Around 1860, cartridge rifles slowly started replacing muzzle loaders. Early in this transitional era, while black powder was still king, the .450 diameter bullet, give or take a few thousands, was generally accepted as the best, all-around caliber. Ballistically superior to virtually anything else conventional, it’s heavy-for-caliber bullets carried easily out past 1,000 yards and were the best for resisting wind drift. This is why, for several decades, I shot a .45-70, originally the government standard in the 1800s, in competition out to 1,200 yards.
As a target rifle cartridge, it is accurate when properly loaded. The only standard caliber I found that could consistently outshoot it at the longer ranges was the .45-90. Not the express rifles and Winchester repeaters with their little 300-grain bullet, but big honkers pushing 500 and even 600-grain slugs downrange. However the added recoil of the .45-90 over a long day of shooting created problems for me and I decided the .45-70 was where I wanted to be.
For elk hunting the .45-70 was just what I needed. I went from hunting with a traditional .50-caliber, round-ball flintlock for over a decade to using an Italian Sharps repro and ultimately a real Sharps in .45-70 for elk hunting. It suited me and was quite effective as it collected over a dozen elk for me over the years.
I switched from using my muzzle loaders to using the .45-70 to hunt with due to the growing propensity of Uncle Sam’s pet bears to be getting into trouble chewing on hunters, hikers and other folks back during that period. I didn’t feel the need to wind up with one shot and a chance at becoming bear scat. A practiced shot with a decent single-shot can reload nearly as fast as most modern nimrods can work the bolt on a modern rifle. Besides, I always carried a large caliber revolver on my hip for serious social work, just in case.
The .45-70, even with black powder loads, has sufficient killing power for hunting anything on this continent and for defensive use, if needed, up in the big woods. Over in Europe the .45 caliber, with lighter bullets, was regarded as a proper cartridge size for stalking rifles designed for their little roe deer and their red stag, a relative of our elk, but more the size of a big mule deer buck. In America, we used it for bison, grizzly and moose, among others.
Interestingly, the .45-70 is one of the few black powder cartridges that made the transition from black powder to smokeless. The other two that I’m acquainted with are the .38-55 and the .32-40. Just as an addendum, I also love the .38-55 for light work (deer, antelope and black bear) with smokeless loads. In fact, my friend and master gunsmith Randy Selby is re-boring and re-lining a .40-65 caliber Winchester highwall repro I had, changing it to .38-55.
Why? Sentimentality, I guess. My first really big antelope buck fell to a factory load, (smokeless) in an original Winchester highwall with a half-round and half-octagon 24-inch barrel in .38-55, complete with buck horn sights. I loved that rifle and unlike most firearms, I’d kept it and shot it for over 20 years, kind of a record for me. Unfortunately, due to circumstances beyond my control, like needing money for medical bills (probably most readers can understand the circumstance) I had to sell that rifle. I hated to do that and always regretted it.
I guess I thought that maybe, before cashing in my hunting chips, so to speak, I wanted to try to see if I could take a decent pronghorn with what would be basically the same rifle. You know, like deja vu all over again! But more like sort of seeing if I could finish that dance with what I brought. Like a marriage, you know? Is that a cowboy thing or just old-fashioned? Unfortunately, this whole COVID-19 thing has slowed everything down, so maybe next year? But I digress.
Most folks, even rabid shooters, don’t realize that ammunition for the .45-70 has been in continuous production since 1873 despite many gun writers claiming its obsolescence. That’s probably longer than any other cartridge. In 1873, our military adopted the stop-gap production of the “trapdoor” Springfield with which to arm its troops and used those rifles and that cartridge to subdue the original Americans, thereby “winning” the West and a couple of small, international dustups. They actually kept the rifle and ammunition in military service, albeit in reserve status for much of the time, up into the 1920s.
Not surprisingly, when the switch to smokeless propellents and the resulting newer, higher-velocity, small-bore cartridges occurred, the popularity of the .45-70 went through a period of decline. But it not only hung on, it fought back. Many adherents claim that it is more popular today than at any time since 1900.
I may be sticking my neck out here, as I haven’t shot on the circuit for several years, but it probably is still the workhorse of the black powder silhouette crew and especially the long-range, black-powder enthusiasts. As I said previously, the .45-90 with a 500-something-grain bullet is intrinsically superior to the .45-70 at the longer ranges, but you shoot those larger calibers between 60 and 100 rounds over a span of several hours and see if you aren’t pulling your shots about halfway through the day.
I still go down to the storage place and pull my old rifle out of the safe and then spend an afternoon killing rocks with it a couple times a year and maybe, if everything falls into place just right, I might even be able to save enough money to go kill another bison with it before I’m too old and feeble. Granted, I’m no Pawnee Bill these days, but I’d rather shoot my own meat than buy it pre-processed from some market-driven ranch.
As far as I’m concerned, bison/buffalo eat real good, better than prime beef usually, and they eat even better when taken down with an old Sharps and a black-powder load. Maybe the black powder seasons the meat a bit? Just saying.