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45-70 vs 30-30: For the Love of a Lever Gun

Written by Sam Jacobs Subject: Gun Rights

There's something deliciously nostalgic about lever-action rifles. They have an aura and mystique about them, especially when you use one as a hunting rifle. It's as though you've been transported back to another time, a simpler time when the big game freely roamed the forests and Great Plains of North America.

There are many rifle cartridges you can select if you want to pick up a lever gun, but two of the most popular are the 30-30 Winchester and the 45-70 Government.

Both cartridges have a long and impressive history of getting the job done when it comes to putting meat on the table, but which one is right for you?

The 45-70 is a big, beefy cartridge that hits hard and has the power to take down a grizzly, however the 30-30 is light, nimble and a lot gentler on the shoulder.

Although you can't go wrong with either cartridge, in this article we will analyze the advantages and disadvantages both so that you can make the best decision on your next lever action hunting rifle this coming season.

What's the difference between 45-70 vs 30-30?

The primary difference between 45-70 vs 30-30 is that the 30-30 Win cartridge fires a 0.308" diameter bullet while the 45-70 Govt fires a 0.458" diameter bullet. Both cartridges can be used on medium sized game like whitetail, feral hogs, or black bear, but the 45-70 can take on big game animals like brown bear, North American bison, and moose.

Cartridge Specs

When comparing two rifle cartridges, it's a good idea to analyze the cartridge specs to gain more knowledge of each.

The first, and most obvious, difference between 45 70 compared to 30 30 is the size of the bullet each fires. The 45-70 fires a 0.458" bullet diameter while 30-30 is a true American 30-caliber firing 0.308" diameter bullets. This means that the 45-70 Govt will fire larger, heavier bullets compared to the 30-30.

Another significant difference between the two cartridges is their size, as the 45-70 is just a wider cartridge. However, the cartridge design is different as well, as the 45-70 is a straight walled design while the 30-30 is a bottle-neck cartridge like a 223 Remington.

As the 45-70 is a bigger cartridge, it has almost double the case capacity of the 30-30 (81 vs 45 grains, respectively). This case capacity is needed for launching the 300+ grain weight boulders, err bullets, the 45-70 fires.

There's no denying that the 45-70 is a monster of a round, but all that power comes at the cost of felt reoil.

Recoil

Felt recoil will vary from shooter to shooter and rifle to rifle. A heavier rifle will have less felt recoil than a lighter one, as the added weight will help soak up some of the recoil energy.

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 Model 1873 (more on these rifles later!).

There's simply not enough space in this article to cover all of 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.

It should come as no surprise that the 30-30 has considerably less recoil than the 45-70.

On average, the 30-30 has around 14 ft-lbs of recoil energy while the 45-70 will impart around 33 ft-lbs of energy into a shooter's shoulder. That's over double!

One thing to consider with recoil is that most shooters will be utilizing these rounds for deer hunting or other big game targets. Therefore, recoil should not be a huge issue as most hunters will take 1 or 2 shots at most during a trip into the woods.

However, for those sensitive to recoil, the 30-30 is clearly the superior choice by a wide margin.

Trajectory

Trajectory is how we quantify a bullet's flight path as it travels downrange measured in inches of bullet drop.

Obviously, a flatter shooting cartridge is preferred for shooting longer ranges, as a shooter will require fewer adjustments to their optics to compensate for bullet drop. Having a flatter trajectory also means that a cartridge will be more forgiving of ranging mistakes.

Neither the 30-30 nor 45-70 are known for having exceptionally flat trajectories. As such, it is not advisable to use them for longer range shots over 300 yards. For long range shots over 300 yards, the 300 Winchester Magnum or 6.5 Creedmoor would be a better option.

The higher bullet drop rates seen in 30-30 Winchester and 45-70 Government is due to the bullet designs required for lever-action rifles, either round or flat nose bullets. As these bullet designs are less aerodynamic than a boat-tail Spitzer profile, they hemorrhage muzzle velocity at an alarming rate. As the bullets lose velocity in flight, gravity has more time to pull them back towards the ground.

Looking at the ballistics tables below, we can see that the 30-30 has a flatter trajectory than 45-70 for virtually every loading. This is because the 30-30 has a higher muzzle velocity than the 45-70 since it fires lighter bullets.

Ballistic Coefficient

Ballistic coefficient (BC) is a measure of how well a bullet resists wind drift and air resistance. Put another way, it's a numeric representation of how aerodynamic a bullet is. A high BC is preferred as this means the bullet will buck the wind easier.

Generally, heavy bullets will have a higher BC as it takes more force to disrupt the flight of a heavier bullet than a lighter one. Ballistic coefficient varies from bullet to bullet based on design, weight, and other factors that are beyond the scope of this article.

