January 04, 2021
Many rifle cartridges introduced have been given rather boring names, but there was a time when the name of a cartridge combined with a bit of imagination went a very long way. A mere mention of the .22 Hornet, .219 Zipper, .220 Swift, .17 Mach IV, .221 Fireball or .219 Wasp brought visions of fast bullets, flat trajectories and memorable days spent in fields full of targets.
Another cartridge capable of reaching across the back 40 and stinging a varmint is the .218 Bee. It came about in 1938 when Winchester, looking to boost the sagging sales of its Model 92 rifle, added the .218 Bee - failing to recognize that, even back then, hunters wanted their varmint cartridges in bolt actions and single-shots, not lever actions. As it turned out, only a few Model 92s were chambered for the new cartridge, but it managed to find a permanent home in a variation of the Model 92 called the Model 65.
The Bee case is a necked-down .25-20 Winchester (itself a necked-down version of the .32-20 Winchester). Only one factory load was offered: a 46-grain hollowpoint at 2,860 fps.
At the time, the .22 Hornet was loaded with a 45-grain bullet at 2,690 fps, and the .22 Hornet has enjoyed far greater popularity among varmint shooters, probably because it was introduced first and it has been available in a greater variety of rifles. But the .218 Bee is superior to it in several ways.
For starters, it is a bit faster, which gives it a longer effective range. Those of us who have handloaded both cartridges also know that due to the thicker wall of the Bee case, it is less susceptible to neck collapse during bullet seating than the Hornet. Another benefit to the thicker brass is longer case life for the .218 Bee when both cartridges are loaded to maximum velocities.
On the negative side, the Bee also arrived with a handicap that may have prevented it from shining more brightly. Whereas the Hornet was designed for use in bolt-action rifles, the Bee was designed for a rear-locking lever-action rifle, and for this reason, it was loaded to lower chamber pressure. Had both cartridges been loaded to the same pressure, the Bee would have been at least another 100 fps faster than the Hornet.
Then we have the matter of bullet shape. Since the Bee was designed for a rifle with a tubular magazine, Winchester and Remington always loaded it with blunt-nosed bullets, whereas the Hornet was commonly loaded with pointed bullets. Even though a bullet fired from the Bee started out faster, its trajectory and downrange punch differed very little from the Hornet.
The first and one of only three bolt-action rifles chambered for the .218 Bee was the Winchester Model 43. Introduced in 1944, it was also offered in .22 Hornet, .25-20 and .32-20. The Model 43 was a nice little rifle and often described as the poor man's Model 70, but those I owned in .22 Hornet and .218 Bee years ago were nowhere near as accurate as my Winchester models 54 and 70 in .22 Hornet.
The jewel among bolt-action Bees, and one that will hold its own with the Model 70 in accuracy, is the dainty little Sako L46. The small number of those rifles chambered to .218 Bee serves to illustrate the lack of popularity of the cartridge. I bought one during the 1960s, and much later during a visit to the Sako factory I was told that only 50 had been built in that caliber, and I've seen only two in many years of looking at Sako rifles.
Back in 1986, the original Kimber of Oregon did a limited run of Model 82 rifles in .218 Bee, and also offered an improved version called the .218 Mashburn Bee.
Greg Warne sent me one of the first standard Bees, and I found it to be quite accurate. Rather than going to the expense of building a detachable magazine for a cartridge that would probably not sell a lot of rifles, Greg decided to make Model 82s in that caliber single-shots with a solid-bottom receiver. Like the Winchester Model 43 and the Sako L46, the Kimber Model 82 allowed the use of pointed bullets in .218 Bee handloads, which improved its performance over factory ammunition.
Not too many other rifles have been available in .218 Bee. Back in the 1930s Marlin offered it in its Model 90, an over-under combination gun with one barrel in .410 and the other in .218 Bee. Marlin tried again in 1990 by offering it in it Model 1894 carbine, and along about the same time Browning introduced a Japanese copy of the Winchester Model 92 in the same caliber. The Thompson/Center custom shop continues to offer the Bee in the Contender carbine, and as far as I know, that's about the size of it as rifles of current production go.
When it comes to choosing powders for .218 Bee handloads, IMR-4227 has long been a popular choice, and H4227 works equally well. Also often recommended is slightly quicker burning 2400, but it borders on being too fast, making it tricky to work with in this cartridge.
Moving to the opposite extreme, IMR-4198, H4198 and Reloder 7 work okay with 45-grain bullets, but you usually run out of case capacity before reaching top velocities with lighter bullets. When all is said and done, H110 and W296 - along VihtaVuori N120 - offer the best combination of bulk density and burn rate available for bullets weighing from 30 to 45 grains in the .218 Bee.
Several blunt-nosed bullets are suitable when loading the .218 Bee for a lever-action rifle with tubular magazine. They include the 46-grain flatnose from Speer and three bullets of roundnose form: the 45-grain Hornet bullets from Nosler and Sierra and Sierra's 40-grain Hornet.
.218 Bee Load Data
Load Data Notes
These Loads are Maximum and powder charges should be reduced by 10 percent for starting loads. Velocities shown represent five or more rounds clocked 12 feet from the muzzle of a Marlin Model 1894CL with a 20-inch barrel (lever-action rifle loads) and a Sako L46 with a 24-inch barrel. Winchester cases and CCI 400 primers were used in all loads.
Load Data Warning
The loads shown here are safe only in the guns for which they were developed. Neither the author nor Outdoor Sportsman Group/Shooting Times assumes any liability for accidents or injury resulting from the use or misuse of this data. Shooting reloads may void any warranty on your firearm.
Best choices in pointed bullets for use in bolt actions and single-shots are those weighing from 30 to 45 grains from Berger, Nosler, Sierra, Speer and Hornady. I am especially fond of the 30-grain Berger hollowpoint and the 40-grain BlitzKing, Ballistic Tip and V-Max bullets in this cartridge.
Bullets heavier than 45 grains can be used, but most rifles in .218 Bee have barrels with a rifling twist rate of 1:16 inches, which can be too slow to stabilize them in flight.
It saddens me to say this, but the future of the .218 Bee is looking less than bright. Remington dropped it from production several years ago, and Winchester makes only an occasional production run of ammo and unprimed cases.
If ammo and case production should cease, you'll have to neck down .25-20 or .32-20 cases. The .25-20 can be squeezed down to .22 caliber in one step with a .218 Bee full-length resizing die, but the .32-20 requires an extra form die available from Redding. Attempting to neck it down in one step usually results in a collapsed case.
Here's hoping the .218 Bee will continue to buzz over the varmint fields for many years to come.