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.

One thought on “Unzipping the Zipper

  1. 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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