The .220 Swift

By Chuck Hawks

.220 Swift
Illustration courtesy of Hornady Mfg. Co.

The .220 Swift is not only brilliantly accurate, it offers the highest performance of any of the commonly encountered North American centerfire .22's. With factory loads or maximum handloads it will slightly outperform even the .224 Weatherby Magnum or the popular .22-250 Remington.

The .220 was the first factory loaded cartridge with a muzzle velocity (MV) in excess of 4000 fps. This landmark MV was achieved by the use of a lightweight 46 grain bullet, but to this day no factory load has achieved a higher muzzle velocity. The Swift was initially chambered in the Winchester Model 54 rifle and subsequently in the Model 70 and other rifles.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the .220 is that it is not a new cartridge that takes advantage of the latest advances in slow burning powders and trick shoulder design. It was designed by Winchester technicians and introduced in 1935 as the ultimate long range varmint cartridge.

The .220 is based on a sharper (21 degree) shouldered version of the old semi-rimmed 6mm Lee Navy case necked down to accept standard .224" diameter bullets. The Swift incorporated no technological miracles in its design; it achieves its superior performance through brute force. It simply has a large case and burns a lot of powder. The SAAMI mean maximum pressure for the .220 is 54,000 cup.

Of course, high pressure and ultra-high velocity had its price in shortened case and barrel life, especially given the technology of 1935, which gave the .220 a bad reputation in some quarters. For a while during the middle of the 20th Century the Swift appeared to be on its way out. Winchester, for a time, stopped chambering rifles for their ultimate .22 and in 1964 introduced what was supposed to be its replacement, the .225 Winchester. (Ironically, it is the .225 that is now obsolete.) Weatherby had introduced their hot .224 Magnum in 1963. In 1965 Remington domesticated the popular .22-250 wildcat, which within a couple of years became the best selling of the ultra-high velocity .22's.

Fortunately for the .220, cooler heads eventually prevailed. In time it became clear that while a .220 could easily be loaded down slightly to duplicate the ballistics of any of these cartridges, none of them could outperform the .220 with maximum loads, and none of them could claim superior accuracy. The .220 Swift has always had a fine reputation for accuracy.

Today, with barrels made from stainless steel and other modern alloys, the Swift is no worse on barrels or brass than the .22-250, .224 Weatherby, or any other similar velocity cartridge. Anyone who wants a new .220 rifle can choose among American-made rifles by Cooper, Dakota, Harris, Remington, Ruger, Savage, and Winchester, and probably other brands worldwide. The Swift has made a solid comeback and appears to have as bright a future as any other large capacity .22 cartridge.

Like any other big case .22 cartridge the Swift is at its best with the heavier bullets in the caliber. The 55 grain bullet is an excellent choice for varmint shooting, and the high velocities at which the Swift can drive heavy 60 grain bullets make it somewhat superior to the other .22 varmint calibers for heavier animals like javelina and coyotes. Like all other .22's, the Swift is not a deer or big game cartridge and should not be used on animals exceeding about 40 pounds in body weight.

Current Winchester factory loads include a Supreme 40 grain Ballistic Silvertip bullet at a MV of 4050 fps and a Super-X 50 grain PSP bullet at 3870 fps. Norma offers a 50 grain bullet at a MV of 4110 fps, and Federal offers a Premium 55 grain Trophy Bonded Bear Claw bullet at a MV of 3700 fps. The latter big game style bullet seems like an odd choice for a varmint caliber, where the bullet should be designed to fragment on impact. Perhaps it is intended for hunting roe deer and chamois in Europe, where big case .22's like the 5.6x57 are popular and legal for such use. Remington's factory load for the .220 Swift is a 50 grain PSP bullet at a MV of 3780 fps. Hornady offers their 60 grain HP bullet at a MV of 3600 fps. All of these factory velocities were taken in 24" barrels.

The reloader can equal or exceed most of these velocities and has access to a much greater selection of bullet weights, ranging from 40 grains to 70 grains. The common .224" bullets include 40, 45, 50, 52-53, 55, 60-64, and 68-70 grain weights. One caution applies when selecting bullets for a .220 rifle. The caliber's rifling twist rate was originally established at 1 turn in 14", due to the light bullets originally factory loaded. Rifles with this twist rate will normally not stabilize bullets heavier than 60 grains. One of the many excellent 55 grain varmint bullets is probably the best choice for .220 rifles with 1 in 14 rifling.

The Lyman 47th Reloading Manual shows that a 55 grain bullet can be driven at a MV of 3472 fps with 33.0 grains of IMR 4064 powder, or 3906 fps with 39.0 grains of the same powder. A 60 grain bullets can reach 3304 fps in front of 33.0 grains of IMR 4064, and 3633 fps in front of 37.5 grains of IMR 4064. IMR 4064 and IMR 4320, along with Hodgdon's H380, H414, and H4895 are recommended powders for top accuracy and performance. The .220 is not difficult to load for and usually gives good accuracy with almost any suitable powder.

Speer ballistics tables show that their 55 grain spitzer bullet (BC .255) at a MV of 3800 fps strikes 2.4" high at 100 yards and 3.2" high at 200 yards when zeroed at 300 yards. At 400 yards this bullet hits 8.6" low. The same basic trajectory also applies to the Hornady V-Max bullet of the same weight.

Hornady ballistics tables show that their 60 grain Hollow Point bullet (BC .271) at 3600 fps, zeroed at 200 yards, hits +0.9" at 100 yards, and -5.3" at 300 yards. This would seem to be about the optimum choice for the bigger varmint and predator species one might hunt with a .220 rifle.

It is pretty hard to better these trajectory figures. The Swift's closest competitors are the .22-250 Rem. and the .224 Weatherby, and the top velocities for both are about 100 fps slower with the same bullets, which translates to about .5" to .7" more drop at 400 yards.

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Copyright 2002, 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.