I REMEMBER MY GRANDPA LAMASCUS telling me, when I was a kid, about a trapdoor Springfield .45-70 that he had for a while when the family lived near Tucumcari, New Mexico.
Grandpa said he tried to hunt jackrabbits and coyotes with it, but it was so slow and trajectory was so high that he finally gave up and traded it for a .22 Long Rifle. “A jackrabbit could run a hundred yards,” he said, “before the bullet got to where it had been.”
The trajectory really is high, but I think Grandpa LaMascus badly underrated the .45-70. Also, I think he was more interested in shooting rabbits for food than shooting coyotes for sport. This was during The Depression, after all.
When I was a kid, a lot of rifles for the older cartridges were still around. Such rifles as .30-40 Krags, of which I owned a couple at various times, were common, as were .303 Savages, .32 Specials, .30 Remingtons, .32-40s, .38-55s, and many other cartridges of this general type.
One day at the saddle shop in Uvalde a man tried to sell me a Savage Model 99 in .303 Savage. I was perfectly happy with my .270 bolt-action and declined. This was one of many deals I wish now I could do over. For instance, I remember one old gun trader in San Marcos who showed up one day in 1971, with a car trunk full of genuine Sharps rifles in various calibers—take your pick for $50. I was about to get married and didn’t even have $5 to spare, much less $50.
I also saw many old lever-actions, mostly Model 92s and 94s, but also an occasional Model 73 in .38-40 and .44-40. Even after I had grown up and was working in a Gibson’s Discount Center in Uvalde, one of the old guns would pop up occasionally. One such was the Model 92 Winchester owned by the old man from Campwood who every deer season or two would come in and buy a box of .38-40s—one box. He said he had hunted deer with his Winchester for more than 50 years and never needed more.
Even more interesting was the rare Model 1886 Winchester. There was on older gentleman who hunted on the ranch my brothers and I hunted outside of Uvalde. This was in the mid-1970s. His gun (and he was very proud of it) was a Winchester 1886 in .33 WCF. He was griping that ammunition was getting hard to find. At that time I thought he was a fossil and needed a better, more modern deer rifle. Now I wish I had a rifle just like his.
But all through this, like a golden thread woven into a tapestry, were the old cartridges that are still with us today. The most long-lived of the bunch is the .45-70. In spite of my grandpa’s opinion, this old soldier simply refuses to die. It was introduced in 1873 as the U.S. military cartridge for the trapdoor Springfield.
Since that time it has been chambered in a plethora of firearms of the single-shot and lever-action types, and even in a few bolt actions. Since its introduction it has undoubtedly taken every type of big game in North America. Today it is still chambered in many different guns such as replicas of the 1874 Sharps, and Remington Rolling Block, and the modern Marlin 1895.
I was just recently asked by a friend to look over and appraise some old guns. When I got there they had several Model ’92 and ’73 Winchesters lying on his desk. The guns had been owned by the man’s father, but had been sold by his mother to another man. He was buying them back and wanted to know what they were worth. My mouth almost watered as I handled those old beauties.
Not long ago I was in Oasis Outback, the big sporting goods store in Uvalde. In the gun shop I noticed a Model 71 Winchester on the rack. I looked at it, tried the action, looked down the barrel, and gently caressed it. It was in almost pristine condition.
This was one deal I was not going to miss out on, so the horse-trading started. After the deal was done, I had traded a couple of nice guns for that old Winchester, but I think I got the better of the deal.
After watching a friend of mine use the Model 71—which was only available in .348 Winchester caliber—on a deer, I was certain I had made a good deal. The deer, which was hit too far back with a 220-grain Barnes Original bullet, dropped like it had been brained. Yep, the old cartridges are still lethal.
Just because the cartridge is not a modern high-velocity .300 magnum, does not mean it will not still get the job done. It may not have the range of a newer caliber, but if used within its limitations, it can be just as lethal as the new hotrods. I have killed deer with a .45-70, using 400-grain paper-patched lead bullets. Let me tell you, it is still a good deer cartridge.
The game of the U.S. has not gotten one bit tougher than it was when Billy Dixon was killing buffalo with his “Big Fifty,” or when your grandpa was shooting deer with his .32-40. What has changed is that we are not the hunters they were.
Maybe we should work on that instead of trying to buy some super magnum that might, or might not, make up for our ineptitudes. Think about it.
Email Steve LaMascus at [email protected]