Photograph by Joe Mac Hudspeth, Jr. ·


Single Shot Selection

From the Fall 2009 issue

As most of you know, Mississippi allows single shot rifles to be used during primitive weapons season. Legal rifles were required to be .45 cal. bore diameter or larger until this year. However, beginning in the 2009-2010 hunting season, the minimum bore diameter is .35 cal. Many .35 calibers are considered “wildcat” cartridges and are sometimes not offered as regular production rifles. Because of this, they are not well known to the average hunter. For this reason, I am writing this article in hopes that it will help you choose a single shot rifle caliber for use during primitive weapons season. I will compare the three most popular calibers: 45-70 Government, .444 Marlin, and .35 Whelen. I will not suggest that one of these cartridges is better than the others - which would be like starting the feud of 30-06 vs .270 - but I will share information on the three cartridges available for use during primitive weapons season.

The 45-70 Government

The 45-70 govt. was introduced in 1873 as the first cartridge to have a centrally-primed case capable of withstanding higher pressures than rimfire cartridges of the time period. This old warhorse was in service of the U.S. Cavalry for years before being replaced with modern calibers. The 45-70 was originally loaded with 70 grains of black powder that propelled a 405-grain lead bullet 1,300 fps. This was, and still is, a very effective game killer at modest ranges (> 200 yds.). Most factory ammunition of today is similar to original loads as far as velocity is concerned.

The 45-70 I have on loan for this article is a New England Firearms handi-rifle topped with a Simmons Whitetail scope in 3-9 X 40 mm. This particular model comes with iron sights, a pistol grip stock, and a 22” barrel. The selected ammo is the tried and true Winchester Super X 300gr jacketed hollow point. I chose this ammunition because my observations revealed it to be the most commonly used ammunition in Mississippi game fields.

The .444 Marlin

The .444 Marlin was introduced in 1964 as a cooperative effort between Marlin Firearms Company and Remington ammunition. During this time period, the triple four was the only big bore lever gun being produced, and it quickly gained a reputation as a formidable white-tail and black bear cartridge. This cartridge was originally loaded with a 240 grain bullet, the same bullet that our .44 magnum sixguns fire. By choosing this bullet, Marlin and Remington compromised the true capabilities of this cartridge. Early renderings of this bullet had thinner jackets for use at slower velocities from pistols. When fired from a long barreled .444, velocity increased and bullets would sometimes fail to hold together on impact with game. Bullets of today work fine in this rifle caliber and hold together perfectly. A common misconception about the .444 is that it is simply an elongated .44 magnum case. This is not the case. The .444 is actually a slightly tapered case (starting at .470 at the base and tapering to .453 at the mouth), whereas the .44 magnum is a straight case (of .456).

The .444 I have acquired for this article is a New England Firearms handi-rifle topped with a BSA Cat’s Eye scope in 3-10 X 44mm. This model has a pistol grip stock with a monte carlo styling, and a 22” barrel. Unfortunately, there are very few options of factory ammunition for this cartridge, restricting its true potential to be unleashed by handloaders. The ammunition I used is Remington’s Express Rifle in a 240 grain soft point, a load that is similar to the original 1964 load. I would have preferred to have used Hornady’s 265 grain flat point load because (in my opinion) it is a better game killer, but at the time of this writing it was unavailable in my area.

The .35 Whelen

The .35 Whelen started life as the brain child of Col. Townsend Whelen and James V. Howe in 1922. At the time, the Colonel was one of the leading authorities on shooting and hunting. This “wildcat” cartridge proved to be a powerful medium bore cartridge that required neither a magnum action nor magnum bolt face. Chambered in a single shot rifle, this cartridge is a jewel. Simply put, the .35 Whelen is a 30-06 springfield case necked up to .35 cal. It has been successfully used to take all North American game as well as many African game species.

The rifle I used for this article is a Thompson Center Encore Pro Hunter. The rifle has a 26” fluted stainless steel bull barrel and a Leupold VX I 3-9 X 50 scope. I could not obtain factory ammo in my area, so I chose to handload. My load used in this test was: 55.5 grains of Reloader 15 under a 225 grain Nosler Partition bullet. Primers are Federal 210 magnums.

Ballistics of ammunition used.

