Hunting Cape Buffalo With The 45-70 Government – Is It Legal?

Cape Buffalo

Here is my attempt at rewriting the section in a more conversational tone:

The whole “.45-70 for Cape Buffalo” thing is a real hot button issue among hunters in Africa. Some folks think trying to drop a “Black Death” with a .45-70 is just asking for trouble. Others swear the old cartridge has more knockdown power on buffalo than those newfangled .416s or .458s. As usual, the truth probably lies somewhere in between.

Let’s be real, I love me some .45-70 Government. It’s an oldie but goodie. Some rounds just get under your skin, you know? The .45-70 has taken care of business on big game for generations of American hunters. Up in Alaska and Canada, a lot of guides trust their lives to it when things get hairy with ol’ Griz. Back in the day, it dropped thousands of buffalo on the plains. And it still has that cowboy nostalgia factor going for it. Kinda like a worn pair of jeans that just fits right.

After Tom Selleck did his thing with the Sharps in Quigley, seems like everyone got bit by the black powder bug again. That movie made the .45-70 cooler than ever. I get the appeal – it’s an American classic. Like a musket that kicks like a mule.

So do I think the .45-70 is the ultimate medicine for Cape buffalo? Honestly, it’s not my first choice. But I understand why some hunters swear by it, especially if they’ve used that rifle to take down bison back home. Familiarity breeds confidence, and confidence is key when you’re up close and personal with ol’ Dagga Boy. The .45-70 has stood the test of time. It’s good enough for Cape Buffalo Bill, and it’s good enough for me.

45-70 Government Background Development

The 45-70 Government cartridge didn’t just appear out of nowhere – there were other factors that influenced its development. The cavalry’s ordnance department was hip to all the latest military ammo innovations happening around the world. They were also familiar with previous game-changers like the work of my man Whitworth in England. The peeps working in that department knew their stuff when it came to these kinds of advancements.

Whitworth’s muzzle-loading cap lock rifle was so on point that most modern shooters wouldn’t believe it. Dude developed a sick gun and bullets, but even with less advanced scopes, Confederate sharpshooters using Whitworth rifles nearly won the war. Whitworth’s sniper game was strong – his rifles let Confederate soldiers take out dozens of Union officers from crazy distances, like a mile away. If the South could’ve afforded more of those rifles and slipped them past the blockades, the war might’ve ended really differently.

The Whitworth Rifle was a 45-caliber bad boy that shot a 500-grain round-nose bullet. The barrel had a 20-inch twist, and the gun used a carefully measured 70 grain black powder charge. The US military likely realized the 50-70 Government chambering had limitations for the same reasons Whitworth’s famous sniper rifle ripped – so they adopted a chambering and cartridge that copied the load his rifle used. Springfield Armory even jacked Whitworth’s twist rate.

So in summary, the 45-70 cartridge wasn’t developed in isolation. The cavalry knew their stuff and were influenced by earlier work like Whitworth’s in England. His rifle was so ahead of its time that it almost won the war for the Confederacy. The US later copied parts of his design when developing the 45-70 Government.

45-70 In Military Testing

war, soldier, rifle

This chambering and cartridge combination went through more developmental testing than any other US Military battle rifle before the Springfield rifle was adopted it. They shot many bullets at the target, testing how far the bullet could penetrate at 1700 yards. No aspect of the 45-70-500 Government cartridge or rifle’s standardized design was left to chance. The Buffington rear sight, for example, automatically adjusts for bullet drift based on elevation changes.

People talk about the battle of the Little Bighorn with a lot of enthusiasm. It has been claimed that Custer’s men could not hold the Indians at bay because their Trapdoor Springfields got hot after only a few shots with black powder loads. After each shot, the guns got hotter, and the cases started sticking in the chamber. Extracting the cartridges from the chambers became more complex over time. Over time, many rifles became inoperable due to the extractors tearing through the case rims, causing the spent cases to become stuck in the chamber. Removing the cartridges from the rifle was difficult and rendered the gun useless. People blamed the poor design of the extractor for the incident and similar problems that continued to occur for many years afterward. 

