I know, there are a lot of numbers going through your head right now. There is the .45-70, .460 S&W Magnum, .500 S&W Magnum, and whatever else down to just .327 Federal Magnum.22LR. However, we are not going to look at these mostly revolver cartridges. We will focus on the ones made for rifles. This includes the .45-70, but also the .300 Savage as well as the .30/30 Winchester.
We will not judge them by popularity. In that, the .30/30 Winchester would probably downright win, and the .45-70 would be in a solid second place. No, instead, we will look at their characteristics to see which one really beats the others.
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Lever action rifles come to us from the time of the Wild West. They were simple to operate and reliable when needed. With a lever, the breech is opened, the spent cartridge is ejected, and a new one inserted into the chamber. That is not only simple enough, it also does not rely on the power of the round to function. In other words, the rounds can be weak or strong, the action just cycles because the shooter actuates it.
This simple system does come with a downside or two. One was the pressure it could withstand. However, the locking bolts got improved over time so that they close the breach as strongly as other types of rifles, for example bolt actions.
The other one is the tubular magazines. Don’t get me wrong. These magazines have a lot going for them, not least that they lend themselves to top up loading, and that they are not detachable. That makes them immune to most laws of today that are going against so-called assault weapons by, among other things, limiting ammo capacity of the detachable magazines.
The big downside of a tube magazine is that the rounds are stacked one by one after each other. This makes the nose of the second round resting against the primer of the first and so on the whole length of the magazine down. The recoil of one shot could send a pointy nose well into the primer of the round in front and create a chain reaction in which all rounds in the magazine go off.
This problem can be mitigated. One way is to have only one round in the chamber and one in the magazine. That way, the pointy nose of the rounds does not touch a primer as there are no other rounds in front.
Another way is to use rounds with a blunt nose. They do not set off the primer of the round in front when the recoil sets in, but this has its own downsides. Bullets with a blunt nose are not very ballistically efficient. The drag will slow them down rather fast so that they lose a lot of energy with the distance of their travel.
Another way to go around that was found by Arthur Savage who invented a magazine in 1887, in which the bullets were stacked vertically. Later, he went on to create the popular Savage Model 99 with a rotary magazine. Here, the bullets do not rest on the nose to primer, so that they can be as pointed as they want.
Even with this idea and rifles with such magazines on the market, it was the Wild West rifles with tubular magazines from Winchester and Marlin that ruled the day. The reasons for that were simple. First, a lot of hunting was done at ranges of less than 150 yards where the ballistic efficiency was not really significant. Second, a lot of these rifles were also offered in the same caliber as the revolvers of the day allowing for ammo commonality between both. That makes it easier for the shooter who carried a backup revolver and a rifle.
Today, hunters like lever action rifles for their shape and low weight as well as for the ability to get off some rounds rather rapidly. While doing so, it is the punch that matters more than reach or precision. This can be easily achieved by blunt nosed bullets, so that a tubular magazine is still the king of the day in such rifles.
Let’s start with the .45-70. Used already by General Custer and the 7th Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, it is a strong cartridge that can easily take down the biggest and most aggressive bears. Also, it is used for deer, moose and elk whenever range is not so much a concern.
The power of the .45-70 does not come so much from its velocity or ballistic efficiency that keeps said velocity. It is just its mass that is pushed to 2,200 feet per second in the case of the 300 grain bullet, and just wins the day with brute force. There are even heavier bullets and loads on the market, and handloaders get it up to even 700 grain bullets. Depending on the load, you can get more than 2,000 foot pounds of energy out of standard ammo and more than 3,700 foot pounds out of more hot loaded rounds.
The .30/30 Winchester is no slouch, but does not come into these levels of brute force. It can get a 170 grain bullet up to 2,300 feet per second of speed and around 2,000 foot pounds of energy, but one big advantage are its rounds with a better ballistic coefficient. That was possible through a more aerodynamic shape and a flexible tip so that the nose of the bullet does not set off the primer of the round in front. That allows the projectile to retain a lot of energy while moving down range. It might have less energy at the muzzle, but after a few hundred yards, it has more left of it than .45-70.
The .300 Savage
The .300 Savage went a step further. With the rotary magazine of the Savage Model 99, for which it was developed, it can just be pointy. That allows them to get a 150 grain bullet to a speed of 2,600 feet per second and a muzzle energy of 2,300 foot pounds. While this is below the muzzle energy of a .45-70, it just retains that speed and energy much better.
Comparing the recoil, it is no surprise that the brute force of the .45-70 has also the strongest kick. With a 300 grain bullet going at 1,800 feet per seconds, the shooter has to withstand a force of 26 foot pounds in his shoulder. From a .30/30 Winchester, he gets only half that, 13 foot pounds, from a 170 grain bullet shot at 2,300 feet per second. The .300 Savage kicks a little bit more but still much less than the .45-70. Using a 180 grain bullet at 2,300 feet per seconds, the shooter gets to feel 15 foot pounds of recoil energy.
Comparing the drop of the bullet, the .45-70 goes down like a stone. While .30/30 Winchester is a little bit better, the .300 Savage outdoes both by far. This means, if you are looking for a strong punch at distances of less than 200 yards, the .45-70 is your cartridge to go. If you want to have more energy above that distance and less drop, go with the .30/30 Winchester. However, if you really want to do some long range shooting, the .300 Savage will do your bidding quite perfectly.