The .45-70 and the .308 arrived on the hunting, shooting scene in very different ways. The .45-70 was introduced in 1873 for use by the United States Army. The .308 is a much more modern cartridge, arriving from Winchester for the commercial market in 1952.
The .45-70 History in Your Hands
The .45-70 came into existence as a large caliber round designed for initial use in percussion style rifled muskets that were converted to trapdoor action breechloaders. The original design was for a black powder cartridge to be used by infantry in long-range volley fire.
The heavy 405 grain bullets used at first with the .45-70 weighed almost an ounce, and for military purposes were useful beyond 1000 yards. That range was achieved with a high arc trajectory since the .45-70 had a very limited range as a flat shooting platform.
The .45-70 evolved from a military breech loaded cartridge to a favorite caliber in lever-action model rifles later in the 19th century.
Its place in the battles against the Plains Indians in the 1870s and 80s made it a legendary round. Perhaps no other cartridge has gained popularity based on a Hollywood production more than the .45-70.
Tom Selleck, acting in “Quigley Down Under” used a .45-70 in distance shooting exhibitions that led to tremendous increases in sales of the large caliber round.
As an aside, the .45-70 was a versatile round when first introduced. It was used with Gatling guns for a short period, and a wooden cased shell called a “Forager” was designed for infantry soldiers to use in taking rabbits, and game birds. The “Forager” allowed the .45-70 to be used as a mall, 49 gauge shotgun.
The Gatling and shotgun usage of this cartridge were short lived, but the .45-70 lives on as a popular, high powered, short range platform for large North American game hunting, and on African safaris.
The .308 a Universal Cartridge
As with the .45-70, and many other cartridge designs, the .308 came to the civilian market from the military. Winchester began commercial production of the .308 in 1952, but its history dates back to the trenches of World War I.
In 1898 the American Army tangled with the 7x57mm Mauser for the first time against Spanish troops in the Spanish American War. The 7x57mm Mauser was superior in every way to the .45-70 Springfield trapdoor rifles used by many American troops.
The United States was quick to respond to the gap in shooting performance by moving to the .30-06.
The .30-06 became a popular cartridge for both military and civilian use immediately. The 1903 Springfield bolt-action rifle in .30-06 was the primary infantry weapon for American troops in the Great War and moved to the M1 Garand in World War II.
The arrival of fast action, semi-automatic rifles called for a new cartridge and Winchester responded with the .308.
The .308 and its cousin the 7.62x51mm NATO answered a lot of challenges in military applications. The 7.62×51 became the standard military round for the free world until the M16 arrived with the United States military.
Sharing a common thread with the .45-70, the .308 or 7.62x51mm was used in full automatic rifle applications. Unlike the brief use of the .45-70 in Gatling guns, the 7.62x51mm remains the standard caliber in many fully automatic assault rifles.
As a hunting round useful with a wide variety of big game, the .308 remains one of the favorite caliber cartridges for North American hunters.
Performance of the .45-70 versus the .308
Both of these cartridges are effective for large game hunting. The difference comes in the key areas of range, muzzle velocity, and energy on target.
The .45-70 fires a huge bullet. Custom loads can reach 500 grains, over an ounce of lead flying down the barrel.
The .308 is a much smaller cartridge, with the most popular sized bullets ranging from 150 to 180 grains.
Muzzle velocity is decidedly in favor of the newer model .308. Standard, commercially manufactured 150 grain .308 cartridges offer a muzzle velocity ranging from 2820 feet per second to 3000 feet per second. At 300 yards they still fly faster than 2000 feet per second.
In comparison, the .45-70 is a turtle, exiting the barrel with a muzzle velocity of only 2000 to 2025 feet per second.
To be fair, that slower muzzle velocity comes with a substantially heavier bullet. The .45-70 in standard production ammunition is available in 250 or 325-grain weights. Many hunters and shooters load their own much heavier bullets or buy custom made bullets that can weigh up to 500 grains.
The .45-70 slows down quickly, dropping to just over 1000 feet per second at 300 yards.
The slower muzzle velocity is an advantage in some applications when combined with the much heavier bullet. The shock of a 300 to 500-grain bullet can drop any large animal at close range while not destroying meat as a higher velocity cartridge can. The heavier bullet weight allows the .45-70 to bust through brush while remaining on target.
The disadvantage of the .45-70 is range. The bullet drops quickly but is capable of longer distances with special “pop up” sights that allow an arced trajectory rather than the flat shooting the .308 is capable of.
In spite of the heavy weight of the 250-grain bullet, the .45-70 doesn’t have the energy to humanly kill an animal beyond 150 yards. The energy at 200 yards drops to only 917 pounds and is even lower at 300 yards at 634 pounds.
The much lighter 150-grain bullet fired from a .308 is still effective at 500 yards with over 1200 foot pounds of energy.
That’s why the .308 and the 7.62x51mm remain favorites among long distance big game hunters and have practical military and police SWAT team use as a sniper round.
You carry a piece of history when you venture out with a .45-70. The large-sized cartridge remains effective after almost 150 years since it was first introduced. The .45-70 is one of the few large-caliber cartridges that remains popular after being converted from black powder to modern higher-powered smokeless powder.
It remains a popular platform for close-range big game hunting and is a favorite of many African safari hunters in situations with large animals at very close distances.
The .308 is the better overall choice for most hunting applications. Deer and pronghorn antelope hunters use the .308 as one of the more popular sporting cartridges, but many moose, elk, and wild hogs have been taken with the .308 as well.
One final consideration is recoil.
No one ever claimed the .308 is a light recoil caliber. A .308 will kick hard, especially with a lighter weight rifle, but the kick of a .308 is nothing when compared to the wallop you’ll get when firing a .45-70.
The .45-70 isn’t the hardest recoil platform on the civilian market, but its kick is definitely in the conversation when hunters start discussing which rifle leaves the biggest shoulder bruise the quickest.
Both the .45-70 and the .308 have their place in the sporting world. The .45-70 has the edge in nostalgia, but the .308 is a modern caliber while the .45-70 remains a vestige, a connection to a romantic past.