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The .220 Swift

by Layne Simpson   |  January 4th, 2011 5

Although 73 years old, this classic will still shoot with the best of ‘em


The .220 Swift, chambered in one of the author’s Remington 40X rifles, is our fastest factory cartridge and an accurate one to boot.

Can you imagine how excited today’s varmint shooters would be if an ammunition company announced a cartridge capable of producing velocities 50 percent faster than anything else available?

That’s exactly what happened back in 1935 when Winchester introduced the .220 Swift. Loaded to a muzzle velocity of 4,110 fps with a 48-grain bullet, it was more than 1,400 fps faster than the .22 Hornet, which had been the fastest pure varmint cartridge available in factory-loaded form. When both cartridges were zeroed the same, a bullet fired from the .220 Swift shot as flat out to 400 yards as one fired from the .22 Hornet at 200 yards.

This meant a good marksman, shooting a rifle chambered for the exciting new cartridge, could plaster the crosshairs in his scope on the nose of a standing groundhog and place a bullet in its boiler room at any distance out to 400 long paces. It wasn’t short on killing power, either–delivering as much energy at 500 yards as the Hornet was capable of at 100.

Something else the .220 Swift had going for it was its introduction in the Winchester Model 54, which was by far the most accurate factory rifle available at the time. Rifles with barrels of both standard and heavy weights were offered, and to make sure the .220 Swift ran at top speed, all barrels were 26 inches long.

I have never owned a Model 54 in .220 Swift, but a friend with whom I used to shoot groundhogs did, and it was as accurate as my Winchester Model 70 in the same caliber. His rifle wore a 15X Lyman Super Targetspot scope, and the long-range accuracy of that rifle and its owner were legendary in my neck of the woods.

The .220 Swift has long enjoyed a reputation for excellent accuracy in good rifles, and it, along with a sharp-shouldered version of the same cartridge–called the .220 Arrow–were mildly popular among benchrest competitors during the 1940s.

The Swift’s ability to shoot bullets into small groups has not gone unnoticed by others, either. Years ago, Ruger factory technicians who tested rifles were required to keep accuracy records on all calibers; doing so revealed that rifles in .220 Swift had a slight accuracy edge over those in .22-250.

My own experience with various rifles in the two cartridges has been similar. Some of the rifles in .22-250 I have worked with through the years were incredibly accurate, but as a rule, those in .220 Swift had the edge. The difference was seldom great, but it was consistent enough to make the .220 Swift become my favorite long-range groundhog cartridge.

The first rifle I bought in .220 Swift was a slightly used Winchester Model 70, and while it was capable of shooting five bullets inside an inch at 100 yards, it was by no means the most accurate rifle I have owned in this caliber.

During the early 1970s, I purchased a Remington 40X-BR Heavy Varmint with 26-inch barrel in .222 Remington and, dissatisfied with its accuracy, I had gunsmith Harry Creighton of Nashville, Tennessee rechamber it and open up the bolt face for the .220 Swift. Harry’s speciality was varmint rifles, and local varmint shooters usually referred to him as “Mr. .220 Swift”–and for good reason.

The very first five-shot group I fired with the rifle after its rechamber job has always been easy to remember. The load I used was 39.0 grains of IMR-4064, under Sierra’s 50-grain bullet, and the group measured .444-inch.

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A Few Great .220 Swift Loads

Bullet Bullet Weight (gr.) Powder Charge Weight (gr.) Muzzle Velocity (fps)
Berger Varmint 40 Alliant Reloader 15 40.0 4,164
Sierra softpoint 50 IMR 4064 39.0 3,932
Speer HPBT 52 Norma 202 36.0 3,860
Nosler Ballistic Tip 55 Vihta Vuori N140 38.5 3,873
Nosler Partition 60 Hodgdon H4831 46.0 3,618
Swift Scirocco 75 Hodgdon H4831 42.0 3,410
Federal Ballistic Tip 40 Factory load 4,177
Federal Ballistic Tip 50 Factory load 3,826
Federal Bear Claw 55 Factory load 3,710
ABBREVIATION: HPBT. hollowpoint boattail
NOTES:All powder charges are maximum and should be reduced by 10 percent for starting loads. Velocities are averages of five or more rounds clocked 12 feet from the muzzle of a 26-inch barrel. Federal cases and 210M primers were used in all loads. The Swift bullet requires a rifling twist rate no slower than 1:8 inches for stability; others are stabilized by a 1:14 inch twist, which is standard for factory rifles in .220 Swift.

