The Big Bad American 45/70

Where’s Martha?” “I Don’t know, I think she left out a little early for her stand” Why are we whispering?” It’s well before sunrise, The air is starting to take on that special chill of Autumn.

It is the first day of moose hunting season.

Bob, my hunting partner, Martha, my wife, and I are way out at the end of a long dirt road, by an old abandoned airstrip.  We have been here for a couple of days scouting, and setting up stands.

It has been a very dry summer so we can go a little deeper because some of the normally impassable swamps are dry this year. Bob and I of course have been pushing the limits.  We are out their about as far as we can go, we have our big magnums sited in at a couple hundred yards. We have toiled and churned to build the perfect set ups.

Martha, on the other hand is fed up with years of extreme Alaskan hunts. This year she has chosen to hang out a couple hundred yards from camp, in a comfy little ground blind, with a good book. She figures she is about 25 yards from the moose trail and refused to lug her 30-06 around.  With a little silent chuckle, I said she could use my 45-70.  I told her it was zeroed at about 50 ft and an easy carry.

I just love that gun, every time I grab it, I feel like a cowboy, and when I cycle the lever, look through the iron sites, and squeeze the trigger, I feel just a bit more like a real man. I keep it around for protection mainly. Not much good for hunting the wide open spaces of Alaska.

“Damn, she’s out early” “Yeah, I think she was looking forward to sleeping in her blind on the soft peat moss instead of on the ground in the tent.”

“Alright man, you know the plan. “  “We are pretty alone out here so if you hear a shot, it’s probably me. “Bring your big boy panties cause it’s gonna be a monster!”  I was pretty confident in my location, my equipment, and my abilities. After all, this is serious moose country, and we have superior access this year. Bob’s no slouch but I think I planned it out right this year. That the trophy is going to have to pass by me to get into Bobs’ sites.

About 45 minutes later, I crawled into my stand. Finding it in the dark and the dense morning fog of the deep swamp was a little tricky even with GPS.  I settled in, and waited for first shooting light. The sun was going to come up at my back, and illuminate the far boundary of the swamp about 200 yards off.  I knew that the only thing between the other side of the swamp and Russia was a couple hundred miles of moose country, and the bearing sea I knew this was a good place and God willing, was going to be a successful hunt.

I entered that hyper vigilant state that only the hunter knows. All of my senses peaked, each nerve raw against the chill of the morning. The light of dawn was just starting to reflect off the willow wisp. I could make out some promising shadows, as I slowly and methodically glassed every inch of the tree line.

BANG!, CRACK!. The report came from somewhat of a distance, and rang hard off the dense fog.  I didn’t see anybody else on the way in, nor did it sound like it came from Bobs’ direction.  Furthermore, it didn’t really sound like a rifle. It was a stout sharp crack instead of the doppled zing of a high velocity round.

Sounds bouncing around a swamp in the fog can be very deceiving. I was pretty sure it wasn’t Bob’s 300, but I figured if it was, my radio would soon cackle with his excitement.

Nothing, I kept intently glassing for my own quarry, there were a couple cows mulling around the good graze, but nothing with antlers yet. I love to watch wildlife going about their daily business. Hunting is not always about shooting, usually, it is just about spending quality time with the beasts in their home.

I hadn’t heard anything from Bob after the shot, so I forgot about it. I figured it must have been some far off hunter, and the sound had just carried well in the still morning air.

“Hey, can you guys hear me” My radio startled me out of my stupor. Damn it, what does she want, doesn’t she know we are hunting? “Yes dear, I hear you, what do you want?” “Ah, er, I need some help…” I took a deep breath, the kind of deep breath a man takes when his wife asks him to paint the kitchen during the Super Bowl. I said a little prayer for patience.

 “Can it wait till I get back to camp at about noon?” I said with controlled and contrived calmness. “I suppose it could but I’m worried about bears”  “We’ve been over this dear, the camp is pretty clean and we don’t have to worry about bears until after we hang some moose” I choked on the last word as it hit me. “Yeah, ah, that’s another thing, he’s a little too big for me to get back to camp myself” I could almost hear Bob cracking up.

Long story short, after making my way back past camp to where Martha ha chosen to sit, their lying literally in his own tracks was about a 3 year old atypical spike fork moose. This animal would easily tip the scales at over 1000 pounds. He was legal because he was seriously atypical. If he had been symmetrical, his paddles would have probably seen 45 inches, but he only had one paddle, and a deformed rail with 3 brow tines on the other side. She had made a good call in taking this moose.

