.45-70 Government History and Popularity: From Black Powder Military Past to Modern Hunting Favorite

by | May 9, 2024 | American History, Caliber Guides, Turnbull Restoration & Manufacturing Blog | 0 comments

Turnbull Finished Marlin 1895CB featuring Turnbull traditional color case hardening

Image: Turnbull-Finished 1895CB in .45-70 Government

The .45-70 Government (45-70) cartridge is a piece of American firearms lore, a bridge between the black powder cartridge past and the smokeless powder present. With a rich history that dates back to the post-Civil War era, the big-bore round has proven its longevity and viability. The round has evolved from a military mainstay to a favored round among antique gun enthusiasts and modern lever-action hunters. In this article, we will delve into the 45-70’s development history and explore the reasons for its enduring popularity.

The Birth of the .45-70 Government

The .45-70 Government cartridge, officially the .45-70-405, was developed at the United States Army’s Springfield Armory in 1873. The name .45-70 itself denotes the caliber of the bullet (.45 inches), the amount of black powder it was loaded with (70 grains), and the weight of the lead bullet (405 grains).

Springfield Armory

It was designed to offer better range and accuracy than the .50-70 Government cartridge it was replacing. The 50-70 round was adopted by the U.S. military in 1866 as a standard rifle cartridge. For sure, the 50-70 was formidable with its stopping power, but its general ballistics were the source of frustration. This government ordnance was actually better suited for hunters than the military.

.45-70 Government and the Springfield Model 1873: A Military Staple

Initially, the military round was chambered in the Springfield Model 1873, commonly known as the “Trapdoor Springfield” due to its hinged breechblock, which resembled a trapdoor. It quickly became the standard infantry cartridge for the United States military. The cartridge was used in several conflicts, including the American Indian Wars, where it gained a reputation for its overall effectiveness at long ranges.

Video: Springfield Trapdoor

Even though the new government ammunition was considered a success, problems did arise. The cartridge cases were very thin, especially in the early days when they were made of copper. Updated brass cases were considered anemic as well, and simply couldn’t handle a lot of pressure resulting in failures. So, they had to use less powerful black powder loads to be safe. Despite its issues .45-70 Government was used by the military for 19 years.

Gateway to the Modern 45-70: Smokeless Powder

The late 1800s brought the development of smokeless powder and metallurgy improvements. The new smokeless powder generated more firepower than black powder, while casing strength improved over time, resulting in a round that could accommodate the higher pressures. These critical technological improvements enabled the previously weak .45-70 Government remain viable for different needs in evolving times.

45-70 in the Civilian Market

After its military service, the round gained a second life in the civilian market. Hunters particularly valued the 45-70 cartridge for its ability to take down large game at a distance.

Big Game Hunting

The 45-70’s large bullet and substantial energy transfer make it ideal for hunting North American game such as deer, moose, and bear. Its effectiveness is not limited by size alone; the round has a trajectory that allows for accurate shots at ranges up to 200 yards, a respectable distance for a big game hunting round.

Deer in field

Image: White tail deer

Antique Gun Collectors

Collectors of antique firearms have a special appreciation for the .45-70 Government. Rifles like the Trapdoor Springfield, the Sharps rifle, and later lever-action rifles by Winchester and Marlin chambered fore the big-bore cartridge are coveted pieces. The history and design of these firearms, coupled with the round’s historical significance, make them attractive to collectors and sportsmen alike.

Photo of a Springfield Armory Model 1873 with 1883 cartouche, for sale by Turnbull Restoration of Bloomfield, NY

Modern Adaptations and Uses of 45-70

Despite being over a century old, the .45-70 Government has adapted to the modern age. Today’s ammunition is produced by major manufacturers and is readily available. Modern rounds are fired from reproduction rifles and antiques alike. Of course in the case of antique rifles, the round must be loaded for lower pressures.

Lever-Action Rifles and Reproductions

Modern lever-action rifles, such as those produced by Marlin and Henry Repeating Arms (and Turnbull), have continued the legacy of the 45-70. These rifles offer a blend of historical charm and modern engineering, allowing shooters to enjoy the experience of shooting a 19th-century design with contemporary reliability and accuracy.

Image: Winchester 1886 reproduction made by Turnbull

The 45-70 in Modern Hunting

The 45-70 remains a popular choice for hunters seeking a powerful round capable of ethical kills on large game. Modern ballistic technology has improved the performance of .45-70 ammunition, making it a great option for hunters who favor the feel and challenge of shooting with a traditional round.

Photo of a Turnbull finished Marlin 1895 Dark, featuring bone charcoal color case hardening by Turnbull Restoration of Bloomfield, NY

Image: Turnbull-Finished Marlin 1895 Dark

Another reason for its current popularity is the allowance of straight-walled rifle cartridges such as the 45-70 in deer hunting zones that are currently shotgun only (check your particular state for details). Like slugs, 45-70 ballistics are not up to the specs of a bottleneck cartridge like the venerable 30-06 Springfield. Given the choice however, many hunters will choose 45-70 every time for its fast handling and ease of carry.

The 45-70’s Place in History

The .45-70 Government round’s service in the military is a significant chapter in its history. Its role in the American Indian Wars and other military actions of the late 19th century is a testament to the design’s effectiveness despite its few shortcomings. The big-bore choice has shown remarkable resilience, remaining in production and use for nearly 150 years. Its future seems secure, with a dedicated following among hunters, collectors, and those who appreciate the cartridge’s unique place in firearms history.

A Legacy Enshrined in Antiques, Military Surplus and Collectibles

The popularity of antique rifle collection and availability of military surplus rifles and ammunition has contributed to the 45-70’s popularity among collectors. These historical pieces offer a tangible connection to the past and are a reminder of the round’s importance in American military history.

Winchester 1886 SRC from 1903 chambered in 45-70 Government, restored by Turnbull Restoration of Bloomfield NY

Image: Turnbull-restored Winchester Model 1886

A Future with Continued Popularity in Hunting and Shooting Sports

The 45-70’s popularity in hunting and shooting sports is likely to continue, thanks in part to the continued production and popularity of lever action and single shot rifles chambered for it. The round’s versatility and the success it brings to its proponents ensure it will remain a mainstay of the hunting world for years to come.

As it approaches nearly 150 years of existence, the .45-70 Government’s enduring popularity and dedicated following ensure its legacy will continue to thrive in the hunting and shooting sports world for years to come. The round has evolved from its black powder military origins to becoming a beloved choice for hunters and collectors alike.

Related Content

Blog Posts



Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *