June 10, 2022
By Layne Simpson
Winchester has a long history of developing centerfire cartridges designed for bumping off varmints and for harvesting edible small game. It began in 1882 with the introduction of the .32-20 Winchester for the Model 1873 lever-action rifle. Originally loaded with 20 grains of blackpowder, velocity was around 1,300 fps for its 100-grain lead bullet. Early company literature described it as powerful enough for use on deer.
For those who find that claim rather shocking, the most popular deer cartridge at the time was the .44-40 Winchester loaded to around 1,200 fps with a 200-grain bullet. About 10 years later, the .32-20 case was necked down and introduced as the .25-20 Winchester for the Model 1892 rifle. It was promoted as just the ticket for taking small game for the pot and was also deadly on varmints to boot.
Birth of the Bee
Necking the .25-20 case down in 1938 resulted in the .218 Bee for a modified version of the Model 92 called the Model 65. Introduced in 1933 in .25-20 and .32-20, the Model 65 had a 22-inch barrel and was produced until 1947, with just over 5,700 rifles built. The .218 Bee had a 24-inch barrel and was billed as a better varmint cartridge than the .22 Hornet, which was introduced by Winchester in 1930. In those days, it certainly was. At the time, the .22 Hornet was loaded with 45-grain and 46-grain bullets at a claimed velocity of 2,650 fps. The .218 Bee moved bullets of the same weights along at 2,860 fps. Respective 100-yard energy ratings for the .218 Bee, .22 Hornet, and .25-20 were 520 ft-lbs., 445 ft-lbs., and 385 ft-lbs.
Advertised velocity for the .218 Bee was no brag. After acquiring my Marlin 1894CL in 1990, I still had several boxes of ammunition produced by Winchester and Remington sometime during the 1950s. Fired in that rifle, the velocity of Winchester ammo was 2,866 fps and the Remington ammo clocked 2,831 fps. Remington eventually stopped loading the .218 Bee, and the velocity rating of Winchester ammo was reduced to 2,760 fps. By then, claimed velocity of .22 Hornet ammo had been slightly increased to 2,690 fps.
The .218 Bee has always been available in modern rifles, so why Winchester backed off on the throttle remains a mystery. At 2,589 fps from my rifle, actual velocity of the Winchester ammo was even lower than advertised. In pleasant contrast, Hornady comes close to making its 2,750 fps billing in my Marlin and actually exceeds it from my Sako. Ventura Munitions of Las Vegas catalogs the .218 Bee loaded with a 35-grain V-Max at 3,100 fps, but I have not tried it so I can’t confirm the number.
Due to competition on the slightly slower side by the older .22 Hornet and on the faster side by the .220 Swift, the .218 Bee has been available in only a few other rifles. In 1944 Winchester introduced the bolt-action Model 43, which was often described as the country boy’s Model 70. It had a 24-inch barrel, a detachable three-round magazine, and Winchester’s speed-lock bolt with dual-opposed locking lugs. In addition to the Bee, it was available in .25-20, .32-20, and .22 Hornet. This country boy eventually got around to owning all except the