Further load development produced occasional groups measuring as small as .250 inch. Casual “hunter rifle” benchrest matches used to be popular among members of the gun club I belonged to, and anytime that rifle did not win its class the fault was mine.

Soon after the .220 Swift was introduced, some hunters were so impressed by its velocity they decided to try it on big game. The results were mixed because the speedy 48-grain bullet sometimes went to pieces before penetrating deeply enough for a quick kill on deer.

P.O. Ackley solved the problem by developing his Controlled Expansion bullet, but few who used the .220 Swift knew about it, and the cartridge never overcame its reputation as a poor performer on game larger than varmints.

Back when I first started handloading, Bruce Hodgdon sold military-surplus H4831 in 50-pound kegs for 60 cents per pound. The only two rifles I owned at the time were in .220 Swift and .25-06, the latter a wildcat at the time. Money was scarce in those days, so I used nothing but H4831 in both .

When loading the Swift I simply used a powder funnel to fill a case to the brim with that powder and then seated a 50-grain Sierra bullet. Accuracy was plenty good, and while H4831 is too slow to produce maximum velocity with such a light bullet, it was cheap, and bullet speed was fast enough for someone who was accustomed to varminting with the .22 Hornet.

I eventually switched to IMR 4064. It’s difficult to improve on when bullets up to 55 grains in weight are used. For top velocities with heavier bullets, powders with slower burn rates are the way to go. Hodgdon H4831, IMR 4831, Alliant Reloder 25, Norma MRP and VihtaVuori N160 are great choices. I usually switch to a magnum primer when using those powders in cartridges with bigger appetites, but a standard primer works fine when they are used in the .220 Swift.

For varmint shooting I prefer to zero a rifle in .220 Swift two inches high at 100 yards. This puts its bullet about two inches above line of sight at 200 yards, an inch low at 300 and less than a foot low at 400 yards. Zeroed in this manner, the cartridge has a point-blank range of about 340 yards on a whistlepig sitting on its haunches or a coyote standing broadside to the gun.

Such a flat trajectory allows you to simply place the crosshairs where they should go, squeeze the trigger and watch a varmint bite the dust. A laser rangefinder–combined with a range-compensating reticle in a high-magnification scope–extends the range of the .220 Swift even more.

In order to make anything new look better than everything old, practically everyone who has written about the .204 Ruger has incorrectly touted it as our fastest factory-loaded cartridge. Not true.

The 32-grain loading of the .204 Ruger is rated at 4,225 fps, which is 25 fps slower than Federal’s 40-grain loading of the .220 Swift. I’ll admit the difference is insignificant but the fact remains, the speed record still belongs to a grand old cartridge that has ruled over varmint land since 1935.

Warning: The loads shown here are safe only in the guns for which they were developed. Neither the author nor InterMedia Outdoors assumes any liability for accidents or injury resulting from the use or misuse of this data. Shooting reloads may void any warranty on your firearm.

  • jose valencia

    i love the 220 swft rifle and i ll buy one soon……

  • T HUFF

    I've owned mine for 20 years and i love it. It is the best .Handloaded its faster than the 17's the .204 , .224 wm ,and 22-250. its just as fast as the .223 wssm without the feeding problems. A 77 years old stud. I wish that all the gun writers would show this greatest of varmint rounds the respect that it deserves. maybe rifle makers would start chambering for it again . LONG LIVE THE KING !!!!

  • phil

    great article on a great cartridge.

  • Bubba

    I have a Ruger M77 220 Swift 1978 model the best grouping rifle I have ever fired ,I also have a 22-250 it also shoots great,but if I want to impress my friends I get the 220 swift out. WHEN SOMEONE SPEAKS BAD ABOUT THE 220 SWIFT, THEY ARE JEALOUS BECAUSE THEY DON'T OWN ONE.

  • Ginnz

    I just bought a .220 swift Ruger #1 Heavy Barrel version. I can’t wait to take delivery! It came with brass and dies to boot! I have .223′s, 308′s, and 22-250, but I believe the Swift will be my new ‘Yote Smasher!

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