appeal. The mere mention of .45-70 or .30-30 brings to mind tales of early pioneers surviving off the land, using their trusty lever guns to put meat in the stew pot.
But nostalgia aside, both the 45-70 and 30-30 remain potent, effective calibers to this day. They each have their pros and cons that make them suitable for different hunting needs. Over a relaxing cup of coffee, let’s take a dive into how these old timers compare.
Ballistics Comparison: Velocity and Energy
When it comes to ballistics, the 45-70 round is playing in a very different league than the milder 30-30.
Right off the bat, you can see the 45-70 launches a much wider, heavier projectile compared to the 30-30. Those fat .458″ slugs soaked in a juicey powder charge are nothing to mess around with.
At over 2,500 ft-lbs of muzzle energy, the 45-70 hits with authority. It was originally designed to penetrate thick buffalo hide after all. The 30-30 gets velocity points with its smaller diameter bullet, but make no mistake about it — the 45-70 reigns supreme in sheer knockdown power.
Projectile Options: Bullet Weight and Design
When it comes to bullets, the 45-70 generally shoots heavier projectiles than the 30-30. Most commercial loads utilize 250-300 grain pills for the 45-70, while 150-170 grains is common for 30-30 loads.
Heavier bullets mean deeper penetration, more resistance to wind drift, and better performance on big game. They do come with a cost though — increased recoil and arched trajectories. More on that later.
Over the years, bullet technology has come a long, long way for lever gun traditionalists. With Leverevolution and Flex-Tip Expanding (FTX) bullets, Hornady has given new life to rounds like the 30-30 and 45-70. Their Spitzer-style tipped bullets have higher ballistic coefficients meaning they lose velocity slower and drift less in crosswinds. This equates to better down range performance on game.
So if you’re a handloader or love trying out specialty commercial ammo, you have all sorts of bullet options to tinker with in both calibers. You can load hard cast lead flat points, soft point Core-Lokts, jacketed hollow points, polymer tipped flex-tips — you name it. Let your budget, rifle’s twist rate, and desired terminal performance guide your projectile choices.
Accuracy and Range Performance
Between these two old lever gun rounds, the 30-30 has a clear range and accuracy advantage over the big bore 45-70. Typical 30-30 ballistics yield ~2 minute of angle (MOA) accuracy, while 45-70 loads produce ~3 MOA groups.
Additionally, the 30-30 maintains a flatter trajectory path downrange. All bullets drop, but less drop equals easier range estimation and better target connection on deer and other game. With a heavy, arched rainbow trajectory, the versatility of the 45-70 decreases significantly past 200 yards.
For most hunting situations under 200 yards, either cartridge will serve you well from legacy lever guns or even single shot rifles. Just be realistic about your effective ranges when game is on the line.
And as a side note, forget using factory open sights past 100 yards or so with these old rounds. Add a nice low magnification scope if you want any precision at longer ranges. I’d suggest a 2-7X magnification range for most lever gun setups.
Recoil and Muzzle Blast
In short — the lightweight 30-30 is a pleasant, all-day shooter. The 45-70, however, kicks like a freaking mule! Seriously, the felt recoil difference between these two rounds is gigantic and is the main tradeoff for all that additional bear-stopping power achieved by the 45-70.
Felt recoil is a tricky beast because it depends a lot on individual rifle configurations — butt pad material, stock shapes and lengths, overall rifle weight. But just for reference, some typical ballpark values are:
- .45-70 Govt (300 grain at 1350 fps) – ~29 ft-lbs felt recoil energy
- .30-30 Win (150 grain at 2390 fps) – ~12 ft-lbs felt recoil energy
Additionally, the sharp muzzle blast concussion of 45-70 rifles can become annoying and contribute to flinches over a range session. Both calibers benefit from some kind of muzzle device to redirect noise and gasses away from the shooter. Just be aware that recoil and noise are the tradeoffs you make for big bore ballistics.
