Those looking for high velocity cartridges well suited for varmint hunting have several great choices these days. Here’s what you need to know about the 22-250 vs 223 vs 204 Ruger vs 220 Swift.
The vast majority of predator and varmint hunters probably agree the .204 Ruger, .223 Remington, .22-250 Remington, and .220 Swift are all excellent cartridges for pest control. After all, there’s a good reason why they are among the most popular centerfire small bore rifle cartridges in the country.
The .204 Ruger, .223 Remington, .22-250 Remington, and .220 Swift are all very accurate, flat shooting, and high velocity cartridges. However, each one has different strengths and weaknesses. Though some of the differences between them are significant, the distinction between the cartridges in other areas may seem like splitting hairs at times. Especially considering that each cartridge tends to appeal to particular segments of the hunting and shooting communities that value different characteristics in a cartridge, the 22-250 vs 223 vs 204 Ruger vs 220 Swift debate can get pretty intense and tough to navigate at times.
In this article, I’m going to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the 22-250 vs 223 vs 204 Ruger vs 220 Swift in order to give you the information necessary to choose the right one for your needs.
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22-250 vs 223 vs 204 Ruger vs 220 Swift: History
The quest for ever increasing velocity is not a new phenomenon and really picked up steam during the early 20th Century when the widespread adoption of smokeless powder opened up a whole new world for cartridge designers. When combined with lighter, smaller diameter bullets, new cartridges using smokeless propellant like the 7mm Mauser, .30-40 Krag, and .30-06 Springfield led the way out of the black powder era and offered massive increases in velocity over common black powder cartridges of the day like the .38-55 Winchester, the .44-40 Winchester, and the .45-70 Government.
It didn’t take long at all for designers to start building even smaller bore cartridges with correspondingly higher muzzle velocities. Shooting an 87 grain .257″ bullet, the .250/3000 Savage cartridge developed by Charles Newton and officially introduced by Savage in 1913 was the first commercially available round to break the 3,000fps barrier.
Grosvenor Wotkyns (of .22 Hornet fame) took things a step further by necking down the .250/3000 Savage to .22 caliber. Not surprisingly, the resulting cartridge was capable of even higher velocities than its parent and Wotkyns submitted his brainchild to Winchester for commercial development. For reasons that are unclear, Winchester chose the 6mm Lee Navy case as the parent for their new high velocity .22 caliber cartridge instead of the .250/3000 Savage.
Winchester released their new cartridge in 1935 as the .220 Winchester Swift. Now best known as the 220 Swift, the original load fired a 48 grain bullet at a screaming muzzle velocity of 4,140 feet per second (1,290 foot pounds of energy).
This was easily the fastest commercial load in the world at the time.
Though it took awhile for hunters to fully appreciate the flat shooting characteristics of the cartridge, the .220 Swift was relatively successful from the start. It was particularly effective as a varmint round where its flat trajectory, great resistance to wind drift, and exceptional accuracy were useful. In addition to the impressive external ballistics of the cartridge, the .220 Swift also exhibited devastating terminal performance on small game like woodchucks/groundhogs, prairie dogs, coyotes, foxes, etc.
The .220 Swift was quite effective on small game, predators, and varmints, but many hunters experienced uneven results when using the cartridge on big game like deer.
By and large, most bullets used in the early days of the cartridge were simply too fragile and quickly fragmented at the high impact velocities common with the .220 Swift. This often resulted in a horrific surface wound that was not immediately fatal. For this reason, many hunters ended up wounding and not retrieving big game shot with the Swift.
The .220 Swift also initially gained a reputation as a barrel-burner, which further limited the appeal of the cartridge.
However, a couple of factors have substantially increased barrel life in .220 Swift rifles in recent years though. For one thing, advances in barrel metallurgy since the 1930s have resulted in more durable rifle barrels. Additionally, manufacturers now usually load factory .220 Swift ammo at slightly lower pressures (more on this in a minute). Especially when shooters allow their barrels to properly cool between shot strings, barrel life is not nearly as big of a concern as it was in past decades.
