Is the 45-70 Good For Elk?

The 45.70 Govt cartridge is an old and well-respected rifle round. First issued in 1873, this cartridge has been in use consistently by civilian shooters since that time.

It is a popular cartridge for loading in traditional lever-action rifles; thus, most loads use a round nose bullet. Many shooters wonder if the 45-70 Govt is suitable for hunting elk.

A Look at the 45-70 Characteristics

The specifications for the 45-70 Govt contribute to the naming of the cartridge. This rifle round shoots a bullet of .45 diameter. Originally, the cartridge was loaded with 708 gr of black powder. Newer smokeless powders use many different loads to achieve optimal performance.

New loads for the 45-70 typically produce ballistic characteristics in the following average ranges. For comparison, I have included the average ballistic characteristics of the 30-06 rifle cartridge.

Ballistic Characteristics of the .45-70 Govt Cartridge

45-70 405 gr

Muzzle100 yds200 yds300 yds400 yds500 yds
Velocity / Trajectory1350 fps0.0 inch-22.9 inch-75.4 inch-162.6 inch-288.9 inch
Energy1639 ft-lbs1284 ft-lbs1052 ft-lbs902 ft-lbs798 ft-lbs717 ft-lbs

45-70 325 gr

Muzzle100 yds200 yds300 yds400 yds500 yds
Velocity / Trajectory2050 fps0.0 inch-10.3 inch-37.2 inch-87.3 inch-167.7 inch
Energy3033 ft-lbs2159 ft-lbs1519 ft-lbs1083 ft-lbs827 ft-lbs683 ft-lbs

.30-06 150 gr

Muzzle100 yds200 yds300 yds400 yds500 yds
Velocity / Trajectory3000 fps0.0 inch-3.1 inch-11.7 inch-26.8 inch-49.8 inch
Energy2997 ft-lbs2530 ft-lbs2124 ft-lbs1771 ft-lbs1465 ft-lbs1202 ft-lbs

Effective Distances

It is easy to see that the 45-70 is not a long-range flat shooting rifle cartridge. A target at 300 yards requires a holdover of 75.4 inches.

This is more than 6 feet of holdover on an elk. Combine this with the expected accuracy of the 45-70 cartridge, and the chance of a successful elk kill at 300 yards is small enough that it becomes unethical to take the chance.

As long as you keep your maximum hunting distance to around 200 yards, the 45-70 can be a very effective cartridge on elk. Of course, a lot of the effectiveness of the 45-70 depends on the rifle from which it is being shot and the shooter’s skill.

Delivered Energy

Delivered energy is one factor that delivers clean kills on big game like elk. At distances below 200 yards, the heavy bullets of the 45-70 cartridge deliver respectable energy on target.

However, as the distance grows, delivered energy drops off rapidly. This loss of energy at these longer ranges limits the usefulness of the .45-70 to targets less than 200 yards away.

Recoil

Felt recoil always depends on the rifle, the load in the cartridge and the bullet being shot. All contribute to the energy that we describe as recoil.

Typically, the 45-70 develops between 18.7 and 37.9 ft-lbs. of recoil energy. How you perceive recoil is affected by your body size, physical condition, and how you hold the rifle.

I find the recoil of the 45-70 quite manageable. I routinely shoot a .270 Winchester bolt action Savage rifle. I find the recoil of the 45-70 less intense than my .270 rifle.

Accuracy

In 1873, the Army had some interesting specifications for rifle accuracy. The minimum acceptable accuracy of the 45-70 when shot from the 1873 Springfield was 4 inches at 100 yards.

It is reported that a skilled shooter firing at a known range could consistently strike targets 6 foot by 6 foot in size at 600 yards. Not exactly a great feat by today’s accuracy standards.

Smokeless powder, new rifle construction, and new loads have greatly improved the accuracy of the 45-70 cartridge.

New rifles such as the Marlin Model 1895 or a Ruger No. 1 can safely handle these new loads.

Cartridges loaded with higher velocity powder and ballistic tipped boat-tailed bullets offer accuracy that rivals many newer cartridges.

