Great Big Bore Leverguns; Great Loads

Handloader by John Taffin

          The big bore double rifles will always be associated with Africa, however America's counterpart is the big bore levergun. They began with Winchester’s Centennial Model 1876 chambered in .45-60 and .45-75, and the latter was Theodore Roosevelt’s favorite hunting rifle when ranching in the Dakotas. The .45-70 was first chambered in a levergun by Marlin with their Model 1881 which was followed five years later by the John Browning designed Winchester 1886. The Winchester proved to be a much stronger gun than the Marlin and Marlin countered in 1895 with an upgraded version of their .45-70. Today’s Marlin Model 1895 is an even much stronger gun than either the 1881 or older 1895 neither of which should be used with anything other than standard .45-70 loads. In fact the former should be confined to black powder loads.

          Several versions of the Winchester 1886 had been offered over the last three decades by both Winchester and Browning.  All of these are made by Miroku of Japan and are very strong .45-70s; as far as that goes the modern versions from Marlin Browning, and Winchester are capable of handling much heavier loads without whimpering than I can. Two things which definitely don't go together are any .45-70 loads and the curved metal buttplate found on most 1886s. I was able to come up with a replacement buttstock for my Browning 1886 and it has been equipped with the best recoil handling pad I could find at the time.

          Reloading for the .45-70 is pretty straight forward. The case is slightly tapered so carbide sizers are out and spray-on lube is in. All loads listed here use CCI #200 Large Rifle primers and Winchester brass, however I also use a lot of Federal, Remington, and Starline brass with complete success. My two favorite bullets for the .45-70 are the Speer 400 Jacketed Flat Point and the RCBS #45-405 FNGC; however, the most accurate load I have managed to find for my custom 18-1/2” 1895 Marlin with a Williams Receiver Sight has been the Hornady 350 JSP over 44 grains of IMR 4198 giving me the slightly over 1,800 fps and three shots in less than an inch. There are many good powders available for reloading the .45-70, however if relegated to using only one it would be Hodgdon’s H322.

My most used load, even if not the most accurate, is the RCBS #45-405 FNGC over 52.0 grains of H322 and more than 2,000 fps from the Browning 1886. Recoil is exceptionally heavy, a price one has to pay for a load this powerful. Using 50.0 grains of H322 and the Speer 400 JPF results in not only a very powerful load at 1800+ fps, it is also exceptionally accurate. I don't always have time to cast bullets and that is where Oregon Trail’s 405 Hard Cast Gas Checked bullet comes in. Loaded over 41.0 grains of Accurate Arms #2495 it is still quite powerful at 1600+ fps and exceptionally accurate.

Everything said about the .45-70 also applies to the latest big bore levergun cartridge, the .450 Marlin. Any load recommended for the .45-70 in a levergun can also be duplicated and used in the .450. The new .450 Marlin is in reality the old .45-70 with a new pair of shoes. The reason for its existence is to be able to safely offer heavy-duty loads without any worry about them being dropped in an older .45-70 such as the Springfield Trapdoor. To accomplish this, the .450 Marlin is a belted case and will not enter any .45-70 chamber. On the exterior, the Marlin .450 is a dead ringer for the .45-70 Marlin Model 1895 except for the chamber markings on the barrel. Both cartridges use the same bullets and the same powders. There is one difference, my .450 Marlin is slightly more accurate than its .45-70 counterpart; however two different rifles could easily give opposite results.

The .450 Marlin is especially accurate with loads I have assembled using Hornady’s 350 grain Jacketed Flat Nose bullet and such powders as Reloder 7, H4895, AA#2495, and H322. In fact the most accurate load with this bullet uses 58.0 grains of H322 for just over 2,000 fps and three shots in 3/4” at 50 yards. My most accurate load for the .450 Marlin is a relatively mild one which uses the RCBS #45-405 FNGC over 46 grains of AA#2495 for just under 1,400 fps and three shots in 1/2" at 50 yards. Whether one selects the .45-70 or .450 Marlin is strictly a matter of personal choosing. There's not a game animal in the world which can tell the governments between one or the other, and with full power loads in either rifle any four-legged creature in Alaska or Africa or anywhere else is at a definite disadvantage. Even heavy-duty factory loadings with 400 grain bullets in both cartridges are available which are virtually identical. 

The .444 Marlin does with a 300 grain bullet what the other two big bores do with 400 grain bullets. It started out very strangely back in the early 1970s. Any of these three big bores are basically close-range, big heavy bulleted leverguns for use on large game animals. I especially like any one of the three with barrels around 18-1/2” and slicked up for easy handling. The first .444 Marlin came with a 24” barrel, a buttstock with a high cheekpiece designed for scope use, and the original ammunition was loaded with a 240 grain bullet better suited to a .44 Magnum sixgun and only for use on deer sized game. One could travel the game fields a lot more comfortably with the smaller and lighter Marlin Model 336 chambered in .44 Magnum. I do recall one gunsmith in the early 1970s converted the Model 336 to .444 Marlin.