Application and Common Uses
You’ve probably gathered by now that these two rounds cater towards different applications. So what exactly are the 30-30 and 45-70 best suited for in terms of real world big game hunting?
The .30-30 Winchester is widely regarded as one of the finest woods rifles calibers on the planet, especially in the eastern United States. It can accurately take virtually any deer sized game like whitetail, mule deer, or black bear within reasonable ranges with plenty of stopping power from quality lever action or bolt action rifles. The relatively flat trajectory makes proper shot placement on game easy for capable shooters. Plus, smaller game like antelope or mountain goats can easily be harvested cleanly with fast-expanding 30 caliber hollow point or ballistic tipped loads.
The .45-70 Government trades off trajectory, capacity, and recoil for large caliber terminal ballistics. It’s vastly overpowered for mid-sized game like deer or pronghorn — the equivalent of sledgehammering a thumbtack when a regular hammer would do. But against heavy creatures such as moose, elk, caribou, bear and other dangerous game, a high quality lever action .45-70 rifle loaded with stout 400+ grain JHP or solids can certainly get the job done. Just be mindful of proper shot angles as the rainbow trajectory requires more precise aim at distances longer than 150 yards or so.
The .45-70 Government also has a cult following as a survival cartridge. When loaded properly, it’s potent medicine for quickly taking down large animals in an emergency wilderness survival situation. A compact single shot break action 45-70 rifle with some 350 grain soft points can sustain life for weeks under extreme “get off the mountain” circumstances. Of course, I always recommend being prepared for all situations before venturing into the wilderness — but dire scenarios can happen to even seasoned mountain men like yours truly from time to time. When they do, it’s certainly nice having a powerful, effective doomsday caliber as backup.
Hunting Capabilities: Game Size and Distance
So to recap the hunting capabilities of these classic lever gun rounds:
|Recommended Game Size
|Maximum Hunting Distance
|Deer, black bear, feral hogs, mountain game
|Moose, elk, caribou, brown bear, bison, large African plains game.
I consider the super thick-skinned Cape Buffalo on the edge of what I’d pursue with .45-70 in a lever gun. Dangerous game rifles with controlled round feeds and full power rifle magnums do a better job against creatures that can quickly turn a solo hunter into the hunted. But in capable hands, I suppose a Marlin 1895 GBL (guide big loop) or similar large loop lever .45-70 could take buffalo within 75 yards or so if shot placement was perfect. Not ideal, but certainly possible. Heck, old western buffalo hunters made it work!
Ammo Availability and Price
One department where the much more popular 30-30 round trounces the dinosaur-slayin’ 45-70 is ammo availability and price. Walk into any sporting goods store in America and you’re almost guaranteed to find boxes of 30-30 ammo — whether top shelf Hornady or Remington Core-Lokt loads or value packed brands like Winchester White Box. What’s more, competition keeps prices reasonably affordable compared to many rifle rounds. Expect to pay around $1.25 – $2 per round for quality 30-30 shotshells suitable for big game hunting as of 2023.
The 45-70, on the other hand, occupies much more niche status as a specialty hunting caliber. So fewer choices exist, especially locally on store shelves. But major brands like Federal, Hornady, Winchester, and Remington still actively load various bullet configurations to satisfy demand among ardent 45-70 disciples. The downside is — with less competition — big boy rounds like 45-70 tend to demand steeper prices, even when buying in bulk. Depending on load characteristics, premium 45-70 ammo easily approaches the $2.50 – $4+ per round price point — that quickly adds up and will have your wallet begging for mercy!
For high volume shooting, advanced users can look into handloading components which often cost much less than factory loads. But casual shooters will need to factor in the price tag of feeding specialty hungry beasts like Mr. 45-70 on a regular basis.