45-70 Govt.
Bullet wt. Muzzle velocity 100 yd. 200 yd.
300 gr. 1880 fps. 1650 fps. 1425 fps.
Muzzle energy 100 yd. 200 yd.
2355 ft/lbs 1815 ft/lbs. 1355 ft/lbs.
100yd Zero   -4.6 @ 150 yds. -12.8 @ 200 yds.
444 Marlin
Bullet wt. Muzzle velocity 100 yd. 200 yd.
240 gr. 2350 fps. 1815 fps. 1377 fps.
Muzzle energy 100 yd. 200 yd.
2942 ft/lbs 1755 ft/lbs. 1010 ft/lbs.
100yd Zero   -3.2 @ 150 yds. -9.7 @ 200 yds.
35 Whelen
Bullet wt. Muzzle velocity 100 yd. 200 yd.
250 gr. 2084 fps. N/A fps. N/A fps.
Muzzle energy 100 yd. 200 yd.
2410 ft/lbs N/A Ft/lbs. N/A ft/lbs.
200yd Zero   +2.36 @ 100 yds. Zero @ 200 yds.

I tested penetration of these calibers using “wet packs”. A wet pack is simply standard news print that is thoroughly soaked in water. A properly prepared wet pack has a very close to 1:1 correlation to 10% ballistic gelatin. In order to give an idea of penetration at different ranges, I shot each rifle into wet packs at distances of 50, 100, and 200 yards. After shooting into wet packs I measured penetration and bullet expansion. Penetration of different calibers is largely dependant on the type of bullet. Expanding bullets obviously will not penetrate as well as hard cast bullets. However, for use in game fields, expanding bullets are great for these calibers because they expand and punch through leaving a wide wound channel. Results of penetration and bullet expansion are listed in the accompanying table.

Wet Pack Penetration

Penetration (in.) 50yds. 100yds. 200yds.
.45-70 Govt. 18 18 1/2 20 2/8
.444 Marlin 14 6/8 15 1/2 15 5/8
.35 Whelen 23 23 7/8 23 ½
Bullet expansion (in.) 50yds. 100yds. 200yds.
.45-70 Govt. .703 .668 .658
.444 Marlin .858 .778 .771
.35 Whelen .648 .637 .623

Penetration slightly increased with range in some cases because velocity slows with distance. This phenomenon seems counter intuitive, but it happens. The higher the velocity, the faster bullets expand thus causing increased resistance for the bullet (and decreased penetration) while driving through the target.

All of these calibers are capable of punching through a white-tailed deer (I have seen it many times) and killing efficiently. While all of them have plenty of power, the .35 Whelen is the only one not considered a “brush gun.” The .35 is capable of real distance after learning the rifle.

None of these calibers buck and roar too bad, but I found that after shooting about 30 rounds apiece out of each rifle, recoil is evident. For the younger or smaller hunter, I would recommend the .444 marlin because it recoils less than the other two.

One piece of advice; if you shoot a .45-70 and your hunting buddy shoots a .444 Marlin, pay attention when you load your gun! I guess I was thinking about my shoulder when I dropped a .444 Marlin into the .45-70. I missed the 100-yard target by about 10 feet, and did not know why until I noticed triple four stamped on the case head. Doing this did not damage the gun, just my ego, and thankfully the case didn’t crack and spit hot gas in my face.

Pros and Cons

The biggest concern with these calibers is that factory ammunition does not offer many options. I found only two off the shelf brands for the .444; Remington’s 240 grain soft point and Hornady’s 265 grain flex tip and flat point. The .35 Whelen also only has two off the shelf brands which are Federal’s 225 grain Vital Shock and Remington’s 200 gr. Core Lokt pointed soft point and 250 gr. pointed soft point. The .45-70, on the other hand, has more off the shelf options than I want to list. However, specialty ammunition is available for all three calibers. This ammo can easily be ordered off the internet (I use MidWay USA), but specialty ammunition commands an especially high price.

This situation leads me to mention the benefits of handloading. Handloaders have many bullets options and different powders and can get better performance. The triple four can really shine when stoked with a healthy dose of slow burning powder and a 300 grain hardcast bullet. The .45-70 on the other hand is capable of approaching .458 Winchester magnum performance when handloaded carefully and fired from a modern gun. The .35 Whelen is versatile and can be handloaded with bullets ranging from158 grain .357 magnum bullets for plinking and varmints, or up too 300 grains for large game.

New England Firearms (NEF) rifles in most calibers are available at sporting good stores, the basic model retails for $266.49. Unfortunately NEF does not offer a .35 Whelen chambering. The .35 Whelen is available from Thompson Center’s custom shop and retail for $889.38, or for those of you who have a T/C Encore, a .35 Whelen barrel can be ordered from the factory and retails for $292.95.

As with selecting any firearm, when choosing one of these calibers it is important to consider the habitat in which you will be hunting. If a hard hitting brush gun is what you desire the .45-70 and .444 will serve your purpose well. If you want a rifle that will give you 30-06 plus performance the .35 Whelen is your pick.