New Loads, New Rifles, New Options

45-70 Govt For Elk

Even the venerable 45-70 continues to evolve as technology looks at the prospects for this rifle round. North American elk are large and formidable targets. 

At close ranges, the 45-70 has plenty of stopping power to deal with animals the size of an elk.  However, there are times when more distance is needed from your rifle and ammo.

Ammunition manufacturers apply powder and bullet developments to give the 45-70 a new breath of life. Rifle manufacturers are also re-evaluating the 45-70 as they design and redesign their rifles. 

New Load Options

Looking at the new offerings from major ammunition manufacturers for the 45-70 rifle cartridge can be eye-opening.

Powder has come a long way since the original black powder loads for the 45-70.  Newer smokeless powders can give the extra range and extra energy needed to make clean and ethical kills on elk.

It should be noted that if you own an older 45-70 rifle, it may not be capable of handling the pressures created by these new cartridges. Great care should be exercised in these cases.

New Bullet Options

Firing anything other than a round nose bullet is almost impossible since most currently manufactured rifles are of the tube magazine style. But not quite. Hornady recently introduced a new line of ammunition specifically designed for lever-action rifles. 

The Hornady LEVERevolution rifle ammunition features an elastomer flex tip bullet. This more ballistically efficient bullet can fly faster and hit harder than comparable round nose bullets yet is still safe to fire in lever-action tube magazine rifles.

This means added range and more delivered energy on an elk to ensure a swift and clean kill at distances that would otherwise be marginal.

Rifles for the 45-70 Govt

No bolt action rifles are being manufactured chambered for the 45-70 govt cartridge. Many companies are making reproduction rifles, which feature the popular lever-action style. 

If you want to shoot anything other than round nose bullets that are safe to use in tubular magazine rifles, you are limited to a single shot rifle such as the Ruger #1. Henry Arms also makes a single shot rifle chambered for the 45-70.

If history is your thing and you want a reproduction of the rifle originally chambered for the 45-70, you can purchase a trapdoor 1873 Springfield 45-70 government rifle. The rifle is made by Uberti and can be found at several major online firearms sellers.

In any case, these modern new designs and reproductions are safe to use when elk hunting with modern ammunition. 

Elk are always tough, but are you up to the extra challenge of hunting with a single-shot rifle?

Is the 45-70 Suitable for Elk?

45-70 Govt For Elk

Under the right circumstances, the 45-70 Govt is suitable for what can be easily claimed as North America’s largest hooved game animal.

It is important to understand those circumstances. Don’t be misled by some who claim the 45-70 is an over-the-hill cartridge that doesn’t have the ballistics for large game animals.

Historically, every North American game animal has been taken using a 45-70.

Many famous big game hunters have taken African game animals, including some of the largest and most dangerous, with 45-70 rifles. The 45-70 is more than a match for North American elk when used properly.

When and Where the 45-70 Is Effective?

Almost any animal can be taken with any rifle under the right circumstances. A .22 LR can kill a buffalo if the placement of the shot is perfectly executed.

On the other hand, a prairie dog can survive a missed shot by the largest caliber available. The 45-70 is no different. The difference between a clean kill and a maimed animal that must be tracked for hours is a few inches.

There are some situations where a 45-70 is an acceptable rifle choice for elk. Other situations should be given a second thought. 

  • Keep the target distance to less than 200 yards. 
  • Use the best possible load for your rifle.
  • Know your rifle and cartridge load and understand how to range your rifle. Estimating holdover at longer ranges is critical to accuracy and effectiveness.

Good shot placement on your target will ensure a clean and ethical kill. The best shot placement puts your bullet into the vitals of the elk. The heart and lungs are the best places to target.

The 45-70 Govt Cartridge – History Combined with Modern Technology

If you want to shoot a piece of history, the 45-70 govt cartridge is a great choice. This cartridge served our military for many years and has been a favorite of lever-action gunners ever since.

The 45-70 has proven effective on almost any game animal and can certainly be very effective on elk in North America. 

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