Even though Winchester opted not to utilize the .250 Savage as the basis for the .220 Swift, many wildcatters continued to neck the Savage case down to .22 caliber over the ensuing decades. The resulting cartridge, known as the .22 Varminter, was also extremely effective on varmints. Indeed, the Varminter cartridge was only slightly less powerful than the Swift, but achieved that level of performance using a significantly smaller case.
The Varminter was also much more versatile than the Swift.
Philip B. Sharpe said it best in his book The Complete Guide to Handloading (second revision of the third edition, p190 & 192):
The .220 Swift was not as flexible as had been anticipated and performed best when loaded to approximately the full velocity…The Varminter case is amazing in that it permits the most flexible loading ever recorded with a single cartridge. It will handle all velocities from about 1500 up to 4500 and the performance of most of the other standard and wildcat cartridges can be equaled.
Not surprisingly, the .22 Varminter was extremely well liked among varmint hunters and the Varminter ended up surpassing the Swift in popularity before it was officially standardized. Browning even took the unusual step of manufacturing rifles chambered the cartridge while it was still a wildcat.
That’s why, in a move similar to what they did with the .25-06 Rem, the Remington Arms Company eventually standardized the cartridge as the .22-250 Remington in 1965.
Since the wildcat cartridge was already quite popular, the .22-250 was a major commercial success after Remington opened up a whole new market segment by manufacturing their Model 700 rifle in the cartridge and selling factory .22-250 ammo.
The .22-250 Remington was known for exceptional accuracy and very mild recoil from the start. It also achieved a velocity and trajectory virtually on par with the .220 Swift (particularly when compared to the increasingly common reduced Swift loads) while utilizing a more efficient design that fit into a smaller package and burned less powder.
The US Military was searching for a replacement for the relatively new M-14 rifle and 7.62x51mm cartridge during that same general timeframe. They eventually settled on the M-16 rifle and the high velocity 5.56x45mm cartridge, which was derived from the .222 Remington. As was the case with the .22-250, Remington knew a winner when they saw it and standardized the new cartridge (which is very similar, but not identical to the 5.56x45mm) with SAAMI as the .223 Remington in the early 1960s.
Pushing a 55gr bullet at around 3,300fps (1,330 foot pounds of energy), the .223 Remington couldn’t quite match the paper performance of the .220 Swift and .22-250 Remington. However, those are still impressive ballistics and the .223 Remington fit in an even smaller package than the .22-250 and had less muzzle blast and recoil to boot.
Introduced as a joint project between Ruger and Hornady in 2004, the .204 Ruger continued that trend of lighter recoiling varmint cartridges that fit into a smaller case. Like the .223 Remington, the .204 Ruger is also descended from the .222 Remington. However, the .204 Ruger is necked down to .204″ (5.2mm). This results in a cartridge with even less recoil and report, but with a much higher velocity.
How fast can the .204 Ruger shoot?
Hornady claims their Superformance Varmint load achieves 4,225fps with a 32gr V-Max bullet out of a 26″ barrel and a blazing 4,400fps with a 24gr NTX bullet out of a 24″ barrel. Those are both among the fastest commercially available loads available in any caliber. Furthermore, those loads achieve that performance with virtually no recoil and while burning significantly less powder than the .22-250 and .220 Swift.
Basically, it has only a little more recoil than rimfire cartridges like the .17 HMR, but is significantly more powerful.
The .204 Ruger is also known for outstanding accuracy and spectacular performance on small varmints.
22-250 vs 223 vs 204 Ruger vs 220 Swift: Cartridge Sizes
As you can see in the photo below, there are some pretty major differences between the .204 Ruger, .223 Remington, .22-250 Remington, and .220 Swift cartridges.
First, the .204 Ruger shoots the smallest bullet: .204″ (5.2mm) compared to the .224″ (5.7mm) bullets used by the other three.
Along those same lines, the .204 Ruger also uses lighter bullets in the 24-45 grain range with 24, 32, 40 grain bullets being most popular. The .220 Swift typically uses bullets in the 40-60 grain range while the .22-250 usually shoots 35-64 grain bullets. Since most rifles chambered in .22-250 Remington and .220 Swift have 1:14″ rifling twists, they have trouble stabilizing heavier bullets. Therefore, 40, 50, and 55 grain bullets are most popular for both the .22-250 and .220 Swift.