My original .444 Marlin  was turned over to Keith DeHart many years ago who certainly made it more user friendly by cutting it to 18-1/2”, installing a full magazine tube, and fitting it with a #66 Lyman Receiver Sight. Today Marlin offers the .444 in the Model 444P, or Outfitter, which is pretty close to being identical to the .45-70 Guide Gun. My bullets of choice for the .444 Marlin start with the Remington 265 JFP and ends with a 320 grain hard cast bullet. The .444 Marlin case like the .45-70 is tapered and cases must be lubed before sizing. The action of the .444 levergun does not allow much room for loading heavy cast bullets so they must be crimped over the forward band. Just as with the .45-70 and the .450 I can get along quite well using nothing but H322 in the .444. I especially like the Hornady 300 XTP and the Freedom Arms 300 JFP over 48.0 grains for just under 2,000 fps.  If I were going to hunt Africa or Alaska with a levergun, my first choice would be a .45-70 or .450; for anything else the .444 will work just fine.


.45-70 Handloaded Ammo Performance

Test Rifle: Marlin 1895 Model x 18-1/2” with Williams Receiver Sight

 Bullet/Powder/Charge                          Velocity            Group Size

Hornady 350 JSP/IMR4198/44.0 gr.                1,811 fps          3/4"

Speer 400 JFP/H322/54.0 gr.                         1,759 fps          1-1/2”

Speer 400 JFP/AA#2495/53.0 gr.                    1,529 fps          1-3/8”

Speer 400 JFP/H4895/53.5 gr.                       1,438 fps          1-1/8”

RCBS #45-405 FN/IMR4198/41.0 gr.            1,791 fps          2-1/8”

Test Rifle: Winchester Model 1886 x 26” with Williams Receiver Sight

Speer 350 JFP/H322/54.0 gr.                          2,026 fps          1-3/4”

Speer 400 JFP*/H322/50.0 gr.                       1,831 fps          7/8”

Oregon Trail 405 GC/AA#2495BR/48.0 gr.     1,622 fps          ¾”       

RCBS #45-405 FNGC/H322/ 52.0 gr.            2,027 fps          2”

RCBS #45-405 FNGC/IMR4198/39.0 gr.       1,766 fps          1-1/2”

RCBS #45-500 FNGC/IMR4198/31.0 gr.       1,577 fps          1-1/8”

RCBS #45-500 FNGC/AA#2495/41.0 gr.      1,486 fps          1-3/8”

Notes: Groups the product of 3 Shots at 50 yards. Chronograph screens set at 10’ from muzzle. CCI #200 primers used in Winchester brass.

*Three shots at 100 Yards = 2-1/4”


.450 Marlin Handloaded Ammo Performance

Test Rifle Marlin .450 x 18-1/2” with 4X Scope

Bullet/Powder/Charge                                       Velocity            Group Size

Hornady 350 FN/Reloder 7/42.0 gr.                1,586 fps          7/8”

Hornady 350 FN/Reloder 7/46.0 gr.                 1,678 fps          1-1/8”

Hornady 350 FN/Reloder 7/50.0 gr.                 1,817 fps          1-1/4”

Horandy 350 FN/H4895/56.0 gr.                     1,778 fps          1-1/4”

Hornady 350 FN/AA#2495BR/54.0 gr.           1,508 fps          7/8”

Hornady 350 FN/H322/58.0 gr.                      2,030 fps          3/4"

Speer 400 FN/ H4895/50.0 gr.                        1,603 fps          5/8”

Speer 400 FN/ Reloder 7/47.0 gr.                    1,756 fps          5/8”

RCBS #45-405 FNGC/AA#2495/46.0 gr.      1,376 fps          1/2”

RCBS #45-405 FNGC/AA#2495/50.0 gr.      1,548 fps          7/8”

Notes: Groups the product of 3 Shots at 50 yards. Chronograph screens set at 10’ from muzzle. CCI #200 primers used in Hornady brass.


.444 Marlin Handloaded Ammo Performance

Test-Rifle: Marlin Model 444 Outfitter x 18-1/2” Barrel With Factory Sights

Bullet/Powder/Charge                                       Velocity            Group Size

Barnes 275 JFP/H322/48.0 gr.            1,932 fps          1-1/2”

Freedom Arms 300 JFP/H322/48.0 gr.            1,950 fps          1-1/2”

Hornady 265 JFP/H322/51.0 gr.                      2,030 fps          1-1/2”

Hornady 300 XTP-JHP/H322/48.0 gr.             1,993 fps          1-1/2”

Speer 300 JFP/H4895/49.5 gr.                       1,791 fps          1”                               

Notes: Groups the product of 3 Shots at 50 yards. Chronograph screens set at 10’ from muzzle. CCI #200 primers used in Remington brass.