Compared: The .444 Marlin, .45-70 Govt. and .450 Marlin
By Chuck Hawks
Judging by the e-mail I receive and their standing in my running quarterly survey "Reader's Choice: The Most Interesting Rifle Cartridges," a fair and honest comparison of the .444 Marlin, .45-70 Government, and .450 Marlin is long overdue. I have long been fascinated by all three cartridges, and I am a fan of the best known rifles in which they are offered, the Model 336-based Marlin 1895, Winchester Model 94 Big Bore, Ruger No. 1, and Browning 1885 High Wall. So perhaps this comparison could be described as a labor of love on my part.
The .444 Marlin
The rimmed, straight wall, .444 Marlin cartridge was developed jointly by Marlin and Remington in 1964. It is based on a .44 Magnum revolver case lengthened an inch, and it uses the same .429-.430" diameter bullets as the famous .44 Magnum. A "big bore" version of the Marlin Model 336, known as the (new) Model 1895 or Model 444 (when so chambered) was introduced along with the new cartridge. Because the Marlin 1895 is a strong rifle, the SAAMI maximum average pressure (MAP) for the .444 is pegged at 44,000 cup.
The .444 was not an instant best seller, but its popularity was sufficient to have kept it in the line. Oddly, the resurgence in popularity of the .45-70 seems to have also increased interest in the .444 Marlin. Around the end of the 20th Century, and after the commercial failure of the .375 Winchester cartridge, USRAC/Winchester finally capitulated and started chambering their Model 94 Big Bore rifle for the .444 Marlin. At this writing Marlin offers a standard Model 444 rifle with a 22" barrel, and a Model 444P "Outfitter" carbine with an 18.5" barrel.
Remington .444 factory loads drive a 240 grain JSP flat nose bullet at a muzzle velocity (MV) of 2350 fps. This load uses the same bullet as Remington's .44 Magnum revolver load, which gives good expansion and quick kills on deer and other medium size big game at elevated .444 velocities, but is reputed to lack ideal penetration for use on large and heavy game.
Hornady soon created a bullet specifically for reloaders with .444 Marlin rifles; a 265 grain jacketed flat point designed from the outset for .444 Marlin velocities. That particular bullet weight was chosen for best accuracy given the slow 1-38" twist used in .444 Marlin barrels that, it was feared, would not properly stabilize heavier bullets. This bullet performs best at muzzle velocities between 1800 and 2200 fps. Hornady claims that their 265 grain InterLock offers .444 owners an ideal combination of expansion, penetration and accuracy, and makes the .444 an excellent elk and general large game rifle. Later Hornady, Speer, and others discovered that .444 rifles often gave perfectly adequate accuracy with bullets weighing up to 300 grains.
Hornady also offers their 265 grain InterLock bullet in a Light Magnum factory load. This is the factory load of choice for .444 owners who wish to hunt large (CXP3 class) game.
The .45-70 Govt.
The .45-70 Government cartridge was introduced in 1873 in the relatively weak (by modern standards) "Trapdoor" Springfield rifle, which the U.S. Army adopted as the service standard. It has held on through thick and thin and is now riding a wave of popularity unseen since the 19th Century. Today there are lever action, single shot, bolt action, and even double barreled rifles in .45-70. Factory loads are available from all of the major North American ammunition manufacturers. The .45-70 uses standard .458" diameter rifle bullets.
New .45-70 rifles are available in three basic classes: 1. Original and replica rifles designed for low pressure (essentially black powder level) loads only; 2. Modern lever action rifles like the Marlin Model 1895; 3. Modern rifles of superior strength, such as the Browning High Wall, Dakota 10, and Ruger No. 1 falling block single shots that are chambered for high intensity and magnum cartridges. According to information in the Barnes (1st Edition) and Hornady (6th Edition) reloading manuals these rifles are capable of handling pressures up to 50,000 cup. Browning specifically denies this and recommends loading the .45-70 to no more than 36,100 psi. Either way, these rifles allow very high performance .45-70 reloads.
Factory loaded ammunition is (mostly) held to pressures around 21,000 psi so that it can be safely used in all .45-70 rifles. (The SAAMI pressure maximum average pressure (MAP) limit for the .45-70 is 28,000 cup.) Some of the smaller ammunition manufacturers, for example PMC, have introduced more powerful, higher pressure, .45-70 +P loads with the warning that such loads are not for use in Trapdoor or other weak rifles. Only time will tell if this ploy will catch on with the major ammo suppliers.
As a result, the .45-70 has become a reloader's cartridge. Most modern reloading manuals have three .45-70 sections, to accommodate the needs of reloaders owning any of the three classes of .45-70 rifles. So any comparison involving the .45-70 must include all three levels of .45-70 loads.
The .450 Marlin
The .450 Marlin is the newest of the three cartridges involved in this comparison. It was essentially introduced to provide a ballistic twin to the .45-70 that could be loaded to the full pressure limit safe for use in modern Marlin lever action rifles. In other words, the same as the middle level of .45-70 reloads without the legal liability that might occur if such loads were offered in .45-70 cases that could be chambered in weak Trapdoor type rifles. The Hornady .450 factory load launches a 350 grain bullet at a catalog muzzle velocity of 2100 fps. This bullet is designed for best performance at MV's from 1800-2900 fps and is also widely used in both the .45-70 and the .458 Winchester Magnum.
I have a suggestion in that regard. Due to the considerable recoil of such a powerful load in a fairly light rifle, I think it would be wise if Hornady (or someone) offered a less powerful alternative. A load similar to the standard .45-70 factory load, driving a 300 grain JHP bullet at a MV around 1850 fps, has proven very effective for deer and medium game and generates much less recoil than the full power .450 Marlin factory load. Such an addition to the factory offerings in .450 Marlin would undoubtedly be appreciated by many .450 rifle owners.
The .450 Marlin is based on a shortened version of the belted .458 Winchester Magnum case. It looks like a rimless .45-70 case with a wide belt. Its capacity is very slightly less than that of the .45-70 case due to its stronger head and case walls, but its ballistics are essentially identical to .45-70 loads for modern lever action rifles. Like the .45-70 and .458 Win. Mag., the .450 Marlin uses .458" diameter bullets. The SAAMI established MAP for the .450 Marlin cartridge is 43,500 psi. .450 Marlin factory loads are available only from Hornady at the time of this writing. (Hornady actually loads the .450 to about 42,000 psi.)
Let's first compare some of the factory loads available in all three calibers. These include specialty factory loads for the .444 and .45-70. Cor-Bon, for instance, offers .45-70 loads using a 350 grain bonded core expanding bullet and a 405 grain FMJ "Penetrator" bullet. These specialty .45-70 factory loads are usually recommended for modern lever action or strong single shot rifles only, although I can find no specific recommendation on the Cor-Bon web site.
For the .444 Marlin Cor-Bon offers a 280 grain expanding bullet and a 305 grain FMJ Penetrator bullet. These are heavier than normal bullet weights for the caliber, but they are loaded within the normal SAAMI pressure limit.
Here are catalog figures for representative factory loads for all three calibers (caliber = bullet weight & mfg. - MV, ME). Note that these figures were attained in industry standard 24" test barrels and will not be attained in short "Guide Gun" length barrels. An asterisk (*) marks the most common factory loads.
Looking at the top muzzle energy figures for each caliber it is clear that all three are similar. Particularly since reports I have read put the actual MV attained in .450 Marlin "Guide Gun" rifles at about 1950 fps, which means a true ME of about 2900 ft. lbs. However, it is fair to say that the average ME of the .444 and .450 factory loads is higher than the average ME of .45-70 factory loads. Looking at the MV figures, and considering that all three calibers are normally loaded with similar flat point or round nose bullets, one could expect the .444 to have a slightly flatter trajectory than the two .45 caliber cartridges. We will get farther into both subjects after we look at their handloading potential.
Reloading for all three of these cartridges is certainly recommended, if for no other reason than economy. Factory loads for all three are expensive. The .45-70 shooter with a strong rifle will particularly benefit from reloading, as there is considerable unrealized performance potential inherent in the old war horse.
For the owner of a modern Marlin Model 444 or 1895 lever action rifle, these are maximum reloads (caliber - bullet weight & brand, MV, ME). The MAP of these loads runs as high as 40,000 cup or 42,000 psi.
