|November - December 2000
Volume 32, Number
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In Rifle No. 191, I mentioned that Master guide Ed Stevenson used a Browning
Model 1886 carbine .45-70 with 400-grain Kodiak bonded core jacketed bullets to dispatch a
9.5-foot brown bear on the Alaskan coast. The load Ed used pushed that 400-grain bullet to
just over 2,000 fps from the 22-inch carbine barrel. No sooner had that issue of Rifle hit
the streets than I received a doubting e-mail from a devoted reader who
claimed it was not possible to generate that kind of velocity from a .45-70 with a
400-grain bullet and remain within sane operating pressures for the Browning Model 86.
Acknowledging the readers
concerns regarding pressures and velocity limits for the Model 86, it seemed like it might
be a good idea to go over the development of the Winchester Model 1886 - from its
inception through its quiet demise in 1935 - and outline the general design
characteristics of the rifle and its limitations.
To begin, the Winchester Model 1886,
introduced by Winchester that same year, was the creation of John Browning. Inaugural
cartridges included the .45-70, .45-90 WCF and .40-82 WCF. The .40-65 WCF, .38-56 WCF and
.50-110 WCF were added in 1887, followed by the .40-70 and .38-70 in 1894, the .50-100-450
in 1895 and the .33 WCF in 1903.
With the exception of the .33 WCF,
all the cartridges chambered in the 1886 were designed for blackpowder with a peak
operating pressure of around 28,000 psi. The .33 WCF was a smokeless cartridge from the
get-go that developed upwards of 40,000 psi in the relatively new nickel-steel barrels.
By 1919 most of the cartridge lineup
for the Model 86 were discontinued, leaving the .45-70, which was discontinued for a
second time in 1931, and the .33 WCF.
As the various cartridges came and
went, the Model 86 also experienced a gradual transition, ranging from the initial
10-pound rifle with a 26-inch barrel and magazine, to the extra lightweight and
lightweight designs that cropped up around the turn of the century. By the time the 86
disappeared, paving the way for the introduction of its second cousin the Winchester Model
71 in 1936, the .45-70 and .33 WCF lightweights weighed less than 7.0 pounds and handled
like field-grade shotguns.
There were essentially two versions
of the lightweight rifles: an extra lightweight .45-70 with a 22-inch barrel and a
lightweight .33 WCF with a 24-inch barrel. From about 1899 on for the .45-70 and 1903 for
the .33 WCF, barrels were nickel steel with a tensile strength of approximately 100,000
You could also order an extra lightweight
.45-90 WCF during the final years of the Model 86, but for the most part, customers were
restricted to the two basic models in .45-70 and .33 WCF with shotgun butts, in either
solid frame or takedown.
Throughout their life span, standard
pressures for the .45-70 and .45-90 WCF have
been limited to 28,000 psi, which allows them to be fired in older blackpowder firearms,
including the original Sharpses, Springfields, Winchester Model 85s, etc.
All was well and good until 1964
when Marlin introduced the .444 Marlin on the Model 336 action. When Marlin also
introduced the .45-70 in the same basic rifle
design in 1973, folks reasoned, and rightfully so, that if the .444 Marlin was a
40,000-psi cartridge, you could load the .45 caliber right up to the same pressures - and
a lot of folks did just that.
So the .45-70 existed in limbo. Some
folks just loaded it right up to 40,000 psi and went hunting. Others admonished those
hot-rodders as irresponsible, or whatever.
In the meantime, starting back in
the 1950s, a gent by the name of Harold Johnson out of Coopers Landing, Alaska, just
ignored the debate over the .45-70 and proceeded to neck the .348 WCF case up to .45
caliber, forming the .450 Alaskan. With his wildcat case design in the Winchester Model
71, Johnson boosted 400-grain bullets along by 51.5 grains of IMR-4198 for about 2,100 fps
from a 24-inch barrel.
While Harold Johnson was building
and shipping .450 Alaskans all over the world. Harold Fuller, the man who made Johnsons
reamers, came up with the .450 Fuller that was more suitable for chambering in the Model
86 with nickel-steel barrels. Of the two wildcats, the .450 Alaskan generated a bit more
power, but no beast on earth could distinguish between a 400-grain bullet at 2,100 fps or
the same bullet at a more leisurely 2,000 fps.
