The .220 Swift
of yesteryear • Adventure Sport • Africa: The Good News • Book Reviews •
The .220 Swift and I have somewhat of a parallel history. We both came out of the mid 1930s. I was born just one year before it was introduced, and we both had to grow up in the years of the depression. I did not hear much about the Swift, as it was called, until I started to do some varmint shooting in the early 1950s. What I did hear was not necessarily good news. During these early years the Swift had been badly abused by a hostile press and plagued with ammunition and components that were not equal to the capacity of this cartridge.
Just before I went into the service in 1953, the Swift had already been labeled as a barrel burner which could not hit the broad side of a barn after firing five shots in a row. Everyone claimed you had to clean the barrel after every 10 shots of so, and that after four or five hundred rounds of full power loads the barrel was ready to be replaced. Looking down the barrel of a .220 Swift that had been fired a couple of hundred rounds was like looking down an old sewer pipe and accuracy was no longer a real part of the equation. The throats and leades took a real beating in those days, and most barrels were black for the first half-inch or so out of the throats.
The .22-250 was the darling of the 50s, and I have to admit that it was my favorite during my first years of ground squirrel shooting after my return to civilian life.
The wheels of time slowly turned; new cartridges came on the market, newer barrel materials were developed and most importantly; new powders became available along with better products for firearm maintenance and barrel cleaning. The whole realm of consumer products and concepts within the shooting sports moved a hundred years forward into the 21st century.
Throughout all this time the .220 Swift sort of sat there on the sidelines, never really forgotten, but not really wanted in the company of its more modern siblings. I also grew a bit older and started to realize that some of these older items and concepts within the firearms field still had some real potential; or at least a lot of nostalgia.
Two years ago, I stopped over at one of the local gun shops and the proprietor, out of respect for my age, mentioned that he had one of the older model 70 rifles, which I might appreciate or at least still recognize. At that time, his racks were filled with what I call black guns and plastic semi-automatic pistols. He went back into his storeroom and brought out two Pre 64 model 70 rifles that had seen better days. The first was a 1957 production model that had been rebarreled into a heavy target configuration. The second was a Pre 64 Model 70 standard grade .220 Swift manufactured in 1952. This gun had all the image of the early 1950s, a low comb stock and the rich red Winchester wood finish that was the hallmark of the Pre 64 Winchesters.
Unfortunately, the years had been especially hard on this gun. Someone had screwed on a leather cheek piece with some large wood screws and the barrel was black from one end to the other. The proprietor wanted to dump these relics as soon as possible and quoted a price that was less then the cost of the actions alone. After giving the offer all of five seconds to sink in… out came my credit card and we started doing the transfer paper work.
California has a 10 day holding period before you can take delivery of a long gun. I took this time to contact Brownell’s and placed an order for their early Winchester stock refinishing kit. I also ordered some black lacquer sticks that I would melt into the holes left from the wood screws, there was no way to make these holes disappear, so the idea was to make them accentuate the plain grain of the factory stock. The stock was a real challenging project, but came out as good as new and the lacquered holes now look like original knot holes in the wood and give the stock a higher grade appearance then the original plain factory wood ever did. The low comb on this original scope gave me the idea of mounting a Leupold VX3L 6x20x56 as low as possible with Leupold QD rings and bases. This scope now sits almost as low as the original open sights and works well with the lower comb. The small cutout feature on the bottom of the objective lens is different from most scopes, but really looks ultra modern on this rifle and moves it into a new century.
Originally, I had almost written off the barrel on this .220 Swift, luckily I felt that it was a sacrilege to lose a factory-marked barrel from this period. The store proprietor could not release the gun to me during this ten day period, but did let me clean the barrel while it was in his shop. The first step was to soak the interior of the barrel with Slip 2000 Carbon fouling cleaner. Every couple of hours for the first day I ran a dry patch down the barrel followed by a wet patch. At the end of the day, I pushed five of six clean patches down the barrel from breach to muzzle. The first couple of patches were almost unrecognizable as being made of cloth, because they were so full of crude. This was repeated for another two or so days. At the end of this procedure, the barrel started to show some marked signs of improvement and I started to become hopeful of at least saving the barrel to be at least shootable.
After four days of using the Carbon fouling cleaner, I started using Western Powder Montana Xtreme Copper Killer. A brass brush also entered the picture at this time. My procedure for this cleaning step, was to run an Copper Killer soaked patch down the barrel, let it soak for an hour or so and then follow with a couple of clean dry patches. Then proceed with a couple of strokes with the brush, again use three or four clean patches and finish with a wet patch of Copper Killer to soak for another hour. I really was in no hurry, because I could not take possession of the gun for those ten days.