She dropped him in one shot, with my camp gun! The deep last impression of his front hooves betrayed the almost unimaginable impact of the 400 grain “nothing fancy” hard cast lead.  She had hit him broadside with enough force that he actually fell up hill! I paced it at 75 feet, and asked her where she held, needless to say, she didn’t know.

Bob and I just stood their and shook our heads. I’ve seen moose killed in one shot, but they usually make one final lunge. This one just tipped over.

The 45-70 Government was developed at the Springfield armory in 1873 as a refinement of the .50-70 which was one of the first center fire cartridges officially adopted by the US military. It’s official designation was .45-70-405 designation meant. A .45 caliber (.458 diameter) , 405 grain bullet sitting anxiously on 70 grains of black powder.  (ok, I added the anxiously part)
Back in the day, it was all about throwing big lead. Believe it or not, the .45-70 was considerably smaller than it’s contemporaries. To this day, one look at the imposing stature and girth of the cartridge is enough to send chills down your spine.

The first gun officially chambered and distributed (or issued)  for the .45-70 round was the Springfield model 1873 They were so creative with their model numbers.  This gun is known today as the “Springfield Trapdoor”  Back then accurate, aimed fire out past 300 yards could be considered  black magic.  Eventually the bh design was beefed up to handle a new 500 grain bullet. This offered little better downrange ballistic predictability but the trajectory was still more like an ICBM then a rifle cartridge. Just imagine the damage a 500 grain bullet hitting a target at re-entry angle must have produced.

With the development of smokeless powders, and flatter shooting cartridges such as the .30-40 Krag the .45-70 became obsolete at least for military use by the turn of the century.  I do however remember using a modified trapdoor with a blank .45-70 cartridge as a line throwing gun in Reagan’s Navy.

In a way, the seminal platform for this cartridge kept its sporting potential obscured for many years.  The old trapdoors were built with an action stout enough to withstand a maximum volume loading of black powder but would not stand up to the higher pressures of smokeless powders.  To this day, factory .47-70 ammunition, if you can find it, is “downloaded” to not feed any lawyers representing dismembered owners of the older platforms.

Manufactures continued off and on over the years to produce guns chambered for the modern incarnation of the old round. It was not until I moved to Alaska, and asked around about effective bear defense that I learned of the Marlin 1895 “Guide Gun,” and its potential as a bad ass sporting cartridge.

Though I consider myself to be a bit of a modernist, the first time I laid eyes on the romantic lines of the lever action saddle gun I had to have it. I had seen many tricked out versions of this gun done by such master as “Wild West guns” in anchorage, but my mind kept wondering back to the simplicity of the factory gun.  I am not one to own a gun just for its prettiness. I am more a creature of functionality. Why pay for all the glamour of a tricked out gun, if the factory gun will make the lead fly the same? Besides,  my guns tend to spend way more time in hostile environments than in the cushy silk sheets of a gun safe.

I saved it up, and plunked it down for a standard blued peasants’ gun. I resisted the urge to put some fancy optic on top. I bough two boxes of factory ammo so I would have some brass to work with. Then, I went to work.

I learned about gas checks, and why the bullets were (at the time) all blunt nose. I found a local source for lead, and I developed an ever deeper bruise on my right shoulder. Man this thing was fun! Nothing like holding 8 inches high to zero at 100 yards. I gradually increased loads until I started to mess up the accuracy, I backed down a little for prudence, and settled on a 350 grain hard cast gas check on top of 54.5 grains of H4198. My Marlin makes this fly at around 2200 FPS. Do the math, that is over 3700 Foot pounds of pure bear stopping all American torque! Damn, I’m getting excited just writing about it!

This gun goes everywhere with me. It is absolutely my preferred camp gun. Last year it spent 4000 miles hooked to the saddle of my motorcycle when I took an adventure ride through Canada.  The year before that. I bungied it to the wing strut of a super cub as we chased wolves through the interior.  All this winter as past winters, it will slide into the custom scabbard on my dogsled for my adventures in the frozen north. I will never have to guess as to its
reliability and effectiveness.

I have made friends shake in their boots when I insisted they give her a whirl , and made men out of little boys by graduating them from the little guns to this cannon. And of course their was that one time, one (at moose camp) I lent it to my wife, who put two years worth of good organic meat in the freezer with one shot!