Not to be outdone, P.O. Ackley came
up with still another version by necking up the basic .348 WCF case and blowing the
shoulder diameter out to .535 inch. The Ackley wildcat boosted velocities with 400-grain
bullets to nearly 2,300 fps - and to this day represents phenomenal power from a
lever-action rifle that is harnessed to a maximum of 42,000 psi. With 500-grain bullets,
the .450-348 Ackley Improved runs right up and dances on the heels of the .458 Winchester
The problem with boosting the .45-70
up to 40,000 psi back in the 1970s was that there was no real reliable pressure data to
use for reference. Most loading manuals took pressures up to 28,000 psi but left serious
reloaders to flounder around between 30,000 and 40,000 psi. For that reason, and even up
to present day, there was a lot of variation in terms of maximum loads from one reloading
manual to the next. About the only load anyone could agree on was 53.0 grains of IMR-3031
with a Hornady 350-grain bullet for about 1,850 fps, depending on barrel length. Finally
in 1980, Hornady stated the obvious: This rifle (the Model 95 Marlin) is the same
basic action as that of the .444 Marlin which operates at 40,000 CUP. Whew, someone
finally admitted the obvious.
The Hornady Handbook of Cartridge
Reloading Third Edition took its 300-grain hollowpoint .45-70 bullet to 2,100 fps from a
22-inch barrel and recommended several powders that pushed its 350-grain bullet to 1,900
Following Hornadys lead, it
didnt take long for the rest of the industry to accept the brute strength of the
Marlin Model 95 as a fact. What folks forgot, or overlooked, however, is that the
Winchester Model 86 with nickel-steel barrels had the same brute strength.
It is my opinion the Model 86
Winchester was overlooked during the evolution of the .45-70 because most folks simply
didnt know it was two distinctly different rifles: those manufactured for heretofore
blackpowder cartridges prior to 1899 and those made after. For the most part, rifles
manufactured prior to the turn of the century used barrel steel that was not up to the
pressures routinely created by the new smokeless powders. When the .30-40 Krag (.30 U.S.),
.30 WCF, .25-35 WCF, .32 Winchester Special and .33 WCF came along, they were all loaded
with smokeless powder and re-quired a new kind of barrel steel - Winchester called it
Nickel Steel especially for smokeless powder.
Even though the .45-70 and .33 WCF
were chambered in nickel-steel barrels after 1900, the former was still limited to 28,000
psi, and the latter was a 40,000-psi cartridge. So, where early barrel steel was limited
to 28,000 psi, an extra lightweight .45-70 or .45-90 WCF could be loaded to 40,000 psi if
you could find reputable loading information.
The problem back then, and even
today, was the lack of .45-90 WCF brass, which is why Johnson and Fuller elected to neck
up the .348 WCF case to .45 caliber in an effort to generate more power than was available
from the standard .45-70. And, it appears they even had lawyers back then - who would
admonish anyone not to load the .45-70 up to 40,000 psi and risk the chance that one of
those hot pills might find its way into an 1873 Springfield rifle or carbine or a prewar
Marlin Model 95 or Winchester 86 that did not have a nickel-steel barrel. The obvious
solution was the .450 Alaskan, .450 Fuller or the .450-348 Ackley Improved in a Model 71
rifle. The one little detail that most folks seemed to have missed, however, is that even
the Model 86 .45-70 or .33 WCF rifles with nickel-steel barrels could be rechambered to
the .450 wildcats based on the .348 WCF case.
Just when it seemed everyone
understood all the details regarding the .45-70, the Marlin Model 95 and the pre-World War
II Winchester Model 86 rifles and carbines with nickel-steel barrels, Browning (USRAC)
came up with the Model 71 and the Model 86 rifles and carbines. The Browning reproductions
appeared to have confused all the folks who wrote loading manuals, and while the modern
reproductions of the 86 were certainly as strong as the Marlin Model 95, you wouldnt
know that by reading the disclaimers in the manuals. Even by the mid-1990s, the Winchester
(USRAC) Model 86 rifles were considered to be the weak cousin of the Model 95 Marlin.
