there are some cartridge-country juxtapositions that jar the solid sense of shooting traditions.
From before the age of smokeless powder until today, African hunting has been thoroughly covered at every level by highly effective European and British cartridges with no need beyond a certain novelty factor for anything invented on this side of the world. And the 45-70 has lived most its 132-plus years of history with few thoughts of travel to the Dark Continent, though I understand a few lever-actions of various calibers made their way over in the days just before Paul Mauser got his act together. And then there was Teddy Roosevelt’s African exploits with his lever-action Winchester .405, which he considered a bully lion gun. The .405 Winchester, however, was a considerably more powerful cartridge even with last century’s loads than the 45-70 is today with the hottest ammo a handloader can cook up.
So what of the recent phenomenon of American hunters taking the old warhorse into the bush after Cape buffalo and such? What are they trying to prove?
One, that they have absolutely no respect for tradition, which I don’t find to be a particularly amusing motivation. Two, that when you’re madly enough in love with a cartridge you can easily justify using it for everything all the time, an emotion we can all sympathize with. Three, that, looked upon entirely objectively, the 45-70 delivers perfectly adequate ballistics to take the largest and most dangerous game in Africa, which is a premise we can look at a little more closely.
America’s 45-70 cartridge, loaded with black powder and chambered in the trapdoor Springfield single-shot rifle, was adopted by the U.S. military in 1873. Not long afterwards, it became popular in fast-handling lever-action repeating rifles, notably the 1886 Winchester and, then and now, the 1895 Marlin. Neither you nor I could possibly count the North American bison, bear, moose, elk and deer that have fallen to the mighty 45-70 over the years. In newer higher-pressure loadings meant for modern rifles, the 45-70 (.457” bullet) can approach within sight of matching the ballistics of the .458 Winchester Magnum (.458” bullet). Within sight, but nowhere near touching distance. For instance, a typical factory .458 load drives a 500-grain bullet at 2040 feet per second for 4620 foot-pounds of kinetic energy. A hot, custom-loaded 45-70 can drive a 500-grain bullet at 1600 fps for 2843 ft.-lb. Given that many experienced hunters consider the .458 Winchester Magnum marginal for African game despite its widespread use, what is the deal with the little 45-70?
One of the chief proponents of the 45-70 is Randy Garrett of Garrett Cartridges (garrettcartridges.com), who makes some of the hottest 45-70 (and .44 Magnum) custom ammo you can imagine. Another is Vince Lupo (vincelupo.com), an American hunter who took a supply of 420- and 540-grain Garrett Hammerhead loads and a Marlin lever-action rifle tuned up and tricked out by Jim Brockman (brockmansrifles.com) to Africa and came back with trophies of what he calls “the big six” dangerous game species. The big six is in quotation marks because it included the relatively laid-back white rhino, not the famously aggressive black rhino which was part of the original Big Five, and the sixth member was the hippo, which can certainly be dangerous but is not a member of the original Big Five no more than is the white rhino.
Now, nobody doubts that a 45-70 can kill anything on the planet with a properly placed shot, or enough of them. So can a 6.5x55mm Swedish Mauser. But serious hunters seek to kill with a certain style and authority. In the case of dangerous game, how long it takes an animal to actually fall down and die after taking a “killing” shot is often a matter of life or death for the hunter.
Garrett’s advocacy of the 45-70 as an effective killer of thick-skinned dangerous game is based primarily on his bullet design concepts. The 540-grain Garrett Hammerhead is a hand-made, super-hard-cast, gas-checked, low-antimony lead alloy bullet. It is extremely blunt, with a wide meplat of .360” and a very high sectional density of .368. Traveling at a velocity of 1550 fps, the bullet is designed for zero expansion and maximum penetration, both of which are observable and measurable, and a very high degree of what Garrett calls “impact effect,” which is actually a computation of the still-controversial Taylor Knockout Value and is not so easy to substantiate.
