Cream-Of-The-Crop: .22-250 & .220 Swift Varmint Rifles
September 23, 2010
In addition to being two of the world's fastest .22-caliber centerfire cartridges, the .22-250 and .220 Swift rank among the oldest. Kimber's new Model 84 Varmint and Weatherby's new Super VarmintMaster are fitting vehicles for taking a close look at these classic varmint cartridges.
The .22-250 story begins back in the 1920s when Savage hired rifle and cartridge designer Charles Newton to come up with a .22-caliber big-game cartridge for the Model 99 lever-action rifle. Newton presented two different designs to Savage management, supposedly at different times. One, created by necking down the .30-30 Winchester case for .228-inch bullets, went on to be adopted by Savage around 1912 as the .22 Hi-Power. About a year later Savage introduced another Newton-designed cartridge the case of which was originally formed from .30-06 brass. It was called the .250-3000 Savage. While at work on that one, Newton also came up with another cartridge on the same case, one that used the same .228-inch bullet as the .22 Hi-Power. The .250-3000 took off like a rocket, but its .22-caliber mate was never introduced commercially by Savage.
During the late 1920s a gunsmith named Jerry Gebby was visiting Newton, and his eye was drawn to a cigar box full of oddball cartridges sitting on Newton's desk. One of those cartridges was the second high-velocity .22 Newton had designed for Savage, the one Savage had chosen not to chamber its rifles for. Gebby went home with one of those cartridges clutched tightly in his hand, and the rest is history. After necking the case on down for more commonly available .224-inch bullets, he decided to call the old Newton cartridge the .22 Varminter. In an effort to discourage other gunsmiths from chambering rifles for "his" new cartridge, Gebby had its name trademarked during the early 1930s. It didn't work. Since the cartridge was commonly formed by necking down the .250 Savage case, gunsmiths avoided infringement by simply stamping ".22-250" on the barrels of rifles they built. When Remington made the decision to domesticate the cartridge in 1965, the name became .22-250 Remington.
Like most rifles in .22-250 built during the '30s, '40s, and on into the '50s, the first one I owned was built on a war-surplus 1898 Mauser action. I formed cases not by necking down expensive .250-3000 Savage brass but by using a set of RCBS form dies to transform military-surplus .30-06 brass into .22-250 brass. The job was quite time-consuming, but since I had nothing else more important to do in those days, it really didn't matter. I later bought one of the first Remington Model 700s to arrive in my neck of the woods in that caliber, and while it was traded away years ago, I still own a Browning B78 single shot, which was also purchased in those days. Browning, by the way, started chambering its High Power bolt rifles to .22-250 around 1963 when the cartridge was still a wildcat.
When I built that first Mauser in .22-250, I had no idea what powder to use in handloads so I wrote to Bruce Hodgdon, founder of Hodgdon Powder Co. In those days owners of companies in the shooting industry were not above personally answering mail from customers, and Hodgdon was that way (as were Roy Weatherby, John Nosler, Joyce Hornady, Vernon Speer, and several other old-timers). Hodgdon wrote back to inform me that not only was his H380 an excellent choice for the .22-250, its name came from the fact that 38.0 grains was the charge to use behind bullets weighing anywhere from 50 to 53 grains. I ordered 10 pounds of the powder (at 75 cents per pound, if memory serves) and liked it so well it would be several years before I got around to trying anything else in the .22-250. The same went for the Sierra 50-grain spitzer. I completely shot out that first barrel with the Sierra bullet pushed along by 38.0 grains of H380. I didn't own a chronograph in those days, but Hodgdon had told me I should get around 3650 fps in the 26-inch barrel of my Mauser. Considering how flat the load shot, I had no doubt about his calculations.
I now own several rifles in .22-250, and while I continue to use H380, its burn rate has slowed down through the years. Whereas 38.0 grains was once considered enough to use with a 50-grain bullet, the maximum has been increased by Hodgdon to 41.0 grains. Velocity, however, remains about the same and usually averages 3650 to 3700 fps in a 26-inch barrel.
Another outstanding powder I use in this cartridge is Alliant Reloder 15. My Remington Model 700 Varmint averages close to half-minute-of-angle when fed 35.0 grains of that powder and the Nosler 55-grain Ballistic Tip. Hodgdon's Varget is also a dandy. The Kimber Model 84M Varmint featured in this report averaged 0.54 inch when fed 36.0 grains of that powder and the Berger 52-grain hollowpoint. Other outstanding choices are IMR-4064, AA 2700, Ramshot TAC, and VihtaVuori N150. If a rifle in .22-250 won't shoot accurately with one or more of the powders I have mentioned, it probably won't shoot accurately with anything.
