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.
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.
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 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 (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 (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.
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.
Ammo and Rifle Cost/Availability
Ammo cost and availability is something you should always consider when looking at your next hunting rifle.
Both cartridges have an extensive hunting heritage and most ammo manufacturers will have some offerings in both calibers.
However, in terms of price, the 30-30 ammo is clearly the better choice.
At the time of writing, inexpensive practice ammo can be had for around $1.50/round and premium hunting ammo for $3/round and up for 30-30 Winchester. However, as 45-70 is a bigger round and requires more powder and material, the cost is higher. For practice ammo, you should expect to pay no less than $2.75/round with premium hunting loads going for $5/round or more for 45-70 factory ammo.
For rifles, most of your options will be limited to lever guns as this is the platform that both rounds were designed for. Thankfully, you’ll have lots of options as manufacturers like Henry, Marlin, Ruger, and Winchester all have lever-action rifles available.
If you’re looking for a lightweight carbine for deer hunting, it’s hard to beat the Marlin 336 in 30 30, while the Marlin 1895 is considered as the ideal guide gun and bear medicine in 45-70.
If a lever gun is not your cup of tea, there are fewer options available. There are currently no modern bolt action rifles produced in 45-70, while the Savage Model 340 is one of the few 30-30 bolt action rifles on the market.
For single-shot rifles, there a few options available for both rifle cartridges. The Henry Single Shot is the primary offering for 30-30 while Thompson Center and CVA have offerings for 45-70. However, if you’ve got the money and want to go full Quigley Down Under, you can always get yourself an Uberti Sharps 1874 breechloader.
You can also find a Springfield 1874 Trapdoor for 45-70, however these rifles are NOT rated for modern 45-70 factory loads. It is critically important that you check with the manufacturer to ensure that the ammo you purchase is compatible with the trapdoor rifles, otherwise you could damage the rifle or yourself.
There are also double-barreled rifles available in 45-70 such as modern replicas of the Colt Model 1878 design. But for the true recoil junky who’s always wanted a handgun chambered in 45-70, the Magnum Research BFR is ready to punish your wrists with all the foot-pounds of recoil you can handle!
For decades, handloaders have been creating their own custom ammo for both rifle cartridges. There has been extensive load development done on both rounds with plenty of powders and bullets to choose from.
However, if you handload for 30-30, it does allow you to stockpile the more common 0.308” diameter bullets. These are extremely popular with North American hunters in chamberings like 308 Winchester, 300 Win Mag, and 30-06 Springfield. Having commonality between the cartridges you handload for makes it easier to source components as you can buy in bulk.
The 0.458” diameter bullet is somewhat less common, but there are still plenty of options available so you can tailor your perfect 45-70 handload to match your rifle.
Reloading helps reduce your overall ammo cost. And if you enjoy plinking or going to the range frequently, it can be a real windfall to your wallet. Furthermore, there’s something satisfying about creating and shooting your own handloads that you don’t get when you shoot factory ammo.
A Brief History of 30-30 Winchester
The 30-30 Winchester is one of America’s oldest hunting cartridges and was developed and released by the Winchester Repeating Arms Company in their August catalog in 1895. The new round was chambered in their Winchester Model 1894 carbine and was marketed as a sporting cartridge.
The 30-30 is unique as it was the first small bore cartridge offered using smokeless powder.
The 30-30 Winchester is also known as:
- .30 Winchester Center Fire
- 30 WCF
- 30 Winchester Smokeless
The 30 WCF offered hunters excellent terminal ballistics in a compact, smooth package. Ideal for deer hunting and target shooting, the 30 WCF has remained extremely popular since its debut well into the modern era.
When Marlin adopted the 30 WCF for their model 336 lever action, they didn’t want to pay homage to Winchester as they were a rival gun manufacturer.
As such, they dropped “Winchester” off the name and simply called it the 30-30. Pronounced “thirty thirty”, this nomenclature harkens back to an older methodology of cartridge naming.
The first “30” in the name refers to the bullet caliber used in the cartridge, while the second “30” refers to the 30 grains of smokeless powder that was used in the original design.
A Brief History of 45-70 Government
The years following the American Civil War were a renaissance period for developments in metallic cartridge technology. And one of the greatest cartridges to emerge from that period was the 45-70 Government.
Released in 1873, 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 new cartridge carried the designation .45-70-405, which uses older cartridge naming conventions.
- .45 designates the nominal bore diameter
- 70 refers to the 70 grains of black powder used as propellant
- 405 refers to the 405 grain bullet the cartridge was designed to fire
The original Springfield load was designed to fire a 405-grain 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.
Pronounced “forty-five seventy”, the 45-70 is also known as the .45-70 Government of Govt for short.
The 45-70 and Trapdoor Springfield served as the primary rifle for the U.S. Army until being replaced by the bolt action 30-40 Krag–Jørgensen in 1893.
Although the 45-70 only served the military for two decades, the cartridge has been a favorite of big game hunters since its release and has seen extensive commercial success.
The 45-70 has made a name for itself as a potent guide gun cartridge and is frequently carried by hunters going into bear country for personal protection. Buffalo Bore 45-70 Magnum Dangerous Game ammo is an excellent choice if you expect grizzlies to be wandering about in your hunting grounds. Fired from your Marlin or Henry carbine, its 2,000 fps and 3,500 foot-pounds of energy will make any bear think twice about making you dinner!
Although many modern hunting cartridges may have superior ballistics or a flatter trajectory, there’s something special and satisfying about carrying a lever gun into the woods with the heavy hitting 45-70 at the ready for any game animal that may cross your path.
Final Shots: 45-70 vs 30-30
When it comes to extremely effective hunting cartridges, the 30-30 Winchester and 45-70 Government cannot be ignored. With over a century of service, the 30-30 and 45-70 have survived the test of time and their popularity among shooters is not waning any time soon.
With its low recoil, the 30-30 Winchester makes a fine choice for black bear or deer hunting. It’s low cost per round also makes it the better choice if you enjoy plinking or just spending an afternoon at the range without blowing holes in your wallet.
The 45-70 Government is a hard-hitting big game cartridge that can take down some of the most dangerous game in North America. It’s bone-crushing muzzle energy makes it deadly within 300 yards on whitetail deer or elk within 200 yards. However, it does have over double the ft-lbs of recoil and price than the 30-30.
Which round is best for you depends on your intended purpose for the rifle.
If your love is big game hunting or will be wandering through bear territory, then a Marlin or Henry lever-action rifle chambered in 45-70 is what you’ll be wanting.
However, you only plan on hunting hogs, whitetail deer or just enjoy plinking with a lever gun, then the 30-30 will be more than enough for you. However, the 30-30 is not powerful enough to hunt moose or brown bears.
But if your intended purpose is not big game hunting, then the choice is completely up to you. Some shooters just love the heft of an 1874 Sharps and the thump of a 45-70. Yet some get their kicks from actuating the lever action on their Marlin 336 in 30-30 and love seeing the brass fly as they enjoy a day at the range.
And there’s nothing wrong with either, because in this case it’s more about what makes you happy as a shooter than which is the “best cartridge”. No matter which round you choose, make sure you stock up on ammo here at Ammo.com so that you are ready to flex your 2A rights and your love of lever guns.