450 Marlin vs 45-70: Answering the Question No One Asked
When shooters hear the words “guide gun, big game, and lever action rifles” used in the same sentence, most will immediately think of the 45-70 Government. And for good reason too, as the 45-70 was one of the cartridges that won the West and can take down virtually any North American game animal.
As powerful as the 45-70 is, problems arise when modern ammo is used in older firearms that are not rated to handle higher pressures created by smokeless powder.
Recognizing an opportunity to modernize the 45-70, Marlin teamed up with Hornady to release the 450 Marlin in 2000. The 450 Marlin was designed to mimic 45 70 ballistics but could handle higher pressures that would otherwise destroy older 45-70 rifles.
The 450 Marlin offers big game hunters a level of safety when handloading incredibly hot ammo, but the round has fallen out of favor in the shooting community as most view it as unnecessary. This begs the question: Is it worth upgrading to a 450 Marlin or if the stalwart 45-70 is good enough?
In this article, we will evaluate the 450 vs 45-70 to help you understand the differences between the two and give you a clearer idea of which cartridge is best for your shooting needs.
The difference between 450 Marlin and 45-70 is that the 450 Marlin uses a belted case and is designed for use in modern firearms while the 45-70 is rimmed case designed for black powder. From a ballistic standpoint, both rounds are incredibly similar.
One thing that can be confusing to new shooters is the older naming system used for black powder cartridges, which is different from modern ammunition. This is not surprising as the 45 70 was developed in 1873.
The original name for the 45-70 Govt was 45-70-405 and here’s what that means:
- 45: The cartridge fires a 0.458” diameter bullet
- 70: The powder charge is 70 grains of black powder
- 405: The bullet weight is 405 grains
The .45-70 was developed by the U.S. Army’s Springfield Armory for their new Model 1873 rifle which came to be known as the “Trapdoor Springfield”.
The original Springfield load was designed to fire a 405-grain hard cast lead flat nose bullet at nearly 1,400 fps with 1,748 foot-pounds of muzzle energy. Although these numbers are not impressive by modern 45-70 loads that can exceed 2,200 fps and 3,400 foot-pounds of energy, it’s important to remember that the original loads utilized black powder as opposed to the smokeless powder loads used today.
The advent of smokeless powder showcased the versatility of the 45-70 and its massive case capacity, since less smokeless powder is needed to achieve the same ballistic results as black powder. This means that the 45-70 is only limited to the strength of the firearm chamber shooting the cartridge.
Seeing an opportunity to improve on the cartridge, new lever action rifles like the Winchester 1886 and Marlin 1895 were chambered in 45-70 and were capable of handling higher pressure loads.
However, after WWII the 45-70 had all but disappeared from the United States big game hunting scene as there were no companies manufacturing rifles for the aged cartridge by the 1960’s. Seeing the need and utility of big bore cartridges, Marlin introduced the 444 Marlin to fill that gap.
Although the 444 Marlin was essentially a modified 44 Remington Magnum case, it was moderately successful. Sadly, Marlin proverbially “shot themselves in the foot” by reintroducing the 45-70 in their new line of lever action rifles in the 70’s.
The new Marlin rifles reinvigorated shooters’ love affair with the classic 45-70 as it quickly gained traction in the Cowboy Action Shooting scene.
Today, modern metallurgy and firearm design has allowed the 45-70 to reach what many online shooting forum members refer to as “nuclear loads”, which are incredibly powerful and exceed pressures that older rifles can safely handle. The Ruger No. 1 and No. 3 single shot rifles are two examples of modern rifles that are capable of handling hot 45-70 loads.
Most custom ammo manufacturers will specify what type of rifle their 45-70 loads are appropriate for. However, this has not stopped some tragic accidents from occurring, where a modern 45-70 load was fired in an older Trapdoor Springfield rifle with disastrous results.
These accidents were the genesis for the development of the 450 Marlin, as Hornady and Marlin wanted to create a round that would replicate incredibly hot 45 70 ballistics but be safe to fire in all firearms made for the cartridge.
When evaluating centerfire cartridges, it’s a good idea to analyze the cartridge specs to gain more knowledge of each.