One thing to remember is that almost every lever gun on the market uses a tubular magazine. This means that bullets are loaded into the magazine one at a time, 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 would seriously damage the firearm and shooter.

Although the round and flat nose bullets make it safe to load rounds end to end in the tubular magazine, they are not particularly aerodynamic, and therefore have lower ballistic coefficients than other cartridges in the same caliber.

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. The Hornady LeveRevolution bullets are more aerodynamic and extend the range of both rounds by about 100 yards.

In terms of ballistic coefficient, it really comes down to which factory load you look at.

Take for example the Remington Core-Lokt round, an effective and inexpensive hunting soft point that can be found in most all sporting good stores across North America. A 30-30 Core Lokt with a 170 grain bullet will have a BC of 0.254 while a 405 grain 45-70 Core-Lokt will have a BC of 0.281.

Now it might be easy to surmise that all 45-70 bullets will have a higher BC than those for 30-30, because the 45-70 fires a heavier bullet. However, this completely ignores bullet design which also plays a role in the ballistic coefficient equation.

Take for example the aforementioned Hornady LeveRevolution bullets, a 160 grain FTX 30-30 bullet will have a BC of 0.330 while the 325 gr FTX for 45-70 will have a BC of 0.230.

In general, the 45-70 will have a slight edge on the 30-30 in terms of ballistic coefficient due to the heavier bullets the 45-70 can fire.

Sectional Density

Sectional Density (SD) is the measure of how well a bullet penetrates a target. This is extremely important when hunting big and medium sized game, as you need a bullet that can punch through thick hide, bone, and sinew.

Sectional density is calculated by comparing the bullet weight and the bullet diameter. The higher the SD the deeper the bullet will penetrate into the target. This is a simplified view of penetration as there are other factors to consider, such as bullet expansion and velocity.

The 45-70 is well known for its penetration as it has routinely been used to hunt big game like elk, moose, and brown bears with excellent results.

However, the 30-30 is no slouch when it comes to penetration as it has consistently been one of the top rounds for deer hunting since its release.

Many shooters might surmise that that 45-70 has a higher SD as it fires heavier and wider bullets with punishing muzzle energy, however the 30-30 localizes its force into a smaller area to aid with deeper penetration.

Although every factory load is different, on average the 45-70 and 30-30 have similar sectional densities.

Hunting

Big game hunting is role that both cartridges were made for. Both the 30-30 and 45-70 are amazing choices for harvesting medium to large game.

The 30-30 Winchester has been one of the top choices for deer hunting since its introduction in 1895 and has likely put more deer on the table or in the freezer than any other cartridge.

Conversely, the 45-70 has been regarded by many as the classic big game cartridge. It's the choice of many Alaskan hunting guides as their preferred deterrent against brown bears and is considered, by many, as the round that nearly wiped out the American Buffalo.

Although both rounds are excellent choices against North American game animals, they are somewhat hindered by their shorter effective range.

As a rule of thumb, it takes 1,000 ft-lbs of energy to ethically harvest a whitetail deer. This means that the 30-30 Winchester starts to dip below this level around 200 yards and the 45-70 Govt around 300 yards for hotter loads. And with the arching trajectory of the 45-70 at 300 yards, it makes shooting long distance with the 45-70 difficult and is something that should be practiced before stepping foot into the woods.

For big game like moose, grizzly, and elk, it's hard to beat the 45-70 and its savage muzzle energy and hard-hitting 300+ grain bullets. While some hunters claim that 30-30 is more than enough for elk and black bears, the question comes down to ethics as opposed to efficacy.

As responsible hunters, its our duty to make sure that we limit the suffering of any game animal we take aim at. Although the 30-30 can take down a moose with proper shot placement, this doesn't mean that it's the most ethical choice. Consider the alternative, what happens if you pull your shot? Would it be better to have a larger, more powerful round in this situation or something smaller?

The answer to those questions for most hunters is obvious, the bigger cartridge is the better choice when engaging large game because you want more muzzle energy to increase your chances of a clean kill.

For varmint hunting, both of these cartridges are overkill. For smaller game, you want something with a flatter trajectory and smaller bullet, such as a 223 Remington or 22-250 Rem, to take down those critters. A 30-30 would be effective against a coyote or groundhog, but it seems to be a bit too much bullet for these pest control tasks.

Speaking of overkill, some hunters like to claim that the 45-70 is too much for whitetail, suggesting that using a larger round will destroy the meat and "they'll be nothing left". These claims are wildly exaggerated and the 45-70 has been used for over a century on deer without issue (and plenty left to eat, I assure you). If you like your 45-70 lever gun or single-shot rifle and want to go hunting with it, then go for it and don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

To summarize, 30-30 is an excellent choice for deer and black bears, while the 45-70 can handle these as well plus big game like moose and brown bears.

Continue reading about 45-70 vs 30-30 ammo here.

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