Counter-intuitive though it may be, it is fairly well accepted by now that, within certain parameters, a lower velocity projectile will penetrate deeper than the same projectile at higher velocities. Garrett references the steadily decreasing penetration in wet newspaper by a .458” 500-grain Hornady solid bullet as its velocity is increased from the level of the 45-70 up through that of the .458 Winchester Magnum, .458 Lott and .460 Weatherby Magnum. “The faster they strike the faster they stop,” he says, with tons of test data to back him up. Maybe it isn’t so counter-intuitive if you think of slapping the surface of a pond as hard as you can vs. simply pushing your hand down through the water.
According to Garrett, “What is apparent from testing is that penetration stops increasing at impact speeds above about 1250-1300 fps. When the impact speeds significantly surpass about 1600 fps, there is a very definite and measurable decrease in penetration depth. This raises some interesting issues regarding the relationship between kinetic energy generation and impact-effect. Although higher velocity projectiles always generate more kinetic energy they clearly do not produce deeper penetration, and when the velocities reach the levels common to today's magnums, the increases in velocity result in significantly reduced penetration.
“If the builders of the various .458 Magnum calibers would simply advocate driving the heaviest bullets their calibers can push to about 1500-1600 fps, the super-powerful magnums would produce penetration depth unobtainable with 500-grain solid bullets at any speed. A 650-700-grain .458 solid at 1550-fps from the magnum .458s would produce penetration that would clearly redefine the .458 Magnums. However such an increase in bullet weight would require faster twist barrels and would certainly bring howls of protest from those who purchased .458 Magnums previously, since those guns would require rebarreling in order to accommodate the heavier bullets.”
Garrett’s 45-70 Government ammo, known for accuracy and consistency as well as penetration, is available in 420-gr super-hard-cast gas-checked Hammerhead at 1650 fps, 420-gr super-hard-cast gas-checked Hammerhead at 1850 fps, 540-gr super-hard-cast gas-checked Hammerhead at 1550 fps, 350-gr Woodleigh weld-core JSP at 2000 fps, 500-gr Woodleigh weld-core JSP at 1600 fps, and 500-gr Speer tungsten solid at 1530 fps. The hottest Hammerhead loads are not SAAMI-compliant, and a list of the specific modern rifles for which they are recommended is printed right on the box.
Garrett claims that his 540-grain Hammerhead bullet at 1550 fps will completely penetrate American bison and African buffalo lengthwise and has demonstrated that it will penetrate almost six feet of wet newspaper. (Tests conducted by John Taffin at the 2001 Linebaugh seminar produced 55 inches of wet newspaper penetration.) Impressive though that may be, it is perhaps more penetration than anyone normally needs.
At one time, solid bullets assuring deep penetration into the vitals of thick-skinned animals was the norm. After all, the only other choice was a soft bullet whose behavior was often unpredictable, could blow up on a shallow bone, change direction or otherwise fail to reach its intended target. Outstanding penetration from its long, high-sectional-density bullet was, in fact, the foundation of the sterling reputation of the little 6.5 as a killer of elephant, buffalo and rhino, at least when the rifle was in the hands of a precision shooter. A small bullet in the central nervous system is just as good as a large bullet in the central nervous system.
The whole world changed in the late ‘40s, when John Nosler developed a jacketed dual-core “partition” bullet whose shank, or rear core, would stay together and penetrate at the same time its nose, or front core, expanded into a more destructive force. Thus Nosler ushered in the new age of controlled expansion bullets. We now have an abundance of such bullets, based on Nosler’s design or at least his concept of a dynamic relationship between the front and rear of a bullet, whether the technology is partition or solid shank or bonded core or solid copper hollowpoint.
On buffalo hunts today, it is usually a controlled expansion bullet that is first into the chamber, with solids used, if it all, only in case an extreme rear raking or Texas heart shot is required as follow-up on an animal escaping into the thick bush. Penetration is as important as it ever was, but today you don’t have to give up the killing effect of bullet expansion to get it. Unless, of course, you’re shooting bullets at such low velocity, as is the case with the 45-70, that you can only buy your penetration with hard-cast bullets that are guaranteed not to expand beneath an Abrams tank tread on a concrete floor.