The 45-70 Govt has no parent case and was a unique design when it was released in 1873. In contrast, the 450 Marlin draws its roots from the .458x2” American which is a wildcat cartridge based off the 458 Winchester Magnum.
Perhaps the most striking difference between these two cartridges is that the 45 70 Gov is a rimmed cartridge while the 450 Marlin uses a belted case. The belt on a 450 Marline is thicker than typical Winchester Magnum cases and was deliberately chosen to prevent cross-chambering between the two cartridges as a safety measure.
The belted case makes the 450 Marlin a better candidate for use in bolt-action rifles. However, outside of a limited run of 450 Marlin-chambered Steyr-Manlicher rifles, the 45-70 and 450 Marlin are predominantly found in lever guns, and to a lesser extent, single shot rifles.
Another major difference between these cartridges is the maximum safe chamber pressures per SAAMI specs. The 450 Marlin is rated at 43,500 psi compared to 28,000 psi for 45-70 Gov.
This is where the differences end, as the 45 70 and 450 are more similar than they are different.
The case length for both rifle cartridges is virtually identical, with the 45-70 measuring 2.10” compared to 2.105” for the 450 Marlin. Furthermore, the overall length of both cartridges is identical at 2.55”.
Both cartridges fire the same big bore 0.458” diameter bullets. As such, there is a lot of bullet weight overlap between the two with 325 gr, 350 gr, 405 gr, and 500 grain bullets being the most common in factory loads. However, both cartridges are capable of firing bullets between 200 and 500 grains.
Although the case capacity of both cartridges is similar, the 45-70 has a slight edge over the 450 Marlin at 81.8 gr vs 74 gr, respectively.
The 45-70 and 450 Marlin both have nearly identical free recoil that is considered by many shooters as very stout.
Recoil is an important consideration when purchasing a new rifle as a round with heavy recoil will be more difficult to control and will slow your rate of follow up shots.
Free Recoil is affected primarily by muzzle velocity (FPS), powder charge, bullet weight, and firearm weight.
There’s no denying that these big bore cartridges have heavy recoil. With massive powder charges and heavy bullets, both cartridges can be a challenge to control for new shooters.
One aspect that is more unique to the 45-70 is the type of load you plan on firing. Due to is gaping case capacity, there are a wide variety of factory loads for a shooter to choose from.
Which 45-70 load you pick will depend primarily on the rifle you plan on using, as newer production rifles like the Marlin 1895 Guide Gun can handle a lot more pressure than a surplus Trapdoor Springfield.
There’s simply not enough space in this article to cover all the different loads for each cartridge, therefore we will use a mild load for each to give you an idea of the amount of recoil you should expect for each.
Given a 405 grain hard cast lead flat nose bullet, both cartridges will have a free recoil of around 33 ft-lbs. In comparison, magnum loads from Buffalo Bore for the same 405 grain bullet can have around 47 ft-lbs of free recoil, which is approaching shoulder-bruising territory.
No matter how you slice it, the 45 70 and 450 have stout free recoil for even mild factory loads.
From a ballistic standpoint, the 450 Marlin vs 45-70 are virtually identical when comparing similar factory ammo offerings.
For the purpose of this comparison we are somewhat limited on factory load selection for 450 Marlin as only Hornady and Buffalo Bore have offerings for the caliber. However, for the 450 we will compare the Hornady LEVERevolution 325 gr FTX load and the Buffalo Bore 405 gr jacketed flat nose (JFN).
Unlike the 450 Marlin, there are ample factory loads available for 45-70. As we discussed earlier, ammo for the 45 70 falls roughly into three categories:
- Low-pressure ammo appropriate for a Trapdoor Springfield
- Mid-range pressure ammo for lever guns like a Winchester 1886 and Marlin 1895
- High power magnum loads for modern firearms
For the 45-70 we will evaluate the Buffalo Bore 500 grain hard cast lead flat nose (LFN) as the low-pressure round, the Hornady LEVERevolution 325 gr FTX for the mid-range pressure round, and the Buffalo Bore 430 gr LFN magnum load.
The Hornady 325 gr FTX load gives us a true “apples to apples” comparison of the 450 Marlin vs 45 70 ballistics, which is one reason it was selected.
