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The Original Silver Bullet
Rifle Magazine
May - June 2004
Volume 36, Number 3
ISSN: 0162-3583
Number 213
On the cover...
The custom Weatherby Vanguard is chambered for a variety of popular hunting cartridges and features a hand laminated stock. The Cooper Model 57 LVT .22 rimfire is outfitted with a Bushnell Elite Model 4200 2.5-10x Scope in Leupold rings. Pronghorn photo b
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Q: Love your magazine. Could you guys do a study on the .45-70 in comparison to other dangerous game cartridges? Perhaps test the Garrett and Buffalo Bore rounds against the .375 H&H or .458 Winchester Magnum or Lott? If you check out many of the forums, you will see heated debates on this topic. Would be a great seller for you guys and a great read for us!! - C.A.L., via Internet

A: Good idea, but the truth is, there is no comparison between the .45-70 and the .375 H&H, .458 Winchester Magnum or .458 Lott. And, at the risk of possibly inciting a riot on the Internet, I’ll tell you why.

Right off, I would imagine this “debate” is somewhat inspired by the story Brian Pearce did about the .45-70 in Africa, where he used a Cor-Bon 400-grain solid to shoot a Cape buffalo, whereupon the bullet exited the bull and killed a cow buffalo that had gone unnoticed on the other side of the bull. The bull took off, and Brian shot it in the south end where the solid penetrated to the heart, ending the affair in fairly short fashion.

So, it may be logical, from Brian’s account, to assume the .45-70 is perfectly adequate for Cape buffalo - assuming one is using a 400-grain solid at approximately 1,800 fps and the range is limited to 100 yards or less. Most folks would be tempted to ask whether Brian’s hunt would have turned up similar results if he had used a 400-grain softnose. Either way, it’s a bit of a stretch to compare Brian’s load in the .45-70 to a 300-grain solid at 2,400 fps from a .375 H&H, or a 500-grain solid at 2,100 or 2,300 fps from the .458 Winchester or Lott. It’s plainly obvious, or should be, that the two .458 belted cartridges pack a lot more clout than the .45-70, regardless of which performance criterion anyone might choose, i.e. kinetic energy or Taylor’s knock-out formula.

The comparison, then, should really address these cartridges in terms of performance potential on large game, or at what point is a cartridge considered adequate or acceptable in terms of producing a high percentage of one-shot kills on buffalo, lions or even elephant.

 Obviously, the performance evaluation has to include bullets, softnoses, solids or whatever, like the X-Bullet. If we restrict the dialogue to softnose bullets, the .45-70 with a 400-grain Kodiak or Hawk with a .050-inch jacket is probably acceptable for Cape buffalo, assuming proper bullet placement. That also applies to the .375 H&H with a Swift A-Frame or Nosler Partition. But, no matter how you cut it, a 500-grain, .458-inch bullet at 2,000 fps impact velocity delivers a tremendous blow, even on soft body shots. The same could be said of the .470 NE or the .404 Jeffery and .416 Rigby or Remington Magnum. All assuming, of course, the bullet is up to the job at hand.

I’m also reminded that there are hunting cartridges and fighting cartridges, the latter being those that are required to administer a one-shot stop in a fight that was started with a .375 H&H, for instance. So, while it may be possible to stop an enraged four-footed antagonist with a .45-70, the .458 Lott and .470 NE are superior tools for the job.

Then there’s an experience my friend Martin Pieters recounted one evening as we lounged around the campfire in the Okavango last August. It seems one of his clients wounded a Cape buffalo, and they failed to find it before the client had to leave. So, Martin went back out and spent two days searching through a little less than 2,000 buffalo before he found the wounded bull, which promptly took exception to Martin’s intrusion and charged. Martin responded with a 500-grain .470 solid, between the eyes, and the bull fell dead at his feet. He would have tried the frontal heart shot, but the bull was so close that the angle was not right. The effect, no doubt, would have been the same had Martin used a 500-grain solid in the .458 Lott or .458 Winchester Magnum or 400-grain solid in the .416 Rigby or Remington Magnum.

It might also be claimed the .45-70 with a 500-grain solid would have stopped that bull as well, but it should be plainly obvious that if one is to error in cartridge selection for such work, it is best to error on the heavier side. At that, there are countless horror stories of Cape buffalo taking multiple hits from .458 Winchesters or .470 NE doubles, or combinations thereof, before giving up, or stomping on some unfortunate soul’s body parts. There is even a well-documented episode where a huge Cape buffalo took a 400-grain bullet through the heart from a .404 Jeffery, and it waited in ambush for 30 minutes, at which time the hunter approached and the bull got up and charged, receiving another slug in the eye at spitting distance.

