This powerful handgun-hunting cartridge can tame big game better than the .454 Casull or .45-70 Government.
It wasn’t so many years ago that big-game hunting with a handgun was thought of as a stunt. It may have started with the introduction of the .357 Magnum in 1935, which was used to take critters up to the size and temperament of grizzly bears. Such shenanigans only perpetuated the shady reputation of short-gun hunters. Then, the .44 Remington Magnum boosted handgun hunting in 1955. That round was far better suited for shooting at critters that could bite back, but it was still light for anything larger than a black bear.
It wasn’t until the mid-1970s that handgun hunting really took off. The rising popularity of metallic silhouette competition showed people how a powerful and accurate handgun could be mastered by anybody motivated enough to work at it. This coincided with the much-publicized exploits in Alaska, Africa, and other exotic locations of notable handgun experts like J.D. Jones and Larry Kelly. They proved that handguns were capable of cleanly taking anything that walked the earth. Brown bears, cape buffalo, and even elephants were dropped with big-bore handguns.
For those hunters after big and tough bears, moose, and elk, there is no such thing as too much gun. Accordingly, we wondered which of the three “big boomers” popular in handgun hunting—the .454 Casull, the .45-70 Government, and the .375 JDJ—offered the best selection of features and terminal performance for the hunter. Here’s what we found.
THE .454 CASULL
The .454 Casull was first presented to the world by P.O. Ackley in a Guns & Ammo article published in 1959, but Dick Casull was experimenting with this load as far back as the mid-1950s. He used a .45 Long Colt cartridge and handguns that were altered to handle the extra pressure. The cases often held duplex and triplex loads that used two and three different powers. It was probably a blessing to these shooters that easy access to pressure-testing equipment was not available in those dark ages. It would be better not to know just how high the pressures were probably going.
The current incarnation of the .454 Casull uses a case that is one-tenth of an inch longer than the .45 Colt to ensure that it will not be chambered and fired in a gun not designed for the cartridge. The multi-powder loads were dropped as better powders hit the market, and today most handloaders use H-110 or WW-296 to fuel their Casull handloads.
Perhaps the most important development in the success of the round is that Freedom Arms of Wyoming is producing handguns chambered for the Casull. These guns, while expensive, are extremely well made and exceptionally accurate. Freedom Arms offers the gun in barrel lengths ranging from 43/4 inches to 10 inches. The most popular and practical is the 71/2 inch. If equipped with iron sights, it is easily carried in a belt holster. Coupled with the five-shot capacity, it is the logical choice for a back-up when hunting or traveling in dangerous-game country. Even when mounted with a scope, this gun carries well in a variety of shoulder holsters.
The gun we used for this test was a single-action five-shot stainless-steel model. We fitted it with a Leupold M8-2X scope mounted in a SSK Industries T’SOB mount.
Witness a Casull being fired and you’ll understand that it is truly a hard-hitting handgun. The muzzle blast and recoil are sights to behold for those not used to big hunting handguns. Factory loads are currently available from Freedom Arms and from Black Hill Ammunition. Freedom Arms offers a 240-grain load that develops 1,875 fps. The 260-grainer shoots at 1,800 fps, and the 300-grain runs 1,600 fps. There’s also a reduced-load 240-grain that develops 1,250 fps. The pressure of these loads can exceed 50,000 copper units pressure (c.u.p.)
Black Hills Ammunition offers loads with the Hornady XTP bullets. The 250 gr. is going 1,500 fps and the 300 gr. is 1,400. The lower velocity is primarily due to the type of bullets loaded. The Freedom Arms loads use a very hard bullet to compensate for bulging in the forcing cone that can raise pressures. This results in a bullet that often acts much like a solid, particularly with the 300 gr., with little expansion. The Hornady XTP has excellent expansion and penetration characteristics, but requires slightly lower velocities in a revolver.
Handloaders will find that they get better results with loads that stay below 45,000 cup. This caliber shines with handloads and WW-296 is perhaps the best powder to use. However, good results can also be found with H-110, IMR-4227 and H-4227. The 300 gr. bullets are probably best for this caliber for most game up to elk. The Hornady XTP is one of the best, but the Speer bullet in this weight is good as well. For truly big game where penetration is important, the Freedoms Arms bullets or hard-cast bullets are the best choice.
Our take: The .454 Casull is undeniably powerful, but it suffers some substantial downsides as a hunting round. As the accompanying graphs show, a common Casull load (300-grain Black Hills) delivers just over half the muzzle energy of the .375 JDJ, and substantially less than the .45-70 as well. Also, the blunt-nosed shape of the 300-grain projectile suffers in the trajectory category as well. With a 100-yard zero, the Casull falls more than 24 inches at 200 yards. The .45-70 and .375 do substantially better.
Adopted by the U.S. military in 1873, the .45-70 was chambered in the “trapdoor” Springfield single-shot rifle. It served as the official caliber of the military for nineteen years when it was replaced by the .30-40 Krag. The caliber saw a lot of use both as a hunting and military round throughout the world until about the early 1930s, when most companies stopped chambering it in their rifles.
There is new interest in the .45-70 today, particularly in handguns. In 1990 Thompson/Center Arms chambered it in the Contender handgun, and it remains the company’s largest-caliber offering.
With its large case-head diameter, the .45-70 exerts more stress on the gun frame at a lower pressure than other higher-intensity calibers might. Accordingly, T/C recommends that reload pressures be kept to the factory-recommended level. Many insist that T/C is too conservative in this approach, but I defer to the company’s judgment.
