Unzipping the Zipper

The .219 Zipper.

The .219 Zipper persisted fitfully from 1938 to 1962 in that purgatory reserved for cartridges that look good on paper but somehow never quite measure up in real life. At this late date, it’s difficult to determine exactly how the .219 Zipper ended up on the compost heap of shooting history.

The rosy-tipped dawn of the modern varmint cartridge broke in the early 1930s with the debut of the .22 Hornet, a smokeless version of the old blackpowder .22 Winchester Center Fire. With its little 45-grain jacketed bullet scooting along at 2500 fps, the Hornet proved that the high-performance varmint cartridge was a marketable proposition, and before long it faced a fusillade of competition.

One of these competitors, the .219 Zipper, persisted fitfully from 1938 to 1962 in that purgatory reserved for cartridges that look good on paper but somehow never quite measure up in real life. At this late date, it’s difficult to determine exactly how the .219 Zipper ended up on the compost heap of shooting history.

Some sources say the Zipper first saw the light of day in 1936; others say the Winchester 64, the first rifle chambered for it, didn’t arrive until 1938. We can speculate, however, that the sad story of the .219 Zipper really began with an even earlier cartridge, the .22 Savage High Power.

Introduced way back in 1912, the .22 Savage High Power was based on a necked-down .25-35 WCF case topped off with a 70-grain softpoint bullet that clearly marked it as a crossover varmint/deer load. Chambered in Savage’s time-tested, field-proven Model 1899 lever-action rifle, there was every reason to think that the High Power would succeed.

Despite impressive ballistics and aggressive marketing by Savage, however, the High Power gave consistently inconsistent performance on deer-sized game, and poisonous word-of-mouth resulted. Instead of loading the High Power with a lighter bullet and repackaging it as a varmint cartridge, Savage shrugged, said aw nuts, and dropped the .22 High Power in the early ‘30s. For a while it seemed as though the concept of a smallbore lever-action varminter was a dead letter.

But it wasn’t − not if Winchester Repeating Arms Co., Inc. had anything to say about it. By 1935, Winchester had become a true believer in the high-velocity varmint cartridge, having already developed the fiery .220 Swift for their Models 54 and 70 bolt-actions.

Townsend Whelen on the .219 Zipper.

Watching the rise and fall of the .22 High Power from behind their curtains in New Haven, Winchester decided that a pure varmint cartridge similar to the defunct Savage .22 might succeed in a lever-action. After all, to many contemporary shooters, a rifle wasn’t really a rifle unless it had a lever hanging off it. And since bolt-action enthusiasts were showing some interest in the .220 Swift, perhaps lever-action fans would appreciate their own special varmint package.

So, taking hammer and tongs to everyone’s favorite guinea pig, the .25-35, Winchester’s engineers emerged in 1936 with a new .22 varminter designed specifically for a lever-action.

Whereas the obsolete High Power had featured a long .228” bullet requiring a fast 1:12” rifling twist, however, the new Winchester cartridge incorporated a 46- or 56-grain .224” bullet tailored to a gentler 1:16” twist. Playing fast and loose with their vernier calipers, Winchester named their hot new number the .219 Zipper.

So far, so good. With an advertised muzzle velocity of around 3100 fps with the 56-gr. jacketed bullet, the Zipper approximated the performance of the much-later .222 Remington, one of the best-balanced varminters of all time. Although the .219 couldn’t compare with the Swift − the H-Bomb of .22’s − it represented a huge theoretical improvement over the Hornet, which suddenly became yesterday’s news.

Marlin 336C in 219 Zipper.

Unwilling to chamber the brand-new Zipper in the dated Model 1894 design, Winchester assigned it to a special variant of the 94, the sporty Model 64. The five-shot 64/Zipper featured a 26-inch round barrel to wring every last drop of velocity out of the .219 and also had a rather racy look to it, if such a thing can be said of a lever-action.

So there it was. Winchester began marketing their new 64/Zipper varmint package sometime in 1938. Licking their pencil tips and flipping open their order books, they waited patiently for the Zipper to catch fire. And waited. And waited.

Uh-oh. If word of mouth truly was the best advertising, the .219 was in big trouble. A growing number of field reports indicated that although the 64/Zipper was accurate enough for the first one or two shots, subsequent shots strung vertically as the barrel heated up.

At a time when the Model 70 was wowing everyone with its phenomenal long-range accuracy, varmint hunters expected more than the 64/Zipper could ever deliver. Speaking with one voice, they solemnly pronounced the Zipper a big fat dud. Faced with the inevitable, Winchester zapped the Zipper in 1941 and never bothered with it again after WWII.

So what went wrong? In the words of Cole Porter, it was just one of those crazy things.

Looking back, we see that the fault lay not so much with the Zipper as it did with its pairing with the Model 64. Based on the Model 55 action, itself a variant of the venerable Model 1894 action, the 64 was built around a long, rear-locking breechblock and provided acceptable woods accuracy in its .25-35, .30-30, and .32 Winchester Special chamberings.

