While the .45-70 Government has risen from the depths of obsolescence to regain popularity as a hunting and target cartridge, the same cannot be said for its predecessor, the .50-70 Government. The .50-70 served less than a decade in active military service, from 1866 to 1873.
As originally loaded in government service, the .50-70 featured a 450-grain .515”-diameter bullet pushed along by 70 grains of blackpowder. Muzzle velocity was around 1,100 feet per second, for muzzle energy of around 1,200 foot-pounds.
While the cartridge didn’t see long service with the military, it became a popular cartridge with buffalo hunters in the West, along with longer and more powerful cartridges developed from it, such as the .50-90 and .50-110.
Today, few firearms are chambered for the .50-70. Among the few that are are replicas of Sharps rifles and other historical firearms that were originally chambered in .50-70.
There have also recently been imports of rolling block rifles from Sweden, chambered in 12.7x44R, a cartridge ballistically similar to .50-70. Some shooters use .50-70 Government cases to form cases for the 12.7x44R, while others ream the chambers of the 12.7x44R to fit .50-70 ammunition.
The major problem with the .50-70 is that most firearms chambered in the cartridge were designed for blackpowder, and thus most loads for the cartridge have been produced with blackpowder. Commercial ammunition isn’t available, so it’s a handloading-only affair.
Handloaders can load cases with blackpowder or blackpowder substitutes, although some limited smokeless powder data is available. Previous versions of reloading data from Accurate Powder, for instance, indicate that the cartridge can be loaded with smokeless powders such as Accurate 1680, 5744, 2495, and 4350.
With smokeless powder, performance with a 425-grain bullet is superior to original loads, with the cartridge capable of pushing that bullet to 1,450 feet per second. A 550-grain bullet can be pushed to 1,375 feet per second, while a 400-grain bullet can be pushed to 1,850 feet per second. Muzzle energy thus can be from 2,000 to 3,000 foot-pounds.
The more powerful loads obviously shouldn’t be used in original antique rifles. But modern replicas should be capable of making the most use of the cartridge’s capabilities, which make it perfectly adequate for taking most North American large game.
If you have a rifle chambered in .50-70 Government, and the means to feed it, it can certainly be an effective rifle in a survival scenario. But if you’re looking to start from scratch to build up a survival armory, you’ll probably want to look for ammunition that’s more readily available than .50-70.