On the other hand, faster rifling twists are much more common with the .223 Remington and it’s possible to find rifles chambered in the cartridge with 1:12″, 1:10″, 1:9″, 1:8″ and even 1:7″ rifling twist rates that can stabilize longer and heavier bullets. With this in mind, the vast majority of .223 Remington factory loads shoot bullets in the 35-90 grain range.
Of these, 50 grain, 55 grain, 62 grain, and to a lesser extent, 75 and 77 grain bullet weights are most common.
Next, the .204 Ruger and .223 Remington both have a maximum overall length of 2.26″ which is shorter than the 2.35″ length of the .22-250 Remington and the 2.68″ long .220 Swift. As we’ve discussed in previous articles, the AR-15 can only accommodate cartridges up to 2.26″ long, so both the .204 Ruger and .223 Remington go right up to the limit that will fit in the rifle.
Since they’re both descended from the .222 Remington cartridge, the .204 Ruger and .223 Remington both are rimless cartridges with a .378″ (9.6mm) rim diameter. On the other hand, the .22-250 Remington is a larger rimless cartridge with a .473″ (12mm) rim diameter and the .220 Swift is a semi-rimmed cartridge that also has a .473″ (12mm) rim diameter.
Even though they both have the same overall length and rim diameter, the .204 Ruger has a slightly greater case capacity than the .223 Remington due to the slightly longer case length (1.85″ vs 1.76″) and steeper shoulder angle (30 degrees vs 23 degrees) of the .204 Ruger. However, the .22-250 and .220 Swift each have significantly more case capacity than the .204 and .223.
Finally, they all have different SAAMI maximum average pressure levels: 55,000psi for the .223 Remington, 57,500psi for the .204 Ruger, 62,000psi for the .220 Swift, and 65,000psi for the .22-250 Remington.
220 Swift vs 22-250 vs 223 vs 204 Ruger Ballistics
As you’d likely expect from looking the cartridges themselves, there are some significant differences in the ballistics of the cartridges.
The ballistics chart below compares the trajectory of .204 Ruger, .223 Remington, .22-250 Remington, and .220 Swift loads each firing the Hornady V-Max bullet.
As I referenced earlier in the article, the .220 Swift performs best at near maximum velocity. However, most .220 Swift factory ammo these days is not loaded as “hot” as it could be due to concerns about barrel life. For instance, the Hornady Varmint Express factory loads for the .220 Swift and .22-250 Rem have identical ballistics shooting the same 55gr V-Max bullet at 3,680fps.
In order to conduct a more useful comparison, the .220 Swift ballistics below are for a maximum handload provided by Hornady in their 10th Edition Handbook of Cartridge Reloading (p214): a 55gr V-Max at 3,800fps. Use this load at your own risk.
The other three cartridges use Hornady factory loads. Specifically, the table shows a 32 gr V-Max (.210 BC) in .204 Ruger and 55 gr V-Max (.255 BC) loads in .223 Remington and .22-250 Remington.
The .204 Ruger and .220 Swift data was obtained using 26″ barrels while the .223 Remington and .22-250 Remington used a 24″ barrel length. All four loads used a 200 yard zero.
As you can see, they’re all relatively flat shooting cartridges. This is particularly true with the .204 Ruger, which requires just over 4″ of holdover at 300 yards with a 200 yard zero. In fact, the .220 Swift, .22-250 Remington, and .204 Ruger all have a very similar trajectory with the .220 and .22-250 requiring only a little more holdover than the little Ruger cartridge. The .223 Remington lags behind the others, but it’s no slouch either.
However, the tiny bullets used by the .204 Ruger do not retain energy very well and have a paltry 257 ft-lbs of energy remaining at 500 yards. All of the other cartridges, including the .223 Remington, retain significantly more energy at longer range.
The chart below compares how much a 10 mile per hour crosswind impacts those same .204 Ruger, .223 Remington, .22-250 Remington, and .220 Swift loads out to 500 yards.
Once again, the .220 Swift has a very slight edge over the .22-250 here. Both cartridges have substantially less wind drift than the .204 Ruger and .223 Remington. The .204 Ruger in particular has a reputation for being especially prone to wind drift. While that’s true to a certain degree, it actually drifts less than the .223 Remington.