Winchester Unleashes The Swift
The .220 Swift is another old-timer, and if not for the popularity of the .22-250 wildcat during the '30s, it might never have been developed. It was common knowledge at the time that Winchester was busy working on a new high-velocity varmint cartridge, and many who stayed abreast of that sort of thing were convinced the company would simply domesticate the .22-250 (as Remington finally got around to doing about 30 years later). Instead, Winchester modified the 6mm Lee Navy case a bit and introduced a cartridge of its own design called the .220 Swift. The new cartridge was loaded with a 48-grain bullet at the astounding velocity of 4110 fps.
I'll never forget seeing the .220 Swift in action for the first time at the ripe age of 12. I was shooting crows one day with a Savage 219 in .22 Hornet when I bumped into a chap who was doing the same thing. Only he was shooting a heavy-barrel Winchester Model 70 in .220 Swift equipped with a Unertl 15X Ultra Varmint scope. In those days I thought I was pretty hot stuff with the Hornet and seldom missed inside 200 paces, unless the wind caught me by surprise. But 200 yards to the fellow with the Swift meant just getting started. When he shot a crow at that range or closer, what had once been a songbird-destroying black bandit was transformed before my eyes into a misty shower of feathers, beak, and toenails, all headed in different directions at extremely high velocities. Now I realize that shots we made and saw made during our youth are almost always longer in our memories than they actually were, but I remain convinced to this day that several of the crows bumped off by that fellow stood at least
400 yards from the muzzle of his Model 70. I knew then and there that someday I would have a .220 Swift of my own.
The first rifle in .220 Swift I owned was a Winchester Model 70 with a Weaver 10X scope. Things were a bit tight at the Simpson household in those days, and I loaded Hodgdon's military-surplus H4831 in everything, including the .220 Swift. I burned 46.0 grains behind the 55-grain Sierra, which probably gave me a velocity of about 3600 fps. Even though the load was not terribly fast, it was extremely accurate--which was just as important in those days because a pound of H4831 went for 65 cents.
The second rifle in .220 Swift I bought actually started out in life chambered for another cartridge. It was one of the first Remington 40-X target rifles in .222 Remington to appear in my neck of the woods, but despite the best of my handloading efforts, I was never able to shrink its average accuracy below half-minute-of-angle on a consistent basis. Living at the time near Nashville, Tennessee, I had gunsmith Harry Creighton, who specialized in building varmint rifles in .220 Swift, rechamber and open up the boltface of the 40-X for that cartridge. I then equipped it with a Leupold 16X scope, an extremely popular scope among Tennessee rifleman in those days but unfortunately no longer available. I'll never forget the average measurement of the very first groups I fired with the rifle after Harry's rechambering job simply because the number is so easy to remember. After using three or four shots to zero the rifle at 100 yards, I fired five five-shot groups with the Sierra 50-grain spitzer seated atop 38.0 grains of IMR-4064. The average was 0.444 inch. I still own that old 40-X, and even though it has accounted for more groundhogs than you will ever see me admit to in print, it will still keep five bullets close to half an inch at 100 long paces.
I don't recall using anything but IMR-4064 in the 40-X in those days, and it is still one of my favorites for that cartridge. From there on, powders that work in the .22-250 usually work equally well in the Swift. If I had to pick several that have proven to be quite accurate in a number of rifles, I'd say in addition to IMR-4064, Reloder 15, Varget, and AA 2700 have been consistent leaders. When maximum velocity becomes as important as accuracy, H380 must be added to the list. For bullets weighing more than 55 grains, slower burners such as H414 and W760 work quite nicely. As you can see in the accompanying accuracy results chart, the Weatherby Super VarmintMaster was extremely fond of 39.0 grains of Reloder 15 and the Shilen 52-grain hollowpoint.
Two New Varmint Rifles Worth Their Salt
If you read my story on Kimber's new centerfire Model 84M in the August 2001 issue, you know how impressed I am with its quality and good looks. The one I used for that story was in .308 Winchester, but after more recently spending several days shooting prairie dogs with Kimber's new heavy-barrel Varmint version of that same rifle in .22-250, I am even more sold on the design. I was shooting Winchester ammo loaded with the Nosler 50-grain Ballistic Tip, which averaged a rather speedy 4083 fps in the 26-inch barrel of the Kimber. For now, the Kimber Varmint is available only in .22-250 and only in a repeater version with five-round magazine, but I won't be surprised to see that change. Unless I miss my guess, a single-shot Varmint SS version of the same rifle with solid-bottom receiver in .22-250 and maybe even .220 Swift and .243 Winchester is in the works. The Varmint I have been shooting has a nicely figured claro walnut stock of standard shape with checkering cut at 22 lines per inch. It also has a steel grip cap, rubber buttpad, and quick-detach sling swivel posts. The stock of the upcoming Varmint SS should have a beavertail-style forearm, making it a bit more sandbag-friendly.