So, it’s not adequate to address the problem of how cartridges might compare in normal hunting situations. It is only when the worst possible scenario is considered that the wheat is clearly separated from the chaff.

The point of all this is that we could argue to the point of reductio ad absurdum as to whether or not the .45-70 is the equal of other, more established dangerous game cartridges. But it is important to keep in mind that the animal is only dangerous if the situation is screwed up or gets out of hand. So, let’s consider, hypothetically, if the bull Brian shot turned the other way and came back at them. All of a sudden, the tables have turned, and the animal becomes a serious threat. Would the .45-70 with a 400-grain solid at 1,800 fps be enough to stop the bull before it hooks a horn into someone?

I’m also mindful of the fact the most vocal critics of any cartridge are, in large part, those who have never used it, or simply used a bullet that was ill-suited to the task. This brings to mind Elmer Keith’s comments regarding the .30-06, damning with faint praise, when in fact, he was talking about the bullets of his day.

If you load the .45-70 right to the gunnels with powder under a heavy solid, either copper or hard cast lead, in a Ruger No. 1, the old black-powder cartridge takes on an entirely different personality. (Hornady lists loads for its 500-grain solid at 1,800 fps in the .45-70 Ruger No. 1.) The same could be said for the .450 Marlin, .450 Alaskan, .45-90 WCF and, to some degree, smokeless loads in the .50-100-450 in modern rifles. There’s even the .50 Alaskan to consider, especially when it tosses 450-grain bullets around at a bit over 2,000 fps from an 18.5-inch barrel and 535-grain bullets at 1,850 fps from a 26-inch tube. These .50 Alaskan Buffalo Bore loads are creeping right up on the .458 Winchester Magnum.

I’ve used all the above, except the .450 Marlin, to take deer-sized game, elk and bears, and I would be hard pressed to distinguish the end result produced by any of them from the rest - where the right bullet is used for the task at hand. If you really want to confuse the issue, I’ll toss in the .50 Black Powder Express used in Africa on Cape buffalo and plains game, and the .50-90 Sharps used on bison, deer and elk - all .50-caliber loads using black powder, of course.


Sometimes I wonder if we aren’t just arguing death by degree, e.g., a 400-grain solid at 1,800 fps from a .45-70 is adequate for whatever, but the same bullet at 1,550 fps is little more than a receipe for dismal failure. Where does that bullet downgrade from “perfectly adequate” to “marginal” or “inadequate” - 1,400, 1,450 or 1,500 fps?

I’m also aware that a lot of folks like to have things tied up in a tidy little package in terms of kinetic energy or Taylor’s K-O values, but you may rest assured, it isn’t that easy. Big, heavy bullets usually perform all out of proportion to their paper numbers. The bison I shot some time back yielded 892 pounds of boned meat, something over a ton on the hoof, and it went to its knees within seconds after receiving a 535-grain cast bullet at ±200 yards, where velocity had dropped to little more than 900 fps. Seeing the snow fly on the other side of the beast, it appeared the bullet didn’t even slow down on the way through, leaving huge holes in both lungs and   shattering ribs on the way in and out. Who would have guessed? One thing we know for sure, any attempt to evaluate cartridge/bullet performance of these big-bore/heavy bullet cartridges using the same criterion commonly associated with .30, .338 and .375 bores (i.e. high velocity and energy numbers) will usually lead to nothing but frustration and/or self-inflicted psychosis.

So, what about the debate comparing the .375 H&H, etc., etc? Rest assured, it will rage on, fostered on both sides by critics who would never dream of using a .45-70 on anything, let alone a Cape buffalo, and big-bore fanatics who claim any bullet at less than 2,000 fps that generates anything less than 5,000 foot-pounds at the muzzle is doomed to failure on any animal larger than a 40-pound diker.

This reminds me of a reader who asked which of two cast bullets - an RCBS .45-270 SAA (SWC) or LBT WFN Ð of equal weight at the same velocity had superior killing power on hogs or deer-sized game. I suggested it would be a tossup, but the WFN might kill the animal deader than the RCBS bullet would. Then too, I couldn’t prove it because, to my knowledge, there is no scale of “relative deadness.” That is, where a 1 would be just “dead” and 2 would be “deader,” 3 would be “stone dead” and so on. Comparing the .45-70 to a .375 H&H might create an inspired debate on the scale of deadness, where the .458 Lott would rate a 9 or 10, “stone cold dead” or “dead ‘n buried.” This could get outta hand.

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