The fact of the matter is that those lightweight bullets used by all four cartridges also have a relatively low ballistic coefficient, both of which make them more prone to wind drift than many other cartridges.
Now let’s talk about recoil.
The table below compares the recoil produced by those cartridges when fired from 8.5 pound varmint rifles: a Remington Model 700 SPS Varmint for the .204 Ruger, .223 Remington, and .22-250 Remington and a Model 700 Varmint SF for the .220 Swift.
Felt recoil will vary from shooter to shooter and rifle to rifle, but free recoil energy is still a useful way to compare cartridges.All four cartridges have an exceptionally mild recoil and virtually any person, regardless of size or age, should be able to handle them with ease. This is particularly true when shooting a heavy barrel varmint rifle. However, the .204 Ruger is in a completely different league from the others with less than half the recoil of the .220 Swift.
While none are really good choices for extreme long range shooting, all of these cartridges are highly regarded for their accuracy. When used in a quality rifle by a skilled shooter, they’re all capable of tack driving accuracy.
The .223 Remington has a slight edge here because rifles chambered in that cartridge typically have a faster rifling twist that enables them to accurately shoot longer, higher BC bullets than the rest. By the same token, the .22-250 Remington is well known for excellent accuracy across a wide range of loads.
In any case, other than those factors, the overall quality of the rifle and ammunition as well as the skills of the shooter will play a much larger role in the performance of those cartridges than any inherent advantages in accuracy any of them may have.
So where do we stand with each cartridge?
They’re all high velocity, flat shooting cartridges, but the .204 Ruger has the least arching trajectory of the bunch. Handloaders can obtain faster velocities with the .220 Swift, but factory ammo for the the .204 Ruger usually shoots at a higher velocity. It also has has significantly less recoil than the .223 Remington, .22-250 Remington, and .220 Swift, which really says something because they are all mild shooting cartridges. On the downside, the .204 Ruger is indeed more vulnerable to wind drift than the .22-250 and .220 Swift (but not the .223) and does not retain energy nearly as well as the others.
The .223 Remington falls more or less in the middle: it has less recoil and retains less kinetic energy than the .22-250 and .220 Swift, but more than the .204 Ruger. On the other hand, the .223 has the most wind drift and most arching trajectory of the four cartridges when using 55gr bullets.
However, due to the faster rifling twist normally found on rifles chambered in .223 Remington, it can accurately shoot longer and heavier bullets than the other cartridges. This makes the .223 Remington a better choice than the others for hunting larger game. It also has a better selection of ammunition and rifles than the .204 Ruger, .22-250 Remington, and .220 Swift. We’ll discuss those last two points in more detail alter in the article.
The .22-250 Remington and .220 Swift are very close to each other in almost all performance categories. When comparing modern factory loads, the .220 Swift has very small (or practically non-existent in some cases) advantages in velocity, trajectory, kinetic energy, and wind drift. The difference between them grows somewhat when comparing handloads, but the .220 Swift still only has a slight edge over the .22-250 Remington. However, as we’ll discuss in a minute, the .22-250 Remington has massive advantages when it comes to ammo and rifle availability.
Both the .22-250 and .220 Swift are very flat shooting, retain more kinetic energy, and have less wind drift than the .204 Ruger and .223 Remington. This does come at the expense of more (though not excessive) recoil and muzzle blast though.
22-250 vs 223 vs 204 Ruger vs 220 Swift: Ammunition Selection
Consistently ranking among the Top 5 or Top 10 best selling rifle cartridges in the United States each year, the .223 Remington is by far the most popular of the group. The .22-250 Remington is the next most common. They’re followed by the .204 Ruger and the .220 Swift.
Though Winchester attempted to phase the .220 Swift out back in 1964 and replace it with the .225 Winchester (.225 Win), the Swift is still hanging around. It’s not nearly as common as it used to be, but it’s still possible to find factory ammo in the cartridge. Federal, Hornady, Jamison, HSM, Norma, Remington, and Winchester all currently manufacture .220 Swift ammo.
Federal, Fiocchi, Hornady, Nosler, Remington, Sellier & Bellot, and Winchester all produce .204 Ruger ammo.
