My Fifty Years with the .45-70
by Col Michael C. Howard, US Marines (Ret)
Founder of Salute Targets
“No man goes through life alone, nor does he ever accomplish anything solely by his own efforts.” Paul A. Matthews
Dedicated with utmost respect to the classic work by Paul A. Matthews: “Forty Years with the .45-70” (Revised) First Edition 1989, Second Edition, Revised and Expanded 1997, Wolfe Publishing Company, Prescott, Arizona.
“The 405-grain jacketed bullet from the .45-70 at a velocity of a shade over 1,800 fps is an extremely dependable killer on just about any game on the North American continent. Muzzle energy for a bullet of that weight and speed is a bit over 3,000 foot-pounds.” Paul A. Matthews, “Forty Years with the .45-70”, p. 45
“If you are capable of judging the range, and I guess some people are, then the .45-70 is plenty accurate and a good killer at any of the sensible ranges at which a man ought to be shooting.” Paul A. Matthews, “Forty Years with the .45-70”, p. 54
My first experience with the .45-70 was in the early 1960s. That puts me at over a half-century of loving this caliber. I was a youth on the Ventura County, California, ranch of Hollywood actor Joel McCrea, who was showing his son Peter and me the beauty of an octagon barrel 1885 rolling block Winchester rifle (it was like chambering a round into a howitzer). Joel would always emphasize that he was a rancher first and an actor second (mainly when a studio could not get Gary Cooper). His calloused hands from digging and putting in fence posts was further proof. Joel and his wonderful wife Frances were our dear friends and neighbors. Their ranch was technically in Camarillo, while our next door was in Moorpark. So you can see that between Cooper (High Noon) and McCrea (Ride the High Country), I grew up with a real appreciation for our American Western Heritage. And that particularly focused on guns. That day being handed a single .45-70 cartridge was like love at first sight.
If ever there were an "all American caliber", this venerable round would be a top contender. The .45-70 has simply gotten better and much more appreciated with age. The reasons are simple: it works. It delivers a big bullet that makes big holes, but without the current fads for high velocity and range. And it does not tear your shoulder off. As Col Jeff Cooper once said to me: "Why own a gun that kills at both ends?" He was admitting that our old frontier heritage folks like John Moses Browning and Col John T. Thompson, knew what they were doing. Bigger holes are better. And the .45 caliber diameter is optimal in opening up tissue and unleashing blood at a fatal rate. Yes, it will bring down both big game and bad guys. One of Col Cooper’s favorite stories was taking down his first African Cape Buffalo (in his opinion the most dangerous form of big game). Yes, he did it with a .45-70 and noted that before he squeezed off the round, the big game animal looked at him “like I owed it money”.
As to background, the .45-70 rifle cartridge (also known as .45-70 Government), was developed by the US Army. This was at the Springfield Armory for use in the Springfield Model 1873 (also known as the trapdoor Springfield). Much had been learned from the Civil War, and minimum acceptable accuracy of the .45-70 using the 1873 Springfield was set at about 4 inches at 100 yards. Noted was that the heavy, slow moving bullet had a “rainbow trajectory” which dropped off at ranges greater than 300 hundred yards. But a trained shooter, firing at a known distance, could consistently hit the Army’s standard 6x6 foot target at 600 yards. The key component here was hitting an enemy at 300 yards. When coupled with mass or volley fire, this made the .45-70 highly effective. Skilled shooters could obtain lethal individual hits out to 1,000 yards. Of special note were the Army Sandy Hook tests of 1879, when a heavier (increase from 405 to 500 grain) bullet produced considerably improved ballistics. Ranges of 3,350 yards were reportedly achieved and lethal injuries at 3,500 yards were obtainable with the bullet striking point-first at roughly a 30 degree angle. Personally, I would hate to have to shoot at these long ranges! But Army ballistic reports state that these .45-70 tests penetrated three, one inch thick oak boards, and went on to penetrate 8 inches into the beach sand of Sandy Hook. These results gave hope that effective Army volley fire would be achieved over other infantry fire. It was all about range, penetration and accuracy. And yes, flatter shooting.
I will interject here from my own experience and simply say that I believe the .45-70 is at its best as a hunting cartridge when utilized anywhere out to 100 yards. Nothing beats it for a close in killing shot! Our pioneer ancestors knew this well when dealing with buffalo, braves, or bad guys.
