The term “varmint” usually describes animals such as woodchucks, groundhogs, prairie dogs, and coyotes. These critters are rarely harvested for meat (although it can be), so hunters like to shoot multiple animals at long range as an effective (and fun) form of pest control.
To do this, varmint hunters have traditionally opted for a small, super-fast bullet that takes down animals quickly and humanely. The .22-250 Remington and .220 Swift fit this description perfectly. Both were made in the early 20th centuryth Century for long-distance hunting of vermin, and both have performed well enough to stand the test of time.
But if you have to choose, which one should you choose?
The .22-250 and .220 Swift both fire bullets between 35 and 60 grains at speeds of up to 4,000 feet per second (fps), much faster than most hunting cartridges. Although these bullets are light, their speed allows them to maintain a flat trajectory at long range and helps them shrug off the cross winds so common in the grasslands.
Downrange energy is not a big issue for varmint hunters. If you hit a groundhog with a bullet flying 2500 fps, it doesn’t care if it’s 55 grains or 168 grains. In these scenarios, a fast, flat-shooting ball is more important than knockdown power.
Both cartridges fire small bullets very quickly, but the .220 Swift typically throws bullets slightly faster than the .22-250, which can give it an advantage in trajectory combat.
For example, this .22-250 Federal load fires a 40-grain Hornady V-max bullet to the muzzle at 4,200 fps, while these .220 loads fire a 40-grain bullet at 4,250 fps. Because the bullets have virtually identical ballistic coefficients (which describe how well the bullet flies through the air), the .22-250 drops 6.1 inches at 100 yards, while the .220 Swift drops just 5.5 inches. Half an inch isn’t much, but when the target is small, those fractions of an inch matter.
Wind drift is also shown in the .220 column. At 500 yards, the .22-250 drifted 34.1 inches with a 10 mph cross breeze while the .220 drifted only 29.2 inches.
The .220 Swift’s advantage doesn’t hold up in every conceivable matchup, but in general the .220 Swift beats the .22-250 in a race, usually by 100 to 200 fps.
Of course, that extra speed comes at the expense of your run. Users who have experience with both cartridges report that the .220 Swift wears barrels faster than the .22-250, according to Frank C. Barnes in “Cartridges of the World”. Barrel life isn’t a major concern for most hunters, but varmint hunters fire far more rounds than your average whitetail junkie. Would-be varminters will have to consider whether the extra juice of the .220 is enough to justify a barrel change later.
But that’s not the “barrel life” category. This is the ballistics category and in this arena the .220 Swift wins the race by a margin.
Both cartridges are excellent to shoot. The .220 Swift will likely feel quicker thanks to its added velocity, but its recoil energy on the top end is still in the 5-6 foot-pound range. For comparison, a .223 Remington produces about 4 ft.-lbs. recoil, while a .30-06 Springfield produces about 17.
No cartridge will hurt your shoulder, but I can’t say the same about your wallet. The .22-250 and the .220, while popular with varmint hunters, are not ubiquitous (a five-dollar word meaning “basically everywhere”). They can be hard to find at your local sporting goods store, and they pay at least $1.25 per lap.
But the .22-250 has a clear advantage over its counterpart. It’s far more common than the .220 Swift, meaning it’s easier to find online. Federal offers 11 different .22-250 products, and Midway USA offers 36 options. The .220 Swift, on the other hand, is only available in one Federal grade and five Midway grades.
These economies of scale mean the .22-250 is usually cheaper. High-quality hunting ammunition has similar prices, but you can find inexpensive hunting and plinking options for the .22-250 that are not available for the .220 Swift. The cheapest .22-250 costs about $1.25 per round, while the cheapest .220 costs over $2 per round.
Winner: .22-250 Remington
By “versatility” I mean the range of animals that are ethical and the range of firearms you can use to do so.
Both cartridges are specifically designed for varmint hunting, but either cartridge can be used on deer-sized animals as long as the hunter chooses a quality 55 grain or heavier bullet. Federal’s 60-grain Nosler Partition .22-250 would be a good choice, as would this 55-grain Fusion .22-250.
The .220 Swift can also be loaded with deer hunting bullets, but you may have more trouble finding them. Federal’s single .220 option is designed for vermin, and of Midway’s five options, none weighs more than 55 grains. So while both cartridges can theoretically hit up to medium sized game, from a practical standpoint the .22-250 is better.
As you would expect based on ammo availability, more gun manufacturers are offering a wider range of rifles in .22-250 than in .220 Swift. Weatherby, for example, chambers five of their Vanguard models in .22-250, including the excellent Weatherguard Bronze. They don’t chamber rifles in .220 Swift.
In large sporting goods stores, the contrast is even greater. Sportsman’s Guide offers 48 rifles chambered in .22-250, while only a single rifle is chambered in .220. Cabela’s offers four rifles in .22-250 and zero in .220, while Brownell’s has three rifles in .22-250 and zero in .220.
Both cartridges can take the same range of game, but the lack of rifle options for the .220 gives the .22-250 the clear advantage in this category.
Winner: .22-250 Remington
And the winner is…
Several caliber battles have compared cartridges with dynamics similar to this one. One cartridge produces more velocity, but the other is more common, cheaper, or produces less recoil. In some of these previous comparisons, higher speed is enough to outweigh other negative traits. I don’t think this is one of them.
The .220 Swift shoots a faster bullet, and Barnes calls it “the finest varmint cartridge ever made.” But for the average hunter wandering around a local sporting goods store, that high praise won’t do him or her much good. The .220’s 100-200 fps advantage isn’t enough to offset the fact that it’s almost impossible to find. And if you find it, you’ll pay a pretty penny.
That’s why this Caliber Battle goes to the .22-250 Remington.
Overall Winner: .22-250 Remington