When it comes to muzzle velocity, all loads surpassed 2,000 fps save the low-pressure load for 45-70 at 1,600 fps. This is not surprising, as antique rifles were not built to handle the pressures created by larger powder charges and increased muzzle velocities.
The 450 Marlin 325 gr FTX had the fastest muzzle velocity at 2,250 fps while the 45-70 430 gr magnum load came in second at 2,200 fps firing a bullet almost 100 grains heavier.
Muzzle energy is where these rounds really shine, as the 45-70 and 450 Marlin are known as being incredibly powerful rounds with each factory load having more than 2,800 ft-lbs of energy. The 430 gr Buffalo Bore load for 45-70 has the highest muzzle energy at a whopping 4,620 ft-lbs while the 405 gr Marlin load comes in a close second at 4,351 ft-lbs.
One of the shortcomings of both cartridges is their arching trajectory. This is not to say that you cannot shoot long range with either round, it is just more of a challenge. The 325 gr FTX 450 Marlin round has the flattest trajectory with -141.5” of bullet drop at 500 yards compared to -237.7” of bullet drop for the 500 gr LFN which is safe for use in a Springfield Trapdoor rifle.
Part of the reason for the arching trajectory is that most rounds for 45-70 and 450 Marlin go subsonic between 300 and 400 yards or shortly thereafter. Although both rounds have impressive muzzle velocities, their bullets hemorrhage fps at range since they are not very aerodynamic (more on this in the next section).
So, what can we learn from this comparison?
Perhaps the most telling data points are between the two 325 gr FTX factory loads from Hornady. The 450 Marlin measures around 200 fps and 500 ft-lbs higher than the 45-70.
This is primarily due to the higher pressures that the Marlin round is capable of handling, meaning that ammo manufacturers or handloaders can cram a bit more powder into the case while remaining within safety limits.
In general, 450 Marlin ballistics will be marginally superior to 45-70 ballistics, though most hunters will not be able to notice any significant difference between the two rounds.
Ballistic coefficient (BC) is a measure of how aerodynamic a bullet is and how well it will resist wind drift. Sectional density (SD) is a way to evaluate the penetration ability of a bullet based on its external dimensions, design, and weight.
The 45-70 Govt and 450 Marlin fire the same bullets, therefore there will be no difference between them in terms of ballistic coefficient.
In general, the bullets fired by both rifle cartridges are not very aerodynamic and therefore have lower BC values for their weight. The main issue is that both the 45-70 and 450 are fired from lever action rifles that utilize tubular magazines where the bullets are loaded end-to-end.
Therefore, the bullets used for a lever-action rifle must either be a round or flat nose design. If a pointed, Spitzer style bullet was used it could impact the primer of the round in front of it in the magazine. This could set off a chain reaction that could seriously damage the firearm and/or shooter.
Hornady has attempted to remedy this situation with their Hornady LEVERevolution line of bullets. These pointed bullets are safe to use in a lever gun, as the tip is made of soft polymer that will not potentially set off a primer when loaded into a tubular magazine.
Sectional density between the two rounds will be identical since they fire the same bullets. On average, SD for both 45-70 Government and 450 Marlin ranges between 0.2 and 0.28 which is on par with modern hunting cartridges.
The 45-70 Government has been a staple in the big game hunting community for well over a century at this point. It made a name for itself hunting whitetail, elk, and buffalo on the Great Plains and can take down any animal in North America or the world with proper loads. The 450 Marlin is equally deadly against big game with slightly improved ballistic performance.
The limiting factor for both rounds is their effective range.
Whitetail or antelope can be safely taken within 400 yards with most varieties of factory ammo, while elk or similarly sized big game will need to be taken within 200 yards or less.
Although modern hunting cartridges can almost double your effective range, there’s a certain “cool factor” of hunting with lever guns that cannot be measured. Not only is it more challenging, but it offers hunters a connection with the past that no other rifle platform can.
As a guide gun, both rounds perform extremely well for close encounters thanks to their devastating kinetic energy. Even in rifles with shorter barrel lengths, the 45 70 and 450 are more than capable of taking down an ornery grizzly bear at close range.