The balloon-head cases, combined with the military’s fastidiousness, were the problem. The soldiers were required to use wool to polish the verdigris off the brass cases regularly. As a result of these practices, the ammunition used by Custer’s troops had thin rims due to excessive cleaning. This made the cartridges prone to failure and potentially dangerous to use in battle.

45-70 Government Military and Sporting-Load Variations

After the 45-70 was adopted by the military, many different ammo types were developed. Some of these topics can be found in the 8th and 9th editions of Cartridges of the World. Several variations of ammunition within the civilian market included altering the overall length by changing the bullet’s position, using a different propellant charge, using bullets of different weights or nose profiles and designs, and using smokeless powder for greater energy. Two types of military ammunition were developed- the 45-56-405 carbine loading and the 45-70-500 rifle loading. The former was a standard round-nose bullet. While the latter was equipped with an explosive charge in the nose and was intended for use in the Gatling Gun. This article does not aim to describe every single variation of military ammunition for this cartridge.

Despite all of the changes, the cartridge case’s original design remained unchanged. As military arsenals evolved, the creation of the cartridge case was modified to keep up with changing needs and technologies. The design of the cartridge case underwent a series of modifications as military arsenals evolved. One of these changes involved switching from internally primed folded-rim balloon-head cases to externally primed folded-rim cases. Next, it went to semi-balloon-head cases and modern externally primed solid-head cases. These changes were made to improve the performance and reliability of the cartridges. However, the external case rim and body dimensions never varied. I do not know when the first solid-head cases occurred, but I believe it was after the military officially retired the 45-70.  

Modern (solid-head) cases have less capacity but can withstand more pressure. Careful hand loaders can get many loading and firing cycles out of high-quality cartridge brass from Starline and other manufacturers. 

The neck annealing process extends the cartridge case’s lifespan almost indefinitely. This is because neck annealing helps to prevent the case from becoming brittle and breaking under the pressure of firing.

Rumor is that one shooter had used the same cases for over three decades. After using his select match cases more than 100 times, he found that there had been no maintenance or losses. Because the pressure is moderate, you don’t need to size the case. Most people who compete in the shooting game recap the case, clean it, dry it, put a primer in it, charge it, and slip a bullet into the case’s mouth. These types of cartridges function in a similar way to modern benchrest loads. When the shooter closes the action, the breechblock forces the case forward and pushes the bullet into the rifling. This ensures a tight seal between the bullet and the rifling, which helps to improve accuracy. The bullet is slightly seated to the final depth. This occurs similarly for each shot. These loads need to be stronger for hunting, but they are perfect for target practice.

Modern 45-70 Loads

Various companies have recently offered a range of loads for the 45-70 gun, from black powder to smokeless black powder equivalent, to higher-pressure loads for modern firearms.

The big three US manufacturers offer factory loads with 300-grain jacketed bullets launched at about 1750-fps. Several ammunition manufacturers provide reproductions of the original black powder load or more powerful options for hunting any animal. These include Cor-Bon, Buffalo Bore, and Garrett. These manufacturers often choose to use Starline cases for their cartridges.

The 45-70 bullets have been updated with a new design and are still stable during their ballistic flight, despite launching at high speed of 2000 fps.

Will the .45-70 kill a Cape Buffalo?

black water buffalo on green grass field during daytime

If you use the right bullets and shoot the animal in the right spot, you can ethically kill a Cape buffalo with a .45-70 Government gun.

There is no mistaking that a .45 caliber bullet through the heart and/or lungs will quickly kill a buffalo, regardless of what kind of gun it is shot from.

You can find many examples of people who have successfully hunted Cape Buffalo with a .45-70. Some people in Africa say the cartridge is very good at achieving results if the conditions are right.

Brian Pearce killed a large Cape buffalo bull in Zimbabwe a few years ago using factory Cor-Bon 405 gr FP PEN loads in his Marlin 1895. He killed a buffalo cow standing on the other side of a bull when his bullet went through both of the bull’s shoulders and came out.