The long-range, high-velocity .219 was an entirely different proposition. The 64’s receiver, cut at both top and bottom, wasn’t rigid enough to go toe-to-toe with the hot Zipper, and it couldn’t accommodate telescopic sights. More than accurate enough for woods whitetails, the 64 just wasn’t cut out for a long-range varminter.

What really nailed down the lid on the Zipper’s coffin, though, was the fact that factory Zipper ammunition, as loaded by Remington and Winchester, was available only with round- or flat-nose bullets. In those days, there was a widespread and not-unfounded belief that if you loaded multiple spire-point cartridges in a tubular magazine, recoil would cause the nose of one cartridge to detonate the primer of another, thus exposing you to serious injury or even the D-word.

Documented cases of such detonation are scarce at best, but it was and is a hypothetical possibility. As a result, the Zipper was life-sentenced to stubby soft- and hollow-point factory bullets that shed velocity, and hence energy, disappointingly quickly. Thus the .219 had a maximum effective range of only about 175 yards − not such a great practical improvement over the Hornet after all.

You might think that Winchester’s sad experience pretty much closed the book on the Zipper. Think again. The .219 was given a new, albeit brief, lease on life in 1955 when Marlin announced, to widespread wonderment, that its popular 336C lever-action carbine henceforth would be chambered in .219 Zipper. Why Marlin did so is something of a mystery.

The closest Marlin had ever come to a varmint chambering in a lever-action was its old proprietary  flop, the .25-36, which was a crossover load in the spirit of the .25-35 Winchester and .22 Savage High Power. Perhaps Marlin felt that the 336C’s combination of a scope-friendly receiver and Micro-Groove rifling could help the Zipper perform up to its potential.

The nation’s varmint hunters, however, intoxicated with the .222 Remington (1950) and new .243 Winchester (1956), greeted the 336/Zipper with a huge collective yawn, and the chambering was dropped in 1960 with fewer than 6,000 sold.

Factory Zipper ammunition hasn’t been loaded since 1962 or thereabouts, but the handful of Zipper enthusiasts out there can still buy .219 reloading dies from some of the specialty die manufacturers. Cases can be formed without too much trouble from .25-35 brass which, at this writing, is still in production.

Loading data can be found in a number of older handbooks, Waters’ Pet Loads being perhaps the best-documented, and there is certainly no shortage of .22 bullets to fit the Zipper’s bill − keeping in mind, of course, the ancient admonition concerning spire-points in a tubular magazine. If you’re loading for a Model 64 or 336C, you can use any .224 spire-point bullet as long as you limit yourself to one round in the chamber and one in the magazine.

Be advised, however, that Marlin’s hair-deep Micro-Groove rifling will wear quickly under red-hot loads. With conservative loads, accuracy in the 64 or 336C can be quite acceptable for leisurely three-shot strings, 2-inch groups at 100 yards being easily obtainable.

Some custom bolt-actions and single-shots were chambered for the Zipper in the late ‘30s, the good Lord knows why, and such rifles can safely handle bullets of any profile. Most of them, though, have long since been rechambered for the blown-out .219 Donaldson Wasp or .219 Zipper Improved wildcats, which provide anywhere from 300 to 400 fps extra velocity. Of these, the Improved was the more practical cartridge because its case could be fire-formed from factory Zipper ammunition with no further modification.

The Donaldson requires case trimming and perhaps some other tinkering, depending on who furnishes the reamer. But as promising as these wildcats may have seemed half-a-century ago, they’re both seriously outclassed by the .223 and .22-250 Remingtons.

It remained for Browning’s later rotary-bolt BLR chambered in .22-250 to show that a lever-action could indeed succeed as a long-range .22 varminter. With its up-front locking lugs and box magazine, the BLR is in effect a lever-operated bolt action, and quite an impressive one, too, capable of MOA accuracy as far as you can see. In some ways, the BLR/.22-250 represents what the 64/Zipper and 336/Zipper should have been, but never were.

The 1930s were golden years in the evolution of the high-performance .22 factory varmint cartridge. The decade witnessed the birth of the .22 Hornet, the .220 Swift, the .219 Zipper, and the .218 Bee. Of these, only the first − the Hornet − enjoys basically good health.

Two of the others, the Swift and the Bee, have managed to cling to life despite occasional brushes with obsolescence. The lever-plagued Zipper, however, is remembered today only as proof that, as Claude Rains observed in The Invisible Man, there are some things that man was meant to leave alone.


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2 thoughts on “Unzipping the Zipper

  1. pismo

    I as a very young kid got a model 94 Winchester conversion into the .219 Zipper in 1966. Instantly there was a problem in getting carts. I started hand loading them and even used pointed bullets. I ended up having head spacing problems and separtations that cost me way to much money as a dumb fuck kid.

  2. vishnu

    I noted the comment that “In those days, there was a widespread and not-unfounded belief that if you loaded multiple spire-point cartridges in a tubular magazine, recoil would cause the nose of one cartridge to detonate the primer of another, thus exposing you to serious injury or even the D-word.” I’ve always wondered about this – can anyone provide a verifiable account of this actually happening?

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