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Lever Guns and Dangerous Game

Our ballistic expert asks: Were lever guns and dangerous game an evolutionary journey in ballistics or a roundtrip?

Lever Guns and Dangerous Game

Hunters using lever rifles once enjoyed a wide selection of mass-produced, big-bore cartridges. That selection has dwindled to essentially one.

In the beginning was the .45-70 Government cartridge. Well, and the .50-70. At the start of the metallic cartridge era, these two mass-produced military rifle cartridges were among the few truly suitable to North American dangerous game. Other early cartridges suffered from greatly restricted propellant capacity and relatively light bullets.

The .45-70 and the .50-70 both held plenty of blackpowder and pushed 400-grain and heavier bullets in the range of 1,200 to 1,300 fps. Not an overabundance of energy, but they delivered at longer ranges and were successful on bison where penetration was especially important. And they were readily available.

These cartridges were designed for single-shot rifles and were incompatible with early repeating rifles. Sharps and other single shots dominated the power niche except for a few primitive bolt rifles patterned after the 1871 Mauser.

I include other contemporary repeaters like slide/pump-action models that used the same classes of cartridges. Performance data for most cartridges are from reprints of 1899 and 1911 Winchester ammo catalogs.


Winchester’s groundbreaking Models 1866 and 1873 fired handgun-class cartridges. Although old adverts portray resolute hunters pointing .44-40 lever rifles at big, angry bears, these cartridges were woefully underpowered even for big deer. (One can imagine the bear saying, “If you shoot me and I find out about it, you are in serious trouble!”) However, those rifle designs laid an important foundation.

Winchester addressed the power problem by morphing the M1873 into the Model 1876, or “Centennial Model.” It fired longer and more powerful cartridges created expressly for it; they had loaded lengths of about 2.25 inches, similar to that of the .50-70. Rims were 0.035 inch smaller than the old service cartridge for easier feeding. The 1876 action was still not quite long enough for the .45-70.

One of the first cartridges offered in the ’76 was the big .50-95. It had slightly more muzzle energy than the .45-70 because its standard bullet was 105 grains lighter than the original service bullet. This was a common Winchester practice of that time to keep velocity up. The lighter bullet would struggle to challenge the penetration of either service cartridge.


In the early 1880s, both Marlin and Bullard Repeating Arms Co. (not Ballard) developed long-action lever guns and offered them in .45-70. The Bullard company was short-lived, with production estimated at 12,000 units. Marlin’s Model 1881 continued for roughly 11 years representing nearly 22,000 rifles until Marlin moved bigger cartridges to the Model 1895.

Winchester made its play well after the Marlins and Bullards were in stores. John M. Browning conceived one of the best lever rifles ever, and Winchester embraced his design as the Model 1886. A strong lockup system based on proven falling-block technology proved far stronger than Winchester’s “toggle-lock” designs that preceded it.




At the end of the first three years of manufacture, Winchester had produced more Model 1886 rifles than the total production of similar rifles between 1881 and 1892 by Marlin and Bullard combined. Most significantly, the ’86 also handled cartridges even longer than the .45-70.

The Model 1886 rolled out chambered for the .45-90 and .40-82 Winchester cartridges and, of course, the esteemed .45-70. The .45-90 was the .45-70 case lengthened to 2.40 inches but, not surprisingly, was usually loaded with a light 300-grain bullet.

The impressive .50-110-300 soon joined the lineup. Its rim diameter was similar to the .45-70’s, but this was a fatter, 2.4-inch case. It was predictably shackled by Winchester’s penchant for light bullets, but a new loading with 450-grain bullets introduced in 1895 posted close to 2,000 ft-lbs of energy. The American lever rifle had a class-act cartridge in the .50-100-450, suitable for most North American critters who might see us as snack food.

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The “happy time” for big-bore lever guns begins to diminish with the appearance of high-velocity, smaller-bore smokeless-powder cartridges paired with lighter rifles like Winchester’s Model 1894. The innovative Winchester 1895 lever rifle set new power standards in 1904 when the .405 WCF cartridge broke the 3,000 ft-lbs energy barrier. Professional hunter and writer John Taylor opined that the .405 WCF lacked sufficient sectional density for dangerous African game, but the cartridge saw reasonable use there anyway.

Winchester stopped making .405 rifles in 1936 and cataloged the last Model 1886 rifles (1932) only in .33 WCF. Outside of a few custom conversions, the big-bore lever gun was moribund until 1964, when Marlin resurrected its large Model 1895 action to handle the then-new .444 Marlin cartridge. However, the decision to use a 1:38-inch twist resulted in the .444 being loaded with 240-grain .44 Magnum handgun bullets, slowing acceptance.

The good news was that Marlin could reintroduce the .45-70, and it did in 1972. The only problem was factory ammo of the time was loaded to just 18,000 to 21,000 psi (maximum allowable pressure: 28,000 psi) to respect ancient Trapdoor Springfield rifles. That left a lot on the table, but there was relief. Hornady’s LEVERevolution loads are identified on the company’s website as being for Marlin 1895 rifles, and with published muzzle energies up to 3,300 ft-lbs.

In 2000 Marlin and Hornady developed a new cartridge to exceed .45-70 factory-load performance using Marlin’s existing rifle platform. The .450 Marlin is the modern .45-70 and a very capable cartridge with a max pressure of 43,500 psi. However, currently, only Browning offers the .450 Marlin in a lever rifle.

Yes, there are powerful custom and proprietary lever-gun cartridges afield, but judging from the number of Alaskan hunters and guides who rely on .45-70 Marlins, the merits of this mass-produced rifle and cartridge in bear country are undeniable. Handloaders should check with their favorite bulletmakers to see which .45-caliber rifle bullets are best suited to lever rifles and robust enough for tough game.

The 150-year-old .45-70 is still a relevant lever-gun cartridge for North America’s large game. This feels like we made a roundtrip!

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