Somewhere about the sixth day or so, the barrel was starting to look pretty good. The rifling looked sharp and the leades looked good to my eyes. Then, I shot ten rounds of cast lead bullets into the bullet shop’s testing barrel for each of the four days remaining on the hold, and each time cleaned the barrel with Gun-Werkz Bore Cleaner. By now the barrel looked like new and the store owner wanted to know if I was interested in putting the gun back on his rack and pick up a couple of hundred bucks for my efforts. No way was that going to happen, until I found out how the rifle was going to shoot. My first five rounds of full 55-grain Sierra spitzers went into less then an inch… and this rifle immediately became a keeper. The store owner later admitted that the original gun owner had never used this gun very often, because he only shot accurate guns and this .220 had developed very bad fouling after only a hundred rounds or so, making it impossible to keep the barrel clean enough to shoot it for any length of time.
After that eye opening experience, I started to look closer at the .220 Swift’s history and think over some of the bad vibes that had been such a part of its heritage. Back in the 50s, about the only cleaning products commonly available were Hoppes #9; which is a good product and one that I still use a lot of, or surplus GI bore cleaner. Fortunately, we now have a multitude of cleaning products especially formulated to eliminate the problems of powder fouling, along with carbon and brass build up. My favorite powder for the last few years for the ‘hot .22s’ has been Hodgdon’s Varget. During the post World War II years, Hi-Vel #2 was a common powder for the .220 Swift reloaders, but Varget has eliminated most of the problems that the Swift was plagued with using these older propellants.
I was now completely caught up in the ‘hot rod mysticism’ of the .220 Swift, and placed it on an equal accuracy level with my .22-250, and possibly a little better as to how fast I could drive the 55-grain Sierra bullet. Now, all I had to do was wait for Hodgdon to incorporate their latest Carbon Fouling Eraser technology into a Varget clone and I would really be a happy camper.
Now that I was basically satisfied, something had to enter the equation to mess things up. Science and technology is able to steadily move forward. What progress is able to accomplish, our members in government can twist aside. California has now incorporated a lead free ban in certain areas of the state, and is moving forward on banning the use of lead ammunition throughout the state. Something new and outside of the envelope to mess up a winning combination.
Luckily, Barnes Bullet Company has come into the picture. Barnes is one of the leaders in lead free technology and has developed a line of lead free bullets which will shoot as well as conventional lead bullets, with the additional feature of outstanding performance on game. Randy Brooks has really worked hard in this area and deserves his sterling reputation as a bullet maker and innovator.
The .22 caliber bullets have always been a challenge in both conventional lead and non-lead technology. The smaller the projectile, the more gremlins are able to step in to cloud the picture. Barnes introduced their Varmint Grenade Bullet a couple of years ago in a 50-grain projectile. This bullet has a powdered tin and copper core impacted into a copper jacket. This bullet was longer then a conventional lead core bullet of the same weight and I, along with others, had problems getting it to shoot in the hot .22s that we were using.
Last week the folks at Barnes sent me some of their latest 36-Grain .224 bullets #22436 to try out. I was a little skeptical, since I remembered my experiences with the 50-grain Varmint Grenade bullets. I was not really optimistic on what I would be able to accomplish with a bullet that weighed less then the 40-grain bullets I was using in the .22 Hornet. Also, I was not thrilled with the idea of redoing a lot of load development and the fact that some loading components are getting hard to locate. Truthfully, I believe my mind set was a little distorted from my experiences with the heavier Varmint Grenade bullet. Therefore, I just opened the Barnes loading manual to the .220 Swift sections and found a load that matched the powder I had on hand. Luckily, they had a load using 42 grains of Hodgdon Varget with this bullet and claimed a velocity of 4391 fps.
My experience has been that most solid lead free bullets shot the best, and have the least pressure problems, when they are seated to give a good amount of jump before engaging the rifling. Conventional lead core bullets often need to be seated into the leades to obtain the maximum in accuracy performance. Since these new bullets were similar to the 50-grain Varmint Grenade in construction, and more like conventional lead bullet construction, I decided to seat the bullet to 0.005 inch past the leade and let the closing of the bolt do the final seating of the bullet. I dropped the powder charge down to 41 grains to allow for this hard seat. I made up and fired a number of test loads to bring the powder charge safely up to the level I wanted to try, and then shot my first five shot group with this load.
These first five shots went into a group one quarter of an inch lower then my normal 55-grain loading and the five shots measured less then .700 of an inch. Most importantly, it grouped into a nice round cluster. Five groups later and I was sold on this new Barnes bullet.
The average velocity was 4390 fps… one foot per second less than listed in the loading manual and one less grain of powder. I believe the hard seating made up for the reduction in powder; since it shot so well and there were no signs of high pressure. This combination of a shorter 36-grain bullet which will stabilize in a 1 in 14 inch twist… and travel at 4390 fps sounds like the answer to a screeching 400 yard prairie dog outfit. I can only imagine what the effects of this bullet will be on a prairie dog.
We have come a long way in the last 50 years and today’s components and maintenance equipment have made it into a world where we can keep whatever guns we have shooting for a long, long time. This old .220 Swift is now over 60 years old and is just now awakening to its real potential.
As a side note, I tried this same load in a second .220 Swift, which has a one in eight inch twist, and the two shots I fired did not even reach the 100 yard target. But as they say, that is another story for another day.
I should also give credit to the boys at Magnetospeed for coming up with a chronograph that is so easy to set up and use, I can take velocity readings any time I am at the range.
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