And yes, it should be noted that Custer and his command died in June 1876 at the Battle of the Little Bighorn carrying 1873 Springfield carbines in .45-70. The destruction of Custer’s command had more to do with his arrogance, lack of sound reconnaissance, and dividing his command. His being overwhelmed by the Sioux and Cheyenne (who were desperately defending their families and homes), had much less to do with the caliber weapon the 7th Cavalry carried.
The .45-70 caliber Springfield underwent a modification in 1884 with a stronger breech. This was accompanied with a new 500 grain bullet. Both the Army models of 1873 and 1884 were the mainstays of the service through the Spanish-American War in 1898. The Army had begun to realize that single-shot, black powder rifles were becoming militarily obsolete. They adopted a small number of Norwegian-designed Krag-Jorgensen .30 Army caliber Springfield Model 1892s in 1893. The US Marines also fielded some of these.
Though the majority of US Army units in the Spanish-American War were armed with .45-70s, the handwriting was on the wall when the German Mauser in the hands of Spanish troops was encountered in Cuba. This would of course lead to the adoption of the outstanding 1903 Springfield in .30-06 a weapon that has also stood the test of time in WWI and WWII. It would also be used as the preferred US sniper weapon in Korea and Vietnam.
Additional tributes to the adaptability of the venerable .45-70 cartridge was the “Forager” round, filled with birdshot and used for hunting small game to augment Soldier’s rations. It measured .410 (just like the .410 shotgun), the same diameter of the .45 Colt. And the .45-70 was also adopted by the US military for the 1873 Gatling gun. The Navy retained its .45-70 Gatling guns on its warships throughout the 1890s. The Navy had adopted both the 1873 and 1884 Springfield .45-70 as its standard rifle, plus using the same cartridge in its 1879 Lee Magazine Navy Contract Rifle and the Remington-Lee rifle. These were both magazine-fed turn-bolt repeating rifles.
The United States Marine Corps, paralleling the US Army and US Navy .45-70 logistics tracks, also fielded the Springfield 1873 and 1884. These the Marines retained until 1897. They then adopted the new 1895 Lee Navy rifle in 6 mm Lee Navy caliber, together with some Krag-Jorgensen .30-40 rifles. Like the US Army, they would embrace the superior German Mauser action system of the new Springfield 1903 when these later became available. Of special note is that Marine veterans noted during WWI that their old “Krags” still had the smoothest action in the world.
As noted, the .45-70 was last used in quantity by American fighting men in the 1898 Spanish-American War. It is fascinating that even today (2017), the venerable .45-70 cartridge is still used in the US military (Navy, Coast Guard and Army) and is carried as: “cartridge, caliber .45 line throwing M32” blank cartridge for throwing a line from one ship to another in their line throwing guns.
Our US military is once again learning this lesson from Fallujah to Kandahar, where our 9mm pistol cartridge and 5.56 rifle rounds may deliver eventual lethal hits, but not in time due to smaller holes and over-penetration. We once again need to go back to the lessons of over a century ago during the Spanish-American War and Philippine Insurrection, where there was a real difference noticed between the new, anemic .38 and the trusted .45 big bore. There is not much difference other than name in the .38 and 9 mm. Just check out the diameter.
The number one lesson of History (whether secular or sacred) is humility. We don’t know what we don’t know. Human anatomy and that of all major big game animals has not changed. Only our technology has. And the .45-70, despite the passage of over a century and a half of time, still does the job at an acceptable range. Many a deer has dropped in my wife’s Blueberry and Raspberry patches when she has awaken me early in the morning with the affectionate phrase to an old US Marine: “Enemy in the wire”! (Note: most deer I have shot, I’ve been wearing my bathrobe and slippers). I have spent many a quiet, therapeutic time lobbing a wide variety of .45-70 rounds downrange with my long barrel Winchester 1885. That rolling block system is like loading a howitzer. And I can honestly say that if I had to hurry out my door with just one rifle, this would be it: my trusted Marlin 1895SS Alaska Guide Gun lever action .45-70! I love this weapon so much I own two of them: one stainless with iron sights and one with a Leupold Scout Scope. Let the zombies come …
Long live the .45-70. Our ancestors really did know what they were doing!
More #general articles by Salute Targets coming soon...