By Ed Hall
If there’s a cartridge that is underappreciated, it’s the .45-70.
The .45-70, now almost 150 years old, is a pretty good bear cartridge. It has a modern, strong brass case and shoots nicely heavy, but because of one popular antique black powder rifle, the Trapdoor Springfield, the powder charge in factory ammunition must duplicate the puny original black powder load dating back to 1873. While the Marlin lever action rifle in .45-70 is rated for 40,000 psi of pressure, .45-70 ammo is limited to just 13,000.
As an example of .45-70’s relative lack of potency, the well-known, modern magnum handgun, .454 Casull, is capable of delivering the same bullet with more velocity and energy than a ‘factory load’ from a .45-70 rifle! Yet, whether in a treestand over bait, hound hunting, or having a rifle around camp in Alaska, my choice of a bear rifle would unequivocally be a Marlin lever action in .45-70. It is also still a popular ‘brush cartridge.’
Soon after the Marlin was introduced, a few savvy handloaders understood the rifle’s strength, made some calculations, did some testing, and added a little more powder, giving the .45-70 more velocity and energy - - more penetration, (and most used a tougher bullet than ‘factory’ for bear). The practice is so popular that just about all reloading manuals now list the .45-70 as two separate cartridges, one labelled ‘Trapdoor loads’ and the other, the appropriate ‘Marlin loads.’ The major ammo manufacturers will not offer these stouter loadings because of possible confusion, as one cartridge might find its way into an old Trapdoor rifle, with potentially disastrous results. But a couple of smaller commercial ammo makers credited hunters with a degree of common sense, and offer their ‘factory ammo’ loaded to the power level of the Marlin. Their boxes are well labelled.
These are Grizzly Cartridge, DoubleTap and CorBon. Not only are they more potent, but they offer wide varieties of excellent, deep penetrating bear bullets as well. Understanding the situation, Marlin and Hornady put their heads together and designed a new cartridge, a bit more potent than even the Marlin power level. It is loaded with Hornady’s super-tough, rubbery pointed 325-grain bear stopper bullet.
And that’s not all that favors the Hornady bullet. Hornady invented a rubbery pointed bullet that is safe in tubular magazines, giving it a considerably higher ballistic coefficient. As I mentioned earlier, most .45-70 factory ammunition is loaded with nicely heavy, but very soft lead core bullets designed to mushroom as much as possible in the soft chest tissues of a deer. While the potency of the original power level of the .45-70 can be readily improved, so can the bullet construction also be considerably improved for bear hunters.
As I’ve said before, bear are old world critters, better served with deep penetration, tissue disruption and blood loss, than any attempt to ‘shock’ them with velocity. Sometimes a bear will fall at the shot (I had one do so with just a muzzleloader bullet). The guarantee is that within a few seconds or maybe a minute, blood pressure drops to zero, the brain stops working, and the bear falls dead within 100 yards.
Actually, there is yet another, even higher power level for the .45-70 cartridge. As I mentioned, most of our popular cartridges such as .308 and .300 Winchester Magnum are loaded to 60,000 psi in most bolt actions and the strong Ruger #1 single shot. The .45-70, at this level, drives a bullet to power levels adequate for Cape buffalo and even elephant, considerably more punch and recoil than we need for 99% of our bear hunting. How about 3,760 foot pounds from a .45-70! It’s called the ‘Ruger load.’
Bear Bullets for the .45-70
Narrow rifle bullets stay pointed for sleek travel and mushroom to be blunt and tear up tissue upon impact, but a fat .458 bullet already blunt or even better yet, flat-pointed, does its job well so long as distance isn’t an issue. Hardcast lead bullets are already the proper shape to balance penetration with punch for tissue disruption and are intentionally so hard that they keep that perfect shape while punching deeply. They are the ideal choice for the bear hunter.
Many newer bullets, monolithics such as the Barnes X, and the newer bonded bullets, Nosler’s Accubond and Hornady’s Interbond, are good examples of bullets that will properly mushroom. Yet, if a bear hunter knows for sure he won’t be shooting long range, a .45-70 loaded with a heavy, flat-nosed hardcast bullet is my pick for top performance.
While we see factory .45-70 ammo loaded with bullets from 300 grains up to 500, some folks figure the lighter 300-grain bullet will be a bit faster. However, faster and more shock doesn’t work on a bear compared to the momentum of a heavier bullet plowing much deeper through the toughest tissue and almost always exiting. Exit holes leave much better blood trails than entrance holes, though you won’t have to track very far.
Both Marlin and Browning offer strong lever action rifles in .45-70 and .450. Both are proven in both accuracy and dependability, and Hornady’s development of rubbery-pointed bullets for tubular magazines removes the energy-stealing effect of flat-nosed bullets, giving the bear hunter 200-yard potential.