Cartridge of the Week, the 45-70 Goverment, 45-70-330, 45-70-350, 45-70-405, 45-70-500

This week we go really old school with a big hoss, the 45-70 Government. This comes from a time when people not only rode horses, but also fired guns while riding them. This is among the largest cartridges we have examined so far. This cartridge’s energy exceeds that that of the venerable 30-06 Springfield from last week.

19th Century 45-70 Government Cartridges

Due to changes over time, we have to define this cartridge in two different eras. While developers conceived it during the black powder era, it managed to make the transition from black powder to early smokeless powder, and finally to modern smokeless powder.

The numbers of the cartridge defined the bullet diameter (.45), the mass of powder in grains (70), and the bullet weight in grains (330, 350, 405, and 500). However, the powder ratings are those of black powder or early smokeless powder. Modern powder loads range from 50.4-54.0 grains of modern smokeless powder.

1873 Springfield Trapdoor

The cartridge came about to compliment the new 1873 Springfield Trapdoor rifle used by the U.S. military. This rifle became both famous and infamous during the Indian wars which following the U.S. Civil War. Most infamously, the rifle was at Little Big Horn in June 1876 in the hands of the U.S. Cavalry. However, it was not the 45-70 cartridge that was partly responsible for the lopsided defeat of the U.S. soldiers that day. The cartridge used at the battle was the 45-55. Bean counters, in their infinite wisdom, believed the less powder would save barrels for longer use. Furthermore, armed with better repeating lever-action rifles, the Indians had the tactical and numerical advantage.

The Trapdoor is a single shot rifle that must be reloaded after each shot. The bean counters and brain trust of the military believed the soldiers would waste ammo with a repeating rifle, and the single shot would force them to take better aim at their targets.

The 45-70 cartridge still vindicated itself and returned to service following the Little Big Horn debacle. The 45-55 died along with the soldiers on that Montana hillside. However, the 45-70 survived, and it became a hunting caliber for taking game such as buffalo and elk. To this day, with the energy of 3500–3700 ft-lbs, it still is a big game threat.

Modern 45-70 Goverment

While this cartridge possesses true knockdown power, its greatest weakness is its trajectory in traditional firearms. The large hunk of lead falls to the ground quickly beyond 150 yards and accuracy is wanting at that distance or beyond. To get more distance out of this cartridge, you would need an increase in powder, and that would not have been good for most of the early 45-70 rifles. Only modern rifles have the durability to withstand the needed increase in pressure created from a larger amount of powder.

Modern guns with modern 45-70 ammunition can shoot consistently to about 200-250 yards. This would be a decent choice for larger game. I would be very leery of shooting modern smokeless powder ammunition in a 19th century rifle. I am sure there are those who will decry me for saying that, but if it were my gun and my head, I would protect them well and by a modern firearm. There are some things you can’t replace.

45-70 Goverment Ballistic Comparison
Cartridge  Bullet Weight Muzzle Velocity Muzzle Energy
30-30 Win 150 Grains 2,480 fps 2,049 ft.-lbs.
.303 British 150 Grains 2,690 fps 2,400 ft.-lbs.
45-70 Goverment 300 Grains 2,191 fps. 3,730 ft.-lbs.
7.62X51 /.308W 150 Grains 2,750 fps 2,518 ft.-lbs.
7.62X63 / 30.06R 150 Grains 2,900 fps 2,820 ft.-lbs.


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Comments (7)

  1. Respectfully, while much of your article is bang-on, you are incorrect about the reason that the carbine cartridges used by the seventh cavalry(amongst others) were loaded with 55 grains of black powder, not the 70 grains used for rifles.
    It had nothing to do with barrel life and everything to do with recoil.
    The lighter carbines needed a lighter load so that the 405 grain slugs they were tossing did not kick the proverbial bejesus out of the cavalry soldiers issued with them.
    Anyone who has shot these guns with the original loadings will appreciate the difference and indeed the general tactical effectiveness of issuing troops with guns/loads that they are not afraid to shoot repeatedly.
    Soft lead slugs at moderate velocities using black powder propellants do not eat barrels. Foul them yes, but wear them out? Certainly not as quick as smokeless high pressure loads, by a long shot.

  2. I have the Marlin 1895 rifle in 45-70. I love this rifle. I have shot 2 javelinas with it;one of them beyond 70 yards. I just the LeveRevolution ammo. Both times the bullet went clean through the animal. The rifle does have a kick to it an is loud. It is a wonderful gun to shoot and a conversation piece from other gun enthusiasts.

  3. That wooden round might be the Forager round which basically had wooden bullet over birdshot, making it a 49 gauge shotgun, used to take game in the field I guess.

    Also issued was the .45-70 “Forager” round, which contained a thin wooden bullet filled with birdshot, intended for use hunting small game to supplement the soldiers’ rations.[9] This round in effect made the .45-70 rifle into a 49 gauge shotgun.

  4. I have just come into possession of a 45-70 govt cartridge that is indeed interesting. Headstamp consists of: Rem UMC and 45 Govt. The real surprise is that instead of a lead bullet, it has a piece of what appears to be oak, crimped in place of the bullet. The wood is flat on top. I’m guessing a blank cartridge of some kind or even a line throwing cartridge. The overall appearance of the cartridge has verdigris(sp?) growing at the base around the rim and dark patina overall. It appears to be quite old. Anybody have any ideas what it could be? Any help would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!

  5. Isn’t it true that when firing this cannon that you had to time your shots to the horses front hooves or you could literally shoot yourself out of the saddle? I heard one such cavalry man died going uphill and spurring his horse on at just the wrong moment, blowing his horse clear back down the embankment. 😉 A serious load indeed.

  6. Where is the rest of the article? Tell us about the 250 grain monoflex? I shoot an 1895 marlin and have never felt so much recoil before. Why do fellas load some ammo so hot that the brass sticks in the chamber? Makes it hard to rechamber the next round and then see straight to shoot again….As for Custer’s last stand, the indians say he died while crossing a creek, shot by indian sniper, early in the battle. The last group of men to die that day were on a knoll and their flat shooting rifles couldn’t hit the indians creeping up the hill because of the curve in the hill. But the indians could lob arrows up and down on top of them, like mortars….ARROWS won the day at little big horn.

  7. Love being able to see the cloud of dust out at 500 yds. H&R Buffalo Classic, synthetic stock, 1# of lead in the butt and a 9×40 on top. Even the most shy elk don’t have a chance. Love this cartridge!

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