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45/70 Government: Staying Power

By 04/09/2020 April 16th, 2020 Uncategorized
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Dating back to 1873, the 4570-405 and the later 4570-500 was the contemporary of such high-profile guns as the Russian Berdan II (3 million built), German 1871 Mauser (almost 2 million built), British Martini-Henry and Snider-Enfield(nearly a million and 870 thousand respectively), Italian Vetterli (1.5 million), French Gras (2.5 million) and Austro-Hungarian Werndl (700 thousand). All those rifles used cartridges roughly equivalent to the US 4570 Government. How many of them remain in commercial production today? None.
45-70Govt is available commercially in plinker loads, much like 38S&W and 44-40Win. More impressively, almost a century and a half after its inception, a wide variety of hunting and precision 45-70Govt loads are also manufactured by companies large and small. As a result, historic artifacts like Springfield “trapdoor” rifles can be put to regular use even with new production low-pressure smokeless cartridges. Modern production variations on lever, falling block and bolt actions are still being introduced. This continued popularity stems from two factors, a minor technical one and a major political one.

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The minor factor is the simplicity of safe reloading of this cartridge. Unlike most of the 1880s ammunition, it uses a straight wall case. Reloading it is as simple as working with a typical pistol cartridge, perhaps even simpler because of the sheer volume of the powder uses. 70 grains of black powder may be measured by weight or by volume, and making a small error is not critical. Loading with smokeless requires a little more attention to detail, and only the relatively mild original-power cartridges should be used in Springfield Trapdoor originals or reproductions, as well as the 19th century rolling blocks or lever actions. Modern Sharps and lever action reproductions, also 4570 Gibbs Mauser conversions can stand stronger loads. Most modern lever actions and Ruger #1 falling block can hold up to even the maximum pressure supported by the case design: 300gr JHP at 2050fps or heavier bullets at a slightly lower velocity. Some commercial loads go beyond the original 500 grains, offering a very stable long-range bullet, though one that requires very careful range estimation.

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But the technical factors alone cannot account for the retained popularity, especially since it has no effect on the factory production. And yet 4570 remains available in far greater variety and at a fraction of the price of its once competitors. The main reason for this popularity is political: Americans have traditionally owned real guns. Not just small-bore shotguns made from surplus Russian Berdans or French Tabatière army rifles, but proper, long-range rifles equally suited for stopping a grizzly, anchoring a buffalo or putting daylight through the hearts and minds of hostile humans at a standoff distance. Unlike governments of most other countries, Switzerland being a conspicuous but small-scale exception for most of its history, the United States government sold off much of the army inventory to afford the newer and better gear. As that practice declined after 1968, taxes went up instead to buy more military gear while destroying surplus and obsolescent guns. But Springfield “trapdoor” rifles were sold off to the public in large numbers, and the popularity of the caliber made it popular with civilian gun makers. This became a self-reinforcing cycle that continues today. The main brake on the popularity of this caliber is the modern copy-cats, the rimless 450 Marlin and the rebated rim 458SOCOM, both of which promise the performance envelope of the modern 4570 without having to worry about customers chambering the full power ammunition in the more fragile antiques. 450 Marlin delivers on that promise, while 458SOCOM hangs with the mid-range loads at most. 44 Magnum, although impressive performer in its own right, falls short with half the bullet weight at the same velocity or 750fps slower with the same projectile.

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The terminal performance of 4570 is impressive even at the antique level. 405gr soft lead bullet deforms upon impact, producing expansion to about .70” and 25 inches or deeper penetration. With mid-range loads, lighter bullets often expand to an inch, reducing penetration to levels more reasonable for stopping deer or bad hominids. The same weight and velocity applied to an all-brass machined projectile just drills a caliber-sized hole through bone, gristle plate or muscle, making it an effective dangerous game stopper for North America. At the top of the ballistics chart, mid-weight bullets expand and penetrate impressively, while hard-case lead or machined brass bullets drill even deeper holes at the cost of significantly increased recoil. While a factor, recoil is pretty reasonable with the milder loads in even light rifles, as well as mid-level loads in a typical lever action. At short range, 4570 out-stops 6mm Lee and 30-40 Krag, the two calibers that replaced it in Navy and Army use, by a significant margin. At longer ranges, the smaller calibers provide a flatter trajectory, and the cartridges are easier to carry in large amounts, valid concerns for the military but less for the hunter and the sports shooter who instead can appreciate the greater stopping power, the longer barrel life and the more illustrious history of the 4570 Government.

Join the discussion 4 Comments

  • Andrew Cowling says:

    A side note regarding the popularity of the .45-70: When it was introduced, every US gunmaker was attempting to get on the bandwagon (see, for example, the history of the 1886 Winchester) – in contrast, I seem to recall that British African authorities had prohibited the use of sporting arms in .45 calibre (something about ensuring that supplies in the event of a native rebellion would be limited in rebel hands).

  • Brian says:

    Many cartridges have come and gone over the decades…but some cartridges simply have “staying power.” Primarily because they are very effective at the tasks they were designed for. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” applies here. Similar articles could be written on the .45 Colt, the .30-30, .30-06 and maybe even the .38 Special. All are well over 100 years old, but common items that can be found on the ammo shelves of most any gun shop.

  • jrg says:

    I’m far from an expert on the .45/70 Govt., but have been off / on user of it. My friend’s Dad owned a H&R “Shikari” single shot break open rifle way back in the 1980’s. One shot from it and I was transformed. A bit hard on the shoulder due to light weight and drop of stock, but not as bad as I thought – more of a shove than a jolt. Cool !

    My current .45/70 is a single shot Super 16 T/C ported factory barrel. Mounted on the T/C carbine butt stock, a small feral hog carbine that does not weigh you down and still hits with authority. So my guess for the .45/70 longevity – because it works and works well !

    Thanks for the article.

  • […] Why did 45-70 endure when its contemporaries went away? […]

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