Now that we have all that straight,
there is at least one more item that needs clearing up: overall loaded length. The proper
(recommended) overall loaded length for the .45-70 today is 2.54 inches - partly due to
the simple fact that is all the modern Marlin Model 95 can handle. (The pre-World War I
Marlin 95 could handle cartridges with an overall loaded length of 2.88 inches.)
On the other hand, the Winchester and Browning
Model 86 rifles and carbines can handle an overall loaded length of 2.88 inches - with one
caveat: The lands in the Winchester and Marlin barrels start immediately in front of the
chamber, effectively preventing anyone from seating the bullets out farther, unless the
throat or leade is increased in length accordingly. While the Model 86 action can handle
cartridges with an overall loaded length up to 2.88 inches, the chamber design of the
.45-70 limits overall loaded length to 2.55 inches. This brings us to the .45-90 WCF.
Some folks have openly questioned
why the present-day .45-70 Marlin or Winchester could not be rechambered to .45-90 WCF.
But again, the modern Marlin Model 95 action is too short, and while the 86 action could
accommodate the longer .45-90 WCF case, the latter only offers an additional 100 to 150
fps over the .45-70, given equal barrel length and pressures, of course.
If you want more power than is
possible from the .45-70 in the modern Marlin Model 95, there are at least two options:
rechamber to .450 Alaskan or have the action altered slightly so it will handle the Wild
West Guns .457 Magnum. Of the two choices, the latter is the least troublesome in
terms of gunsmithing and is more in keeping with the overall design strengths of the
In a nutshell, the .457 Magnum is a
slightly longer .45-70 case that required minor modifications to the Marlin 95 so it will
handle an overall loaded cartridge length of 2.625 inches, nearly .15 inch more than the
.45-70. For the trouble of lengthening the action, you can drive a 350-grain bullet to
about 2,200 fps from an 18.5-inch barrel or a 400-grain bullet to just over 2,000 fps. In
effect, you can beat the .45-70 loaded to the same pressure levels by 100 fps or more.
And, in a pinch, you can also fire standard .45-70 ammunition in a .457 Magnum chamber.
The question some folks have is how
this whole business of .45-70 versus .45-90 versus .457 Magnum or .450 Alaskan, etc.
stacks up against the new .450 Marlin. So far as we can tell, the .450 Marlin exactly
duplicates what handloaders have been doing in the .45-70 for nearly 25 years. The only
difference is the belted case design used on the .450 Marlin eliminates any chance that
you can use readily available .45-70 brass. The benefit, of course, is that the .450
Marlin is loaded right up to 40,000 psi (on average) and with the new Hornady 350-grain
flatnose jacketed bullet is capable of fending off just about any beast you might run into
on this planet.
The .450 Marlin and .457 Magnum also
deal with the lawyer factor since neither cartridge can be chambered in older,
heretofore blackpowder .45-70 rifles that would probably disintegrate if subjected to
40,000- to 43,000-psi chamber pressures. The fly in the ointment is that the .457 Magnum
can be fired in a .45-90 WCF chamber, but anyone who is silly enough to do that in a
blackpowder rifle, which can be worth up to $10,000 to a collector, is probably
certifiable anyway. The .457 Magnum can, however, be safely fired in a .45-90 WCF with a
For a reasonably fair comparison of
all these cartridges, I fired Buffalo Bore loads in a Marlin Model 95 with an 18.5-inch
barrel, a Browning Model 86 carbine with a 22-inch
barrel and a Winchester (USRAC) Model 86 takedown rifle with a 26-inch
tube. The .457 Magnum was fired in a Wild West Guns Marlin Model 95 Co-Pilot with an
18.5-inch barrel. The .45-90 WCF is a Winchester Model 86 takedown made up from a .33 WCF
with the barrel cut back to 21 inches. The .450 Alaskan is a Winchester Model 71 with a
The only rifle that was left out of these
comparisons is the new Winchester (USRAC) Model 86 lightweight with a 22-inch barrel that
is due out within a few weeks as you read this. With slight differences the Winchester
Model 86 extra lightweight .33 WCF with a 22-inch barrel fairly duplicates the modern
reproduction in .45-70. In my opinion, the only thing USRAC could do to finish the duel
between the .450 Marlin and the .45-70 is to bring the USRAC Model 86 rifle out in .450
Alaskan and have it all over with.