January 02, 2022
To me, the lever-action rifle will always be the quintessential deer gun. Whether it’s chambered for .30-30 Win., .45-70 Govt. or even .35 Rem., a lever gun belongs in the woods come deer season.
I suppose those feelings come from growing up in the East and toting a Winchester Model 94 through the hardwoods and hemlocks during my formative years as a deer hunter.
A lot has changed about rifles, cartridges and deer hunting since then, but the iconic lever action continues to be favored by a whole lot of hunters—and not just in the Appalachians.
Federal Premium (federalpremium.com) recognized this when, working with Henry Repeating Arms, it set out to develop a new line of ammunition specifically tailored to up the performance of lever-action rifles.
The HammerDown line was announced in 2020 and has grown to include loads for not only the .30-30 Win., .35 Rem., .444 Marlin and .45-70 Govt., but also the .327 Fed. Mag., .357 Mag., .44 Mag. and .45 Colt. While these latter four may be regarded as handgun cartridges, they are also used in lever-action rifles in states that now permit hunting with straight-wall centerfire cartridges in areas previously open only to shotguns and muzzleloaders.
Ballisticians at Federal focused on several areas when developing HammerDown.
Let’s start with the bullet. All HammerDown loads feature molecularly bonded bullets, meaning the bullet’s jacket is permanently adhered to its lead core. This eliminates the chance for the jacket and core to separate during impact, and it helps retain weight during penetration for deeper wound channels. Federal uses the process to make Fusion bullets, and Speer relies on it for Gold Dot bullets.
The bullets loaded in what are typically handgun cartridges are heavier than normal in the HammerDown ammo. For example, the .357 Mag. bullet weighs 170 grains instead of 158, and the .44 Mag. bullet weighs 270 grains rather than 240. This is a nod to the substantially higher velocities these cartridges produce in longer rifle and carbine barrels.
Federal lists the velocity of the .357 Mag. HammerDown load at 1,610 fps and the velocity of the .44 Mag. load at 1,715 fps. The four rifle cartridges in the line have more conventional bullet weights and velocity ratings.
Federal loads HammerDown in nickel-plated brass cases to ward off corrosion and aid in extraction. The front face of the case’s rim is chamfered for smoother cycling. The HammerDown loads, being a Federal Premium product, are loaded with Gold Medal primers. Suggested retail prices for 20 rounds are $25.99 (.45 Colt) to $65.99 (.45-70 Govt.).
I tested the 300-grain .45-70 Govt. HammerDown load, which Federal advertises as having a muzzle velocity of 1,850 fps. From a Marlin Model 1895 Guide Gun with an 18 1/2-inch barrel, the load averaged 1,983 fps when I shot it through a chronograph. Accuracy at 100 yards was excellent, as all three-shot groups were less than 1.5 inches and several crowded 1 inch.
In Ohio, I shot a nice buck with the load at a range of a little more than 100 yards. The bullet impacted the deer about halfway up the body along the rear edge of the shoulder and passed through. The deer fell and never moved another inch. While the big bullet did its job admirably, there was little undue damage to the meat surrounding the wound cavity—something that nearly always occurs with lighter, faster bullets.
Lever-action rifles simply work for whitetails. With HammerDown loads, they may even work a little better.