On the other hand, pretty much every ammunition manufacturer of note like Armscor, American Eagle, Barnes, Black Hills, Browning, Double Tap, Federal, Fiocchi, Hornady, HSM, Nosler, PPU, Remington, Sierra, Sellier & Bellot, and Winchester (just to name a few) produce a wide variety of ammo for both the .223 and .22-250 Remington.
Since the .223, .22-250, and .220 Swift all use .224 cal bullets, virtually every major style of varmint bullet is available in all three cartridges: the Barnes Varmint Grenade, the Berger Varmint HP, the Hornady NTX, Varmint, and V-Max, the Nosler Ballistic Tip and Varmageddon, the Remington AccuTip V, and the Speer TNT (just to name a few). They’re all also available in a wide variety of plain old soft point bullets from a variety of manufacturers.
The .223 and .22-250 are also available in a few loads designed for big game hunting like the Barnes VOR-TX and the Nosler Partition.
Since it uses a much less common .204″ bullet diameter, the .204 Ruger doesn’t have quite the variety of ammunition as the others, but there’s still a good selection of varmint ammo in the cartridge. Among others, the Barnes Varmint Grenade, the Berger Varmint HP, the Hornady NTX and V-Max, the Nosler Ballistic Tip and Varmageddon, and the Remington AccuTip V are available in .204 caliber bullets.
Prices and availability vary from region to region, but the .223 Remington is by far the most common and least expensive. The .204 Ruger and .22-250 Remington are both fairly reasonably priced, but the .220 Swift is the most expensive of the bunch.
All four cartridges are well suited for handloaders and reloading components are widely available. The .224″ bullets used by the .223 Remington, .22-250 Remington, and .220 Swift are also used by their Ackley Improved cousins as well as other cartridges like the .218 Bee, the .219 Zipper, the .221 Fireball, the 22 Creedmoor, the .22 PPC, the .222 Remington Magnum, the .223 WSSM, the .224 Valkyrie, and the .224 Weatherby Magnum. So, there’s a plethora of good quality bullets available to choose.
At this time, the .204 Ruger is the only cartridge in mass production using .204″ bullets, so bullets of that aren’t nearly as widespread. They also aren’t rare by any stretch of the imagination either and there are some good quality bullets to choose from.
22-250 vs 223 vs 204 Ruger vs 220 Swift: Rifle Selection
Similar to the case with ammunition, rifles chambered in .223 Remington are the most common, followed by the .22-250, the .204 Ruger, and finally the .220 Swift.
At one time, Ruger produced both their No. 1 and Model 77 rifles chambered in the cartridge. Sako and Savage (among other companies) manufactured rifles in .220 Swift as well. The .220 Swift was also available for a short period of time in the Winchester Model 54 rifle. However, Winchester produced large numbers of Model 70 rifles in .220 Swift after replacing the Model 54 with the Model 70 in 1936. Winchester eventually ceased production of the cartridge in 1964 when the company began manufacturing their redesigned Model 70.
At this time, I’m only aware of one rifle currently manufactured in .220 Swift: the Remington Model 700 Varmint SF.
The .204 Ruger, .223 Remington, and .22-250 Remington are all very easy to find in bolt-action hunting rifles like the Browning X-Bolt (223 & 22-250), CZ 527 (204 & 223), Mossberg Patriot (223 & 22-250), Remington 700, Ruger American, Ruger Hawkeye, Savage 110, Tikka T3x, and Weatherby Vanguard (223 & 22-250).
While all three other cartridges are virtually non-existent in semi-automatic rifles, the .223 Remington is extremely popular in semi-auto platforms. In particular, AR-15 style rifles like those made by Bushmaster, CMMG, Daniel Defense, DPMS, Noveske, and Wilson Combat, are extremely common with the .223 Remington. It’s also available in the Ruger Mini-Fourteen.
22-250 vs 223 vs 204 Ruger vs 220 Swift: Which Is Right For You?
Are you searching for a cartridge with the flattest possible trajectory (the least bullet drop) and/or highest velocity? Go with the .204 Ruger and use very light bullets like the Hornady 24gr NTX or the Barnes 26gr Varmint Grenade that can deliver screaming fast velocities in the 4,300-4,400fps range with minimal holdover out to 300 yards.