If you love the challenge of hunting with a lever action rifle and want to take on big game like elk and caribou, then both the 45-70 and 450 Marlin are excellent choices within their effective ranges.
The 45-70 is unquestionably favored in terms of ammo and rifle availability as the 450 Marlin is nearly a dead cartridge.
Ammo availability is a huge issue for the 450 Marlin, as most there are only two companies making ammo for it at the time of writing: Hornady and Buffalo Bore.
In contrast, a wide swath of modern ammo manufacturers like Remington, Winchester, Federal, and Black Hills all make multiple varieties of ammo for the stalwart 45-70.
For low pressure rounds or inexpensive plinking ammo, 45 70 will cost around $2.50/round while premium hunting ammo ranges between $3 and $5/round. In contrast, if you can find factory ammo available for the 450 Marlin, it will cost around $4-6/round on average.
When it comes to rifles, there are only two offerings for 450 Marlin on the market circa summer 2022: the Browning BLR and Winchester Model 94. In contrast, there is a wide variety of lever action rifles available for 45-70 from Marlin, Henry, Cimarron, Browning, Chiappa, Winchester.
For the true cowboy experience and if you’ve got the coin, Shiloh Sharps makes several gorgeous replica rifles chambered in 45-70. Or if you are a handgun recoil junkie, Magnum Research chambers their BFR revolver in both cartridges.
Some custom rifle manufacturers have taken a shine to the 45-70 and are offering “tactical” lever guns. If you ever wanted a 45-70 with a M-LOK rail, vertical grip, ported barrel, and red dot sight, now you can have it!
Reloading is one method shooters use to reduce their overall cost per round and increase the consistency of their ammo. Furthermore, handloads can be tailored to your rifle to meet your specific shooting needs.
Reloading is where the versatility of the 45-70 really shines, as you can create low pressure rounds for plinking while perfecting your higher pressure loads for hunting and modern 45-70 rifles. Furthermore, with the high levels of scarcity in 450 Marlin ammo, reloading is almost a necessity to ensure a consistent ammo supply.
Sourcing components for 45-70 is relatively simple, as multiple manufacturers make brass for the caliber. On the other hand, finding 450 Marlin brass is extremely difficult and Hornady is the only company currently making factory new cases.
It should also be noted that both the 45-70 and 450 Marlin fire the same 0.458” diameter bullets. The 458 Winchester Magnum, 458 Lott, and 458 SOCOM also fire the same diameter bullets.
However, although similar in name, it should be noted that the 450 Bushmaster fires a narrower 0.452” diameter bullet and should not be confused with the wider 0.458” bullets fired by the 45-70 and 450 Marlin.
To learn more about the 450 Bushmaster and 458 SOCOM check out this article: 450 Bushmaster vs 458 SOCOM vs 50 Beowulf.
The 45-70 Government and 450 Marlin are two centerfire big bore cartridges that excel at big game hunting. Capable of delivering massive slugs of lead onto targets at ranges of 400 yards, both rounds are effective against any game animal North America has.
Although the 450 Marlin is slightly superior to the 45-70 in terms of ballistics, many shooters see it as an answer to a question that was never asked.
Many shooters thoroughly understand the different levels of 45-70 ammo and the consequences of loading a hot round into an antique rifle. As such, the 450 Marlin is essentially an unnecessary cartridge as the 45-70 can do everything a 450 can do at a lower price point.
The general lack of ammo and rifles in 450 Marlin has hamstrung the cartridge, and it seems doomed to fade into ammunition history books and live only in reloading manuals and hunting forums.
Most shooters will opt for the 45-70 Government, and this is our recommendation as well. Although 45-70 is not as plentiful as 223 Remington or 308 Win, there are considerably more options available for 45-70 than there are for 450 Marlin.
However, if you own an older 450 Marlin and want to shoot it, there’s no need to get rid of it. Just invest in a good reloading setup and enjoy shooting a cartridge that offers you just as much flexibility as a 45-70 without the worry of firing it in an older rifle.
No matter which cartridge you choose, make sure you stock up on ammunition here at Ammo.com and I’ll see you on the range!
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