Brian’s second shot on the escaping Cape Buffalo bull traveled nearly the entire animal’s body length. It was eventually recovered in the brisket after passing through the intestines, stomach, and the top of the heart. The bull barely ran less than 25 yards before dying. The hunting community was stirred up when the March-April 2004 issue of Rifle Magazine published a triumphant story of a Cape buffalo hunt with a .45-70.

Brian Pearce’s hunt for a Cape Buffalo using a .45-70 Government rifle is often cited as the first example of the cartridge’s effectiveness. In that case, Vince Lupo is typically the second example mentioned. Garrett Cartridges proudly promotes that Mr. Lupo successfully hunted for a Cape Buffalo using a .45-70 Government rifle. If you are unfamiliar with Mr. Lupo, he is a notable figure in the hunting community. In 2001 and 2002, Vince Lupo successfully hunted and killed all six members of the African Big 6 (Cape Buffalo, Elephant, White Rhinoceros, Leopard, Lion, and Hippopotamus) using a lever-action Marlin rifle chambered in .45-70 and firing Garret Hammerhead bullets on hunting trips in South Africa. These impressive feats helped to solidify further the .45-70’s reputation as a reliable and effective cartridge for large game hunting.

Brian Pearce and Vince Lupo are not the only people who have safely and successfully hunted Cape Buffalo with the .45-70 cartridge but they are the most famous. Based on their hunts, there is no doubt that you can kill a Cape Buffalo if you use the .45-70 Government under the right conditions.

Is it legal? 

arrested

It depends on where you’re hunting.

In some countries, there are no minimum caliber or energy requirements for hunting buffalo or any other type of game. This means hunters can use any caliber of rifle or cartridge, provided it is legal to do so. In Tanzania and Zambia, the minimum caliber for hunting Cape buffalo is .375, but no energy requirement exists. Therefore, hunting Cape buffalo with a .45-70 Government rifle in those countries is legal.

Because there are still many old “Trapdoor Springfield” rifles, ammunition companies must produce ammo compatible with those rifles when selling them under the “.45-70 Government” label. Modern lever-action rifles can shoot hotter loads safely.

Garret advertises a muzzle velocity of 1,850fps for the 420gr Hammerheads and a muzzle velocity of 1,550fps for the 540gr Hammerheads. At the velocity of 3,400 feet per second, the 420gr Hammerheads produce 3,192-foot pounds of energy, and the 540gr Hammerheads have 2,880-foot pounds of energy.

None of the factory loads for the .45-70 Government cartridge commonly available on the market meet the minimum legal requirement to hunt Cape Buffalo. The cartridge does not have sufficient energy to kill big game effectively. However, while it is legal to use the .45-70 on buffalo in many other countries, there are exceptions.

Wrapping It Up

There are a few key points worth considering:

  • The .45-70 has a storied history and nostalgic appeal, but modern cartridges like the .416 Rigby and .458 Lott are designed specifically for large dangerous game like Cape Buffalo. They have flatter trajectories and higher velocities.
  • Shot placement and the skill of the hunter are more important factors than cartridge choice when hunting Cape Buffalo. An experienced hunter can be successful with a .45-70.
  • The .45-70 loaded to modern ballistics with specialty buffalo loads could be adequate, but factory ammo may not meet legal minimums in some African countries. Handloads can reach appropriate levels.
  • Any gun for Cape Buffalo needs to be rugged and reliable. Dangerous game hunting has little margin for error.
  • Ultimately it comes down to the individual hunter’s comfort level and shooting ability. The .45-70 is a nostalgic choice but may not be ideal compared to modern big bore cartridges. Ballistics and regulations need to be considered carefully.


In summary, while the .45-70 has a storied history in North America, there are likely better cartridge choices for Cape Buffalo hunting in Africa. But in the right hands, with proper loads, it can be effective if legal requirements are met. The hunters’ skill is the most important factor. Does this help summarize the key considerations in this debate? I’m happy to discuss this more.

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.

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