A Match Made in Heaven

Winchester pre-’64 Model 70 in .220 Swift, with a 26-inch barrel and fitted with a Meopta Optika5 MeoPro 4-20x50 RD scope. The rifle was manufactured in 1953.

by Terry Wieland

Not many cartridges can claim to have a mystique, and a cult-like following, but the .220 Swift is one of them.

As with any cult figure, myths have grown up around the Swift, both good and bad, but against all the odds—almost 90 years of slander combined with one challenger after another—it’s still with us and still doing what it does best:  Knocking off varmints at long range with pinpoint precision.

The two biggest knocks against the Swift are that it burns out barrels, and that it’s accuracy is erratic.  What’s more, say the critics, the two usual solutions to the above problems—loading it down to more civilized levels—don’t work.

The ballistics we are talking about are well known:  a 48-grain bullet at 4,110 feet per second (fps).  That was the original load that made the Swift’s reputation when it was introduced by Winchester in 1935.

Jim Carmichel, long-time shooting editor of Outdoor Life, is an unapologetic Swiftie.  In his 1975 book The Modern Rifle, he devotes five pages to the Swift and demolishes all the complaints.  Barrel deterioration was a problem with early barrels on the original Winchester Model 54, he wrote, but with the Model 70 and the post-war switch to better steel alloys, it all but disappeared.

Most of the Swifts that came to him with complaints that the barrels were “shot out” and accuracy was gone were cured by a thorough cleaning to rid the bores of cuprous fouling.  This problem was little understood in the 1950s, and how to get rid of it even less understood.  And, with a 48-grain bullet at 4,000+ fps, you will get cuprous fouling.

Jim added that one of his favorite loads for the Swift, when he didn’t need to gun the engine to max, was a sedate load with H4895 that is well below even today’s ultra-cautious recommendations.  It was both very mild and very accurate.

Generally speaking, the campaign to denigrate the Swift can be traced to a few influential writers and wildcatters from the 1930s—the ones who developed the .22-250 (aka, .22 Varminter) and recommended it to Winchester when the idea for the Swift was being bandied about.  Instead of necking down the .250 Savage case, however, Winchester chose to use the 6mm Lee Navy case as the basis for the Swift.  Not only did they have the wherewithal in house to produce it, it offered a little more powder capacity.