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.

The .22-250’s backers felt insulted that their sage advice had been ignored, Carmichel wrote, and proceeded to bad-mouth the Swift at every turn.

Although many companies chambered the Swift, the absolute sweet spot for rifles was the Winchester Model 70 from about 1950 to 1960.  The rifles were beautifully made, the barrels were of the best alloys, and the styling was classic.

The .220 Swift (right) and its arch-rival, the one-time wildcat .22-250. The .22-250 is undoubtedly one of the finest .224 centerfires ever developed, but the Swift shades it for velocity and flat trajectory. Both were developed in the 1930s.

When Winchester discontinued the Swift, removing it from standard production in 1961, and then from even the custom shop in 1963, collectors and Swift fanciers bought up every Model 70 they could, and drove the price up far above list.

When I acquired four boxes of Remington factory ammunition earlier this year, causing me to go in search of a rifle to shoot it in, I began by asking various custom makers and got a rash of rejections.  I then turned to Rock Island, hoping something would come along in good enough shape to bid on.  In June, they listed a Model 70, in very nice original condition with a squeaky clean bore, made in 1953.

I thought it was an anomaly, and considered myself lucky to land it for a little more than $1,800.  Then, in the next auction two weeks later, five very similar Model 70s each sold for about the same price.  The only explanation I can give is that they had found their way into the hands of a collector who didn’t shoot much, if at all.  Whatever the explanation, I and five other rifle lovers certainly lucked out.

Anyone who doubts the quality of Model 70s from that era, or questions its reputation as “the rifleman’s rifle,” should find someone who has one and try it out.  They have a solid feel of proper walnut and steel, with hand-cut checkering and a nice rubbed-oil finish that even a modern custom rifle can’t duplicate.  The bolts came from the factory slick and smooth, and the trigger is light and crisp.  Combined with the pre-’64’s inherent fine design, they are one of the all-time gems of American rifle making.

I don’t know how accurate my Swift is yet.  I’ve just begun load development, and some of the necessary components are hard to come by.  Ballistically, though, I have a load from the 1961 Speer handbook—41.0 grains of IMR 4064 with 50-grain Nosler Ballistic Tips—that chronographs at 4,209 fps, with an extreme spread of six (6) fps, from the Model 70’s 26-inch barrel.  There are only the barest signs that I’m nudging the pressure limit, but I won’t push it further.  Why would I?  I have high hopes.

Gray’s shooting editor is a late-comer to the cults of both the .220 Swift and the pre-’64 Model 70.  He made the longest shot of his life on a game animal—535 measured yards on a South Dakota prairie dog, using a Dakota rifle, in 1996—so it’s a wonder it’s taken him this long.