"All writers are agreed as to the hazards of invading the haunts of this savage animal, whose skulking habits, no less than his tremendous strength, render him an object to be greatly dreaded...........he is described to of so irascible a disposition that he will attack his great enemy, man, without the smallest provocation. And should he succeed in destroying his victim, it is his wont to stand over the inanimate corpse, goring and tossing it in vindictive fury with his formidable horns, trampling it under his feet, crushing and mangling it with his knees and stripping off the skin with his rough and prickly tongue; desisting occasionally, but to return again with renewed appetite, as though his revenge might never be glutted!" - Captain William Cornwallis Harris: The Wild Sports of Southern Africa
Despite being country bumpkins from the dark continent there are a few things we know and have learned about rifles and guns in Africa, perhaps passed down from our grandfathers with their Martini Henry single shots and those massive dollops of paper patched lead – the ones that they used against the British in the Anglo Boer war.
You don’t need speed to make a bullet kill something effectively, you need a good heavy bullet, you need a good pair of sights and you need to learn how to hunt properly!
My grandfathers knew more about the trajectory of a 500 grain lead bullet than I ever would know and they took game out to 200 yards – with poorly loaded bullets, old pre war powder and open sights - they remained fat and happy on venison their whole life through! This is what many hunters and PH’s in Africa know – a heavy bullet does not need to travel at light speed to be effective, in fact faster is often a disadvantage – it kicks like a mule and it bites like a crocodile – and makes you flinch and miss. In addition, big dangerous game like to frequent heavy cover and mostly you’re going to want to shoot through thick grass and brush, often in a split second. In times like this there is nothing that beats a sluggish 400 to 500 grain bullet - and yes gents, you can shoot through grass, brush and even decent sized branches with a nice heavy 500 grain bullet, I've done it too many times to remember!
This is good news for the 45 70 Government toters of course yet you’d ask the question, do I need to go as heavy as 500 grain bullets? As far as I understand it, the 45 70 was first designed with a 405 grain bullet in mind yet it was changed a few years later to a standard 500 grain lead bullet which proved to be more accurate over long distance. Of course when it comes to dangerous thick skinned game, you’re not going to lob 500 grain lead projectiles at the beast from way yonder (like those South African PH's do), you’re hopefully with a PH who will get you into the 30 to 50 yard range of the Black Death.
You’ll also take into account that you’re shooting with a rifle that has some limitations and take your time and make sure of your shot, squarely in the vitals always does nicely. Without a doubt, projectiles weighing between 400 and 500 grains, loaded properly and credibly are suitable for the kind of penetration you need for the dangerous beasts of Africa and this includes the thick skinned heavy game - plain and simple folks, it will kill an Elephant!
Bullets for African dangerous game come in many shapes and sizes both lead and jacketed and one will always be faced with proven 458 Magnum and Lott jacketed bullets which can fit the 45 70 Government with some tweaking and you can work up loads which will get you shooting reasonably well. I tried this with various jacketed bullets, some worked pretty well, while others turned into expensive lab tests. As a rule, the jacketed bullets are too long for the 45 70 Lever Guns and this has led to most jacketed or monolithic solids being in the 350 to 405 grain range when specifically designed for the 45 70 Lever Gun due to the short nose requirement for reliable feeding and throat clearance. Make no mistake, 350 grains is by no means a lite bullet and one can get close to the proverbial 2000 fps mark with this weight in a 45 70 Levergun.
Both Northfork and Woodleigh, although expensive, now make monolithic solids specifically designed for the short levergun actions and I have tested these with great results on both elephant and buffalo mediums. Woodleigh’s Hydrostatically stabilised 400 grain brass solid proved unstoppable even though I had not loaded them to their full potential. You can read more about these field test HERE
However for penetration it’s heavy bullets that you want and there are some excellent commercial hardcast lead bullets designed specifically for the short throats of the 45 70 Marlins, Brownings and Winchesters. Bullets designed specifically for the short chambers and actions of the Lever Action rifles get their best weight advantage as hardcast lead – offering a heavy bullet that not only fits well into the lever actions but also allows enough powder room to get up to that effective velocity. I have found that speeds from 1400 fps through to 1800 fps are optimal for these heavier bullets – of course the heavier the bullet, the slower it is going to perform due to pressure issues in most of the 45 70 lever guns.
Out in the field I have had perfect penetration and results on Hippo from the popular 525 grain Beartooth Pile Drivers travelling at about 1500 fps. I have shot through the skull of a bull elephant with my own poured 475 grain hardcast lead bullets travelling at about 1600 fps. Many of the older traditional bullet molds from Lyman and Lee offer 500 plus grain bullets, all which were very effective in killing Bison in the early frontier days - they still work today given the modern alloys we have at our disposal.
The conclusion of the heavy bullet argument is this – a reasonable speed for a heavy bullet is good enough, and to get the bullet heavy enough to handle the 45/70 throat and pressure limitations you need to look at premium Hardcast lead bullets. They do not foul up your barrel, just clean it each day as you should anyway and the relative hardness and slow speed do not result in massive barrel build up. Once I had started loading the heavy lead 45/70 bullets, I knew there would be no turning back and the end result of this was finalizing my own bullet design, having a mold cut, pouring the lead, making and loading the bullets myself – to great effect out in the African field. This is essentially what my grandfathers used to do and many before them – this is reliving a small part of the very early days of the great Elephant hunters.
The 430 grain TrueShot bullets from Oregon Trail are another great performing hardcast lead bullets for the 45 70 providing outstanding penetration without fragmentation and break up while allowing reasonable velocity. Recently I tested this bullet on a Cape Buffalo bull and achieved straight line penetration through both shoulders with the bullet coming to rest under the skin on the opposing shoulder.
While I have heaped praise on the hardcast lead bullets that are commercially available, I have noticed a common trend amongst them and that is break up or shearing off of the nose on many. The bullets have not failed – in fact far from it – they have just not held together as one would see a premium bonded soft nose or jacketed solid do. In most cases they have created massive holes through bone and flesh and left behind fragments of lead for a very effective wound channel.
Where I have seen the shearing off of the nose is with those bullets designed with a deep crimp groove and possibly a high BHN which may cause a brittle bullet.