The .220 Swift was introduced by Winchester in 1935 in its Model 54 bolt-action rifle. It is a modification of the now obsolete 6 mm Lee Navy Cartridge.
The first two loadings from Winchester were a 46-grain hollow-point bullet and a 48-grain soft point semi-pointed bullet.
The advertised muzzle velocity with both bullets was 4,140 feet per second. The .220 Swift may have been a cartridge that was as much as 30 years ahead of its time, because this was far greater than any other cartridge in production.
At first, it was tried on everything from all forms of small game to grizzly bears. Big game hunters were quick to realize that light high-speed bullets lack the necessary penetration needed for reliable, humane kills on animals as large as white tail deer.
When shots were taken at favorable angles where little depth of penetration is needed, hunters would get the quick humane kill they desired. However, when shots were taken at less favorable angles that resulted in failure, caused many hunters to condemn the cartridge as fast as others were praising it.
The .220 Swift was and still is a superb varmint cartridge providing its peculiarities are fully understood. First of all, high-velocity performance comes at a price. High velocity and high firing temperatures do accelerate barrel and chamber wear. The Swift became infamous for being a “barrel burner.”
Owners of .220 Swift rifles were quick to say that the barrel was worn out in less than 200 rounds. Remember barrel fouling is difficult to see or notice by just casual or infrequent inspection, and it is detrimental to accuracy. A thorough cleaning would most likely have restored the former accuracy.
Many owners of .220 Swift rifles were quick to replace their barrels with the belief they were “shot out.” Many less knowledgeable reloaders ruined more than just a few .220 Swift rifles because they pushed the cartridge beyond the limits of safety.
Another factor that needs to be taken into consideration is the quality of steel that went in the rifle barrels in the 1930s. Due to improved technology, the steel in today’s high performance rifle barrels is more superior to the steel that went into rifle barrels during the era of the Great Depression.
Professional gunsmith and gun writer Parker Ackley maintained that the .220 Swift was a very good cartridge for varmints and medium game. Ackley used it extensively for taking wild burros in the American West.
Today’s factory loadings of the .220 Swift are not as hot as the original Winchester loads of the 1930s. This should be good because there should be less barrel fouling. Today, Winchester offers a 40-grain bullet with a muzzle velocity of 4,050 feet-per-second and a 50-grain bullet with a muzzle velocity of 3,870 feet-per-second. Federal has a 52-grain bullet with a velocity of 3,830 and a 55-grain load at 3,700 feet-per-second. Hornady has a 50-grain load at 3,850 and a 60-grain bullet at 3,600 feet-per-second.
If I were going to deer hunt with a .220 Swift in West Virginia, I would want a heavier bullet than what is offered in today’s factory loadings. Speer makes an excellent 70-grain semi-spitzer soft-point reloading bullet for this purpose. I would try to have it loaded up to 3,150 feet-per-second at the muzzle. This would be adequate for taking white tails at 125 yards or less, and the chamber pressure would be nowhere near the limit of safety.
Some of the rifles chambered for the .220 Swift in recent years are Remington Model 700 V S Bolt Action, Ruger Model 77 Target bolt action, Winchester Model 70 Heavy Barrel Varmint bolt action, Ruger Number One Single Shot, and the Savage Model 112 Varmint Single Shot.
Below are three good hand loads for the .220 Swift:
1. Case — Remington
Primer — Remington 9 1/2 (large rifle)
Bullet — Hornady 50-grain pointed soft point
Powder & Weight — IMR 4320; 38.0 grains
Note: Long range small varmint load.
2. Case — Remington
Primer — Remington 9 1/2 (large rifle)
Bullet — Sierra 63-grain semi-pointed soft point
Powder & Weight — Hodgdon 380; 38.5 grains
Note: Good coyote load at 200-250 yards.
3. Case — Winchester
Primer — CCI 200 (large rifle)
Bullet — Speer 70 grain
Powder & Weight — IMR 4350/ 35.0 grains
Note: Medium range deer load.