Are you looking for a good all around varmint or predator hunting cartridge? The .204 Ruger, .223 Remington, .22-250 Remington, and .220 Swift are all excellent varmint cartridges.
The .204 Ruger is especially great for small creatures like prairie dogs and foxes, though it will certainly do the job on coyotes as well. While some hunters prefer using the larger .22 caliber centerfires on coyotes, it’s really just a matter of personal preference.
The .22-250 Remington and .220 Swift have a significantly flatter trajectory are more resistance to wind drift than the .223 Remington, so they have a definite advantage as ranges increase as well as in windy conditions. Handloaders can wring a tiny bit more performance out of the .220 Swift, but there’s a much better selection of rifles and factory ammo with the .22-250.
Do you want a cartridge ideal for hunting big game like feral hogs and deer? The .204 Ruger is not well suited for big game hunting at all. The rest are honestly just borderline big game hunting rounds and aren’t legal for deer hunting in many states. That being said, the advent of better quality bullets has made the .22 caliber centerfires much more effective big game hunting than they used to be.
Of the group, the .223 Remington is by far the best for hunting big game because more rifles chambered in the cartridge have a fast rifling twist that’s capable of stabilizing longer and heavier bullets. There’s also a much bigger supply of .223 Remington factory ammo suitable for big game hunting (like the Barnes VOR-TX, the Hornady GMX, and the Nosler E-Tip and Partition) than any of the other cartridges.
That being said, the .22-250 Remington and, to a lesser extent, the .220 Swift can also work in this role. Barnes, Hornady, and Nosler manufacture .224″ TTSX, GMX, E-Tip, and Partition bullets and there’s nothing stopping handloaders from making custom loads using them. In that case, the only thing really stopping a handloader from building a good deer hunting load for the .22-250 or the .220 Swift would be the rifle itself, which may or may not accurately shoot those bullets.
Are you looking for a cartridge with lots of inexpensive ammo for general plinking or target shooting? The .223 Remington wins hands down here since it’s arguably the easiest to find and least expensive centerfire cartridge in the United States.
Are you very sensitive to recoil? Depending on what exactly you want to do with the cartridge, any of them will work, though the .223 Remington and .204 Ruger have significantly less recoil than the .22-250 and .220 Swift. Of the group, the .204 Ruger has by far the mildest recoil and is excellent for hunters and/or shooters who want to observe bullet impact through their rifle scope.
Are you looking for an ideal cartridge to use in an AR-15 platform? The .223 Remington is the only real choice here and there are countless good quality AR-15 style rifles chambered in .223 Remington or 5.56x45mm NATO.
Do you want a cartridge suitable for home defense, a SHTF scenario, or a tactical situation? Due to the wide variety of semi-auto rifles and large supply of ammunition designed specifically for the task, the .223 Remington also has a major advantage here. For those same reasons, the .223 Remington is clearly the better choice for practical shooting competitions.
As I’ve stated before: the .204 Ruger, .223 Remington, .22-250 Remington, and .220 Swift are all excellent rifle cartridges. However, since the differences between them (22-250 vs 223 vs 204 Ruger vs 220 Swift) are pretty big in certain areas, there are definite advantages to using one over the others in various situations.
For a detailed discussion about another high velocity .22 caliber cartridge in the .224 Valkyrie, read the article below:
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The Lyman 50th Edition (p122-123, 139-143, 148-151, 154-156), Hornady 10th Edition (p136-138, 160-178, 200-209, 210-215), and Speer Number 10 (p120-123, 134-141) reloading manuals as well as The Rifle In America by Philip B. Sharpe (p712-713) were used as references for the history of the cartridges. The data used to compare the trajectory and wind drift of the cartridges was obtained from Hornady. (here, here, and here for the .204 Ruger, .223 Remington, and .22-250 Remington and p214 of the Hornady Reloading Manual for the .220 Swift). Case capacities for the .204 Ruger, .223 Remington, .22-250 Remington, and .220 Swift were obtained from Nosler. Maximum pressure obtained from SAAMI (p171 and p172). I used the Hornady Ballistic calculator and ShootersCalculator.com to compare trajectory, wind drift, and recoil for the cartridges.