Made by Kimber, the barrel measures 1.055 inches at the chamber, which is almost as large in diameter as the receiver. The barrel is 26 inches long, .685 inch at the muzzle, and has a nicely executed concave crown. The six-groove rifling has a twist rate of 1:14 inches. Six narrow lightening flutes machined into the exterior surface of the barrel extend from 2 1/2 inches forward of the receiver to 3 1/4 inches behind the muzzle. The barrel free-floats in the stock while the receiver is pillar bedded. The Varmint has the same basic Model 84M action as the big-game version. Its bolt has dual locking lugs up front, a two-position, Model 70-style safety out back, and a Mauser-style claw extractor. One among many nice things about the Model 84 is the fact that the receiver is so light it allows plenty of weight to be put into the barrel, which is where it belongs on a varmint rifle. On my postal scale, the Kimber Varmint weighed eight pounds, 14 ounces with a Burris Fullfield II 6.5-20X scope held in place by a Kimber two-piece base and Burris rings. Its trigger pulled a crisp two pounds with zero perceptible creep or overtravel. As I have come to expect from anything made by Kimber, this one looks as good as it shoots. And vice versa.
To learn more about some of these and other firearms, check out the GalleryofGuns.com website brought to you by Davidson's and Shooting Times. You can read gun reviews, search thousands of firearms, view photos with specifications, learn about firearms safety, keep up to date on the latest firearms news, and locate local retailers. You can even arrange to purchase through a local retailer. The Weatherby Mark V I used to wring out various .220 Swift loads is the Super VarmintMaster version. Built around the standard-length Mark V action, it is available in .223, .22-250, .243, 7mm-08, and .308 in single-shot and repeating versions and as a single shot only in .220 Swift. Its 26-inch stainless-steel barrel is completely free-floating and was made by Krieger, a company famous for accuracy and top quality. After being button-rifled, the barrel is hand-lapped for smoothness and then cryogenically treated for stability. Six wide lightening flutes with their surfaces accented by black coloration run from just forward of the chamber to three inches aft of the muzzle. Of medium-heavy contour, the barrel measures .620 inch at the muzzle and has a concave target-style crown. Twist rate of the six-groove rifling is 1:14 inches.
The rifle I chose to test was the single-shot version. I actually prefer it over the repeater because lack of a magazine box cutout makes the receiver extremely rigid and that can't help but improve accuracy some. The entire length of the receiver is hand-bedded to a precision-machined aluminum bedding block in the stock. Six locking lugs on the fluted bolt reduce bolt rotation to about 30 degrees, a feature to be appreciated as you defend your position from hordes of charging prairie dogs. Also there is the familiar Weatherby bolt shroud with two-position safety and a firing pin cocking indicator. Like all Weatherby rifles, the Super VarmintMaster is made in America.
I really like the shape of the stock on Weatherby's premier-grade varmint rifle. Its comb is high enough to use with a big-objective scope mounted high on the action, and its wide, flat forearm is ideal in both size and shape for use with a sandbag. Finished in a nice tan color, the stock has a soft recoil pad and quick-detach sling swivel posts, the front post positioned correctly for the attachment of a Harris bipod. Outfitted with a Leupold 6.5-20X scope in a Weatherby two-piece mount, the outfit I shot weighed a couple ounces over 10 pounds. The trigger on the rifle was a bit heavy at 4 1/2 pounds, but it was quite smooth and had no perceptible pretravel. Those who prefer a varmint rifle made for more walking and less sitting might find the Super PredatorMaster to be of interest. It is basically a 61/2-pound version of the Super VarmintMaster.
As I write this I have used the Super VarmintMaster in .220 Swift along with Remington's 55-grain Power-Lokt load on Montana rockchucks and California ground squirrels, and believe me when I say that combination is extremely effective at long range.
.22-250 Or .220 Swift--That Is TheQuestion
So which of the two cartridges under discussion is best? Those are questions varmint shooters have been debating for several decades so in truth there's no way I can settle the argument here and now. When taking a close look at test results from a number of rifles in both calibers I have worked with through the years, I notice the .220 Swift has consistently produced slightly better accuracy, but that may have had more to do with rifles than with cartridges. When both cartridges are handloaded to the same chamber pressure and fired in barrels of the same length, the .220 Swift will usually average upwards of 100 fps higher velocity. While that can be considered substantial, I'm not sure it represents enough difference in performance to cause a serious decision to be made one way or the other. Due to its semirimmed case, the .220 Swift will sometimes fail to feed reliably from the magazine of a rifle unless the magazine was designed specifically for it. Even so, since, like the Weatherby Super VarmintMaster, most of my bolt-action varmint rifles are single shots with no magazine, neither cartridge has an edge there.
The .220 Swift is my favorite for reasons more sentimental than practical, but anytime I need to send a long-distance hello across the Back Forty, Mr. Woodchuck is in grave danger regardless of whether the rifle I am shooting is chambered for the .22-250 or the .220 Swift.