Our Military Cartridges Always Inspire Much Experimentation,
And The First To Do So Was The .45 Gov’t.
By Mike “Duke” Venturino
For some reason my psyche likes to consider families of cartridges. An example would be all those derived from the .30-06 case such as .25-06 Remington, .270 Winchester, .280 Remington and .35 Whelen just to name factory-loaded rounds. In fact very few cartridges have been stand-alone rounds. Such would be Japanese 8mm Nambu or Winchester .401 Self-Loading.
A particularly favorite cartridge family to me is based on the .45-70. As most readers know it began as a US Government project. After considerable testing, in 1873 the US Army adopted a cartridge using a 0.457-inch diameter, 405-grain roundnose bullet, loaded over 70 grains of black powder in a cartridge case 2.10 inches in length. It is often listed in old catalogs as .45-70-405.
Because of heavy recoil in the 7-pound “trapdoor” cavalry carbines another version was soon being loaded by the government. It held a reduced charge of 55 grains black powder with the same 405-grain bullet. Hence it was known as the .45-55-405. A good question here is what did the government loaders do to take up the extra air space, since loose charges of black powder gave less consistency than compacted ones. A cardboard tube inserted inside the cartridge case was filled with the powder charge. The tube stayed put upon firing. In fact, archaeologists have recovered fired cartridge cases at the Little Bighorn Battlefield with the tubes intact.
In 1881 the Army deemed a 500-grain roundnose bullet would give better long-range performance. It was loaded over the same 70-grain powder charge and so the name became .45-70-500. In general terms the nominal velocity of these government loads in the same order as mentioned were rated as 1,350 fps (29-5/8-inch barrel) 1,150 fps (22-inch barrel) and 1,300 fps (29-5/8-inch). More realistic velocities are given in an 1899 Winchester catalog. From the 26-inch barrel of an 1886 levergun the .45-70-500 grain load is rated at 1,179 fps and the 45-70-405 at 1,271 fps.
The only one of the .45-70 family of cartridges to be retained in the new Model
1886’s (above) is the original .45-70. The .38-56 (below) was first offered in
1887 as an option in Winchester’s Model 1886.
Which brings us to the rest of the .45-70’s offspring. Using the exact same 0.608-inch case rim diameter with a 2.10-inch case length the .45-70 case was necked down to .40, .38 and .33 caliber. In fact it was also used as is by the Sharps Rifle Company under the name .45-75-400.
The .40 caliber version was chambered by both Marlin and Winchester for their levergun Models 1881 and 1886 respectively. Marlin named theirs .40-60, and Winchester called it .40-65. Both loaded it with fairly light 260-grain flat-nose bullets. Winchester’s catalog says their load gave 1,325 fps from the 1886’s 26-inch barrel. As might be inferred by the rifles’ model numbers, Marlin seems to have developed this round at least 5 years prior to Winchester.
(As an aside many of today’s BPCR Silhouette shooters like the .40-65 but with bullets of about 370 to 440 grains in special tight-twist barrels on their single shots. I am one of them.)
In 1887 Winchester decided to add more cartridges to the line-up of their new Model 1886. One was .38-56—again the basic .45-70’s 2.10-inch case squeezed down. Bullet weight was 255 grains and powder charge was 56 grains. That bullet is the same as the .38-55 which has led to much confusion. The uninitiated might think the two would be interchangeable, but the case forms and dimensions are in no way similar. Winchester’s catalog said the 255-grain bullet of the .38-56 was doing 1,353 fps from, as usual, a 26-inch barrel.
The .45-70 family of cartridges includes (from left) the .45-70, .40-65,
.38-56 and .33 Winchester. All were chambered for Winchester’s Model 1886.
The story doesn’t end there. Early in the 1900’s, say about 1902, Winchester brought out a brand new smokeless powder cartridge. The years of listing powder charges after caliber were over so this one was simply named .33 Winchester. Of course its introductory rifle was the ’86. Whereas all others of the .45-70’s family started out with lead alloy for bullets, this new-age one used jacketed bullets from the beginning. They were flatnose, of course, because most of their use would be in leverguns. (Some Model 1885 Winchester single shots were chambered for .33.) Its flatnose jacketed bullet weighed 200 grains and the smokeless powder charge pushed it out of a 24-inch barrel at a nominal 2,200 fps. That was a real barn-burner in 1902.
In my shooting career I’ve handloaded and shot many Winchester Model 1886’s for all of the family based on the .45-70 case. In fact I’ve taken game such as deer with all except the .40-65. My .33 went to Africa with me in 1985 but was just used on one small critter called a gray duiker.
In actual fact neither .40-65 nor .38-56 were as good a big game cartridge as the .45-70-405 in either levergun repeater or single shot and the .33 might actually have been better. Still only the .45-70 is popular today while the others are mostly history.
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