T/C offers barrels from 12 inches to 16 inches. In testing the 12-inch compensated model, I found there was not enough barrel length to reliably burn the powder. After deducting for the compensator and the chamber, there is only about 8 inches of rifling to use. That’s simply not enough. The 16-inch length is a better choice in this caliber, with factory loads showing standard deviations of 20 to 30 fps for 10-shot strings, instead of the triple-digit numbers seen in some factory loads in the 12-inch barrel. Accuracy was better as a result.
For our testing, we used a 16-inch compensated Contender in stainless steel with a T/C 2.5- to 7-power scope mounted in Weaver mounts. The gun weighed 43/4 pounds empty. With the compensator, the recoil was manageable for the recommended load. Hornady’s Handbook of Cartridge Reloading, Fourth Edition lists loads specifically developed for the .45-70 Contender. The best results occurred with H-332 and show velocities of 1,800 fps for a 300-grain bullet. This is slightly better than most factory loads without exceeding 25,000 cup.
Factory loads are available from Winchester, Federal, and Remington. All offer a 300-grain hollowpoint loading that is great for deer and similar game. Remington also offers a 405-grain loading that would be a better choice for moose or elk. Because the factory loads are designed for longer rifle barrels, a handloader can improve on the .45-70’s ballistics by handloading. By matching the powder to the barrel length, faster-burning powders such as H-332, IMR-4198, and RL-7 will give better results in handgun-length barrels. Handloaders should stay with the various 300-grain hollowpoint bullets for deer-size game. However, the 400-grain Speer has proven itself to be a great bullet in this caliber for everything from deer to moose. However, it is too soft for bears or other tough game. There you might consider a hard-cast bullet or perhaps one of the tougher bullets designed for the .458 Win. Mag. to ensure penetration.
Our take: Like the Casull, the .45-70 Government is satisfactory for many uses, but it nonetheless falls short of the overall performance of the .375 JDJ. To get energy comparable to the .375 270-grain bullet, we had to overload a .45-70 in a 300-grain round.
This handgun-hunting round was developed in the 1970s as part of a series of J.D. Jones “Hand Cannon” hunting rounds based on the .444 Marlin cartridge. Contender barrels chambered for this round are available from SSK industries, and you can configure them as you wish. All the SSK barrels will fit on standard T/C Contender frames with no modifications, but their use may void your warranty. For my testing, I used a 14-inch Mag-Na-Ported tube. If recoil is a consideration—and it can be severe in this caliber—you might find that a full compensator does a better job of taming kick. I have a Bausch & Lomb 2-6 scope mounted in SSK’s T’SOB three ring mount. When mounted on the same T/C Contender frame as used for the .45-70, the gun weighs 41/2 pounds.
If you were to shoot just one round for all big-game hunting, the .375 JDJ should be your pick. As the accompanying table and graphs show, it is accurate and powerful. We shot .8-inch groups with the .373 JDJ T/C at 50 yards, and the .270-grain Speer boattail round develops more than 2,300 ft./lbs of energy at the muzzle. It also flies fast and far, dropping only 17.5 inches at 250 yards (with a 100-yard zero).
The sole downside: As a wildcat, the .375 is strictly a reloading proposition. Cases are easy to form by running a .444 Marlin case (from Remington) into a .375 JDJ die. Mine are Hornady, but RCBS has them as well. It is recommended that before doing this you run the cases over a .44 expanded die to remove any case mouth dents, as they can buckle and ruin the case when you run them into a .375 JDJ die. If you like, you can then square up the case mouths on a trimmer.
The .375 JDJ made its name with 270-grain bullets, primarily the Hornady, at about 2,000 fps. However, the Speer 270-grain boattail has found favor with a lot of handgun hunters. The Speer 235-grain bullet is too hard and does not expand well, but the 285-grain Speer Grand Slam has had good reports on big game. The Nosler 260-grain partition is bringing home good report cards, but the 300-grain Nosler will not expand at handgun velocities.
These bullets will work for just about anything you care to hunt. However, those in the know prefer the Hornady 220-grain for hunting deer. This bullet is designed for the .375 Winchester and will expand better at lower velocities. The 200-grain Sierra might also work well for smaller big game. For big animals try the 300-grain solids from Hornady and Speer, especially Speer’s African Grand Slam Tungsten Core.
The .375 is not particularly fussy about powders. RL-7, H332, H-4895 and AA-2520 all work well. AA-2520 has worked particularly well in the test gun driving 270-grain Speer bullets, giving outstanding accuracy and the best velocity. J.D. Jones recommends Federal 210 primers, but I also had excellent results with CCI 200 primers.
If I were to pick one cartridge to handle all my big-game hunting, the .375 JDJ would certainly be the clear choice. The .45-70 and .454 Casull are short-range calibers with blunt-nosed bullets. The .375 JDJ can use long, sleek bullets with high ballistic coefficients that will shoot capably at long ranges. Also, the .375 can use bullets with a much higher sectional density than the other two, which means far better penetration. Also, the selection of available bullet designs is much better, particularly when hunting the biggest game. The only drawback is that it’s a reloading-only cartridge.
The .375 JDJ represents the pinnacle of handgun-hunting cartridges. With it, you are well equipped to hunt anything that walks, unless the beast lives in Jurassic Park. Still, I would like to try busting a velociraptor with the .375 JDJ. Perhaps the ending would have been different.