Rifle Selection for Each Caliber
A huge reason behind the sustained popularity of 30-30 and 45-70 over more than a century comes down to one special type of firearm — the classic lever action rifle! No other gun quite captures that old western allure like throwing shots through a fast-handling tubular magazine fed lever gun. Both calibers originated in the late 1800s from legendary manufacturers Winchester and Marlin, so no surprise that lever actions chambered in 30-30 or 45-70 remain plentiful even today.
That said, break action single shots and bolt actions have certainly stolen some love over the years as well. Savage, Ruger, and other brands offer affordable options for those who desire alternatives to traditional lever guns. In particular, single shot falling block style rifles shine when paired with high intensity rounds like 45-70 that punish barrels quickly. The simple, manual actions mitigate felt recoil while preserving MOA downrange accuracy.
I always say test out any new gun thoroughly before trusting your hide to it in the wild. No matter which style rifle you choose, spend time getting intimate with your firearm — learn it’s little quirks inside and out. Your life may one day depend on that familiarity and trust during sticky situations while chasing wild game!
Captain’s Personal Preference and Final Considerations
I’ll wrap this up the way I tend to make most major gear decisions in life — what combo works best for my needs? Over-analyzing ballistic charts until 3AM likely won’t get that stubborn ol’ tom turkey in the pot. Hunting has always demanded skill using primitive tools. Our forefathers survived just fine without lasers, night vision scopes, kevlar socks and other modern gadgetry. Sometimes we simply need to trust field experience.
So while it’s great understanding concepts like sectional density, trajectory, and recoil impulse values on paper — the best teacher is spending trigger time burning real powder using equipment you intend to depend on in the real world. No amount of research tops practical lessons learned staring down 500 pounds of adrenaline pumped hog in front of you!
My advice? Beg, borrow, rent or purchase samples of each caliber lever gun and associated commercial ammo loads. Spend an afternoon plinking paper targets with both the lightweight 30-30 and heavy-hitting 45-70 at varying ranges. Listen to your body and mind afterwards — which rifle do you naturally gravitate towards shouldering for follow up shots? Does anticipation of recoil or loud blast influence your fundamentals? Keep an open mind and the right choice will declare itself soon enough.
For me, the .30-30 Winchester has long held title as my personal gold standard for an all-purpose lever action hunting rifle for woods and brush under 200 yards. I’ve dropped too many deer, caribou, elk, black bear, and moose over the decades with my trusty Marlin 336 to ever part with it! It’s slick handling qualities and intermediate ballistics suit my needs for mid-sized game perfectly. Plus at age 62 with decades of rifle trauma on this shoulder, I appreciate the 30-30’s mild straight back recoil impulse compared to the brutal spine compressingacl-wrenching torque unleashed by so many magnum cartridges nowadays. My body simply handles light recoil better which makes accurate, ethical harvesting of game more realistic.
That said, after helping guide a few XXL class brown bear and plains game hunters over the years through thick wooded gullies and winding arroyos, I’ve developed huge respect for the venerable .45-70 Gov’t as well. In capable hands using quality 300+ grain loads, it’s certainly proven itself as a venerable backup and primary stopper on sizable dangerous game for over a century. While I still prefer lighter rifles for most hunting situations personally, I always keep an ace in the hole stashed away — just in case. If big angry toothy creatures are on the menu, I want ol’ Betsy the Marlin 1895 SBL loaded with her 400 grain pills of persuasion sitting by my side!
As is often said in life it’s not so much about selecting between “good and bad”, but picking “best” based on personal context. Two competent hunters with different needs may, and often do, arrive at alternate conclusions regarding which rifle caliber fits them best. And you know what? That’s perfectly fine! Our wilderness inheritance offers room for multiple tools. Hopefully this fireside chat provided some guidance to help sort through the iconic .45-70 Gov’t vs .30-30 Win debate. But never forget — the only wrong decision is freezing up with indecision when opportunity presents itself! Now grab life by the antlers my friends and fill your freezer!
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.