As to the wide meplat of the 540-grain Hammerhead bullet delivering superior impact effect, Garrett gives the bullet a Taylor Knockout Value of 55, which is not too much less than John Taylor gave the .416 Rigby in its original loading. That’s some pretty high-stepping company for the old military cartridge to be keeping if the comparison is true, but even John Taylor was clearly less than confident about the accuracy of his own rating system.
Vince Lupo’s “big six” trophies, which he hunted with PH Danie Clifford, Sr. of Mahlapholane Safaris in South Africa, were taken as follows, according to Lupo:
Cape buffalo: The first shot was broadside, striking the right shoulder at 80 yards, knocking the buffalo down for an instant and causing it to charge. The second shot, at 60 yards, landed beneath the chin and penetrated the neck and spine, dropping the buffalo. A third insurance shot was delivered at 15 yards.
Leopard: During a charge, a shot was delivered through the left eye into the brain at six inches.
White rhino: The first shot was broadside, striking the left shoulder at 100 yards. An immediate follow-up shot was placed in the same area. As the rhino continued to stand, a third and final side brain shot was delivered.
Elephant: The first shot was delivered to the left side brain at 60 yards, followed immediately by a second shot to the rear spine, which caused the elephant to fall. A third frontal brain shot was delivered at 10 feet for insurance.
Lion: The first shot went into the left front shoulder at 50 yards, causing the lion to jump into the air, spin around and charge. The second shot was directly into the brain.
Hippo: The first shot was between the eyes into the brain at less than ten feet, because the hunter failed to release the safety on his rifle during his first attempt and the fumble caused the hippo to charge. (Lupo must be grateful to the safety freaks who declared that mechanical safety devices must be fitted to lever-action rifles which have never required such a thing.) A second insurance shot to the brain was delivered immediately.
What this tells us about the 45-70 in Africa is basically that Vince Lupo is an excellent shot, especially under pressure of a charge. A bullet in the central nervous system is a bullet in the central nervous system. By the way, Garrett’s bullets had no trouble plowing through whatever they had to plow through to get there, and Jim Brockman’s version of the Marlin 1895 launched them all without any problem.
To achieve his velocities, quite high for the old 45-70, Garrett imposes a maximum average chamber pressure limit for 45-70 Hammerhead Ammo of 33,000-cup/35,000-psi, which he says is easily achievable with modern powders and is completely safe in the modern Marlin 1895. Garret is well aware that the lever-action rifle, by its very nature, is far less capable of handling high pressure and its effects than bolt-action rifles. Loaded to Hammerhead levels, and given the very blunt bullet design of the Hammerhead ammo, Garrett says that common lever-action problems associated with high pressures and heavy recoil, such as failure of the tubular magazine, difficult case ejection, cartridge battering in the magazine, and potential magazine detonation are avoided.
It’s worthy of note that the lever-action Winchester 1895 chambered in the more powerful .405 round was equipped with a box magazine, which negated the recoil-associated problems with the tubular magazine and also allowed the use of pointed bullets. Paul Mauser quickly discarded the tubular magazine for the box magazine in his bolt-actions for the same reasons.
A defining feature of a true dangerous-game rifle is functional reliability under any and all of the harsh conditions often met in Africa. This is the reason why the rifle action of overwhelming choice is and always has been the controlled-round-feed Mauser turnbolt. No lever-gun, pump-gun, push-feed bolt-action or single shot could ever meet this high standard which, by the way, has saved the lives of more dangerous-game hunters than one might care to contemplate.
You will still find plenty of hunters in the field today toting original or reproduction trapdoor Springfields or Sharps in 45-70. And you will find the latest incarnations of new Marlin lever-actions, Thompson Center pistols and carbines, Brownings, Rugers, and, of course, custom guns in all of their wonder and variety. But you will find far more of these guns in the Rocky Mountains and Alaska than you will in Africa. This is as it should be. The 45-70 is a quintessential American cartridge, big medicine for moose, bison, elk and brown bear. But the African hunter may well come across some crusty old dugga boy who has never heard the tales told around a Western campfire, is no cousin to the mean-spirited but thin-skinned grizzly, and who will take one contemptuous look at that lever-operated stick and utter the chilling Cape buffalo equivalent of “Go ahead, make my day.”