Added to these should be high pressure reloads intended specifically for modern .45-70 single shot and bolt action rifles (caliber - bullet weight & brand, MV, ME). The MAP of these loads may run as high as 50,000 cup.
All of these handloads were chronographed in rifles with 22" barrels. These velocities and energies will not be attained in short barreled "Guide Gun" type rifles.
Kinetic energy is, of course, not the only factor in killing power. Other important considerations include the frontal area of the bullet, and the sectional density (SD) of the bullet. Of course, bullet performance (expansion, fragmentation, weight retention, etc.) also has a major influence on killing power, but fortunately bullets with similar performance characteristics are available for most calibers.
Bullet frontal (or cross-sectional) area is purely a function of caliber. It remains the same regardless of bullet weight. It is important because the greater a bullet's frontal area, the bigger the hole it makes in the target. The frontal area of a .429" bullet is .1445 square inch. The frontal area of a .458" bullet is .1647 square inch. These are both high numbers, but the .45 caliber bullet has a slight advantage.
Sectional density is one of the key factors in penetration; deeper penetration means a longer wound channel and can be crucial when hunting large, heavy animals. Sectional density is computed by dividing a bullet's weight (in pounds) by the square of its diameter (in inches). The higher the sectional density figure the better the penetration, all other factors being equal. Remember, the .444 Marlin actually uses a .429-.430" bullet, and the .45-70 and .450 Marlin use .458" bullets. Here are some typical SD numbers for .430" and .458" bullets (diameter, weight - SD).
The sectional density of the 500 grain .45 caliber bullet is really exceptional, ideal for use on thick-skinned game like buffalo (CXP4 class game). The length of this bullet generally restricts its use to .45-70 single shot and double rifles. The 350 and 400 grain .45 caliber bullets have SD's generally recommended for large thin-skinned animals like elk and moose (CXP3 class game), and most can be loaded to feed in Marlin 1895 actions. The short 300 grain .45 caliber bullet has a SD generally regarded as suitable for antelope, deer, and black bear (CXP2 class game).
The poor SD of the 240 grain .444 Marlin bullet shows why this slug is usually recommended only for CXP2 class game, and even the 265 grain .444 Marlin bullet only equals the SD of the 300 grain .45 caliber bullet. Only the 300 grain .444 Marlin bullet has a sectional density generally regarded as being at least marginally suitable for CXP3 class game.
No hunting bullet intended for the .444 Marlin or .450 Marlin comes close to the sectional density of the 500 grain .45-70 bullet. For maximum penetration the .45-70 in a single shot or double barreled rifle is clearly the best and most versatile choice.
Trajectory is not usually of primary importance for someone interested in any of these big bore calibers; all are what would normally be classified as woods cartridges. Here are the maximum point blank ranges (MPBR) of selected loads, taken from the "Rifle Trajectory Table," which can be found on the Rifle Information Page. Maximum bullet deviation is plus or minus 3" from the line of sight, calculated for a line of sight 1.5" over the bore (as with a low mounted scope).
Clearly, none of these are long range loads. But, with the exception of the light 300 grain .45-70 load suitable for use in Trapdoor rifles, all have a sufficiently flat trajectory to reasonably take big game out to around 200 yards. The .444 has a slight trajectory advantage over the .45 calibers, but it is not very significant for big game hunting.
The hardest factor to quantify is killing power. We know that energy, penetration, and bullet frontal area are all important factors in killing power, but not exactly what is the best blend of these factors. One indication of killing power is the Optimal Game Weight Formula developed by Edward A. Matunas. I used this formula in developing the "Maximum Optimal Ranges for Big Game" table found on the Rifle Information Page. Here are some selected loads and their maximum optimal range for 600 pound animals (cartridge, bullet weight & MV - optimum range in yards).
Judging by these figures, the killing power of the .444/300 grain load, .45-70/350 grain load, and .450/350 grain load are all about equal. Only the heavy 500 grain bullet in the .45-70 shows a significant advantage.
An important factor to consider when choosing any hunting rifle is recoil, and recoil is certainly a factor when considering big bore rifles. It is wise to know one's limits, because the last thing you want to do is flinch off a shot and wound a magnificent animal. As always, bullet placement is paramount, and a solid hit in a vital spot with a 240 grain bullet is far better than a gut shot with a 500 grain bullet. Here are some approximate recoil numbers for 8.5 pound rifles, which is about the weight of scoped Marlin 1895 or Ruger No. 1 rifles with 22" barrels. A more complete "Rifle Recoil Table" can be found on the Rifle Information Page. (Cartridge, bullet weight & MV - recoil energy.)
As one might expect, the least powerful load kicks the least and the most powerful load kicks the most. The mildest factory load is the traditional .45-70/405 grain offering, the only load below the dreaded 20 ft. lb. recoil line that marks the upper limit for most shooters. That is followed by the .444 Marlin/240 grain and .45-70/300 grain loads, which are only slightly over the limit. All of the other loads will definitely get a person's attention. The hardest kicking factory load is undoubtedly the .450 Marlin/350 grain load. However, the most powerful .45-70 handloads are even worse, generating recoil that would make a brass monkey flinch.
On the other hand, these mighty big bore cartridges can be handloaded down to reduced power levels for much more enjoyable shooting sessions. According to the fifth edition of the Hornady Handbook of Cartridge Reloading a 300 grain bullet at a MV of about 1400-1500 fps should be possible in all three calibers. Depending on the powder selected, the recoil of such loads should be about 12 ft. lbs.
A couple of other factors should be considered when comparing rifle cartridges. One of these is the availability of ammunition. In this area the .45-70 wins hands down. The .444 and .450 Marlin cartridges have not been around nearly as long as the .45-70 and are simply not as widely distributed. For reloaders, the selection of .458 rifle bullets is considerably broader than the selection of .429-.430" rifle bullets, a plus for either of the .45 caliber cartridges.
A related issue is the availability of rifles on the new and used markets. Again, the .45-70 comes out way ahead. .45-70 rifles have been made a lot longer, by a great many more companies, and in a much wider variety of types and styles. There are two U.S. brands of lever action rifles (that I know about) available in .444 Marlin, and only Marlin is producing .450 rifles as I write these words. But there must be a dozen brands of .45-70 rifles of various sorts in the marketplace.
A careful review of the above information suggests that, strictly in terms of energy (and probably also killing power), the shooter who relies entirely on factory loads for hunting large game and can stand the considerable recoil will be best served by a .450 Marlin caliber rifle. The .450 Marlin not only offers the most energy, it also uses bullets with the maximum frontal area. The sectional density of its 350 grain bullet is superior to all factory loaded .444 bullets. The 400-405 grain .45-70 bullet is superior in SD, but inferior in velocity, energy, and trajectory. In Marlin Model 444/1895 lever action rifles, the .444 Marlin and .45-70 appear to be essentially tied for second place, depending on the application and the load chosen.
On the other hand, the factory load shooter has greater versatility and a wider variety of loads available from which to choose in .45-70, some of which kick considerably less than the relatively few .444 Marlin and .450 Marlin factory loads. We have already mentioned the traditional 405 grain factory load in this connection.
The standard 240 grain JSP and 300 grain JHP factory load for the .444 and .45-70 make fine deer and general medium game loads that are less punishing to shoot than any of the heavy bullet .444, .45-70 or .450 factory loads. With controlled expansion bullets, for example the Winchester/Nosler Partition Gold, the 300 grain bullet in the .45-70 is also a satisfactory elk load.
For the reloader with a modern lever action rifle, things pretty much even out. All three calibers have the capability of taking all North American big game within their MPBR and with appropriate loads. And light or heavy loads can be produced as needed.
The .45-70 clearly moves into first place for the reloader with a modern single shot or bolt action rifle. The higher pressure limit permitted by such rifles gives the .45-70 the advantage in performance.
The single shot or double rifle owner also has more flexibility in terms of overall cartridge length, which allows the use of bullets prohibited by the length of the Marlin and Winchester lever actions. The pointed 350 grain Barnes X-Bullet and the various 500 grain RN bullets would be examples.
In conclusion I can only say that I have admired the big bore calibers, as applied to lever action rifles, since Marlin introduced the .444 in 1964. Marlin built on the success of their new Model 1885 rifle by adding the .45-70 chambering in the early 1970's. When the .450 Marlin arrived on the scene in 2000, making a choice became even more difficult. Fortunately, as we have seen, one cannot really go wrong with any of these fine big bore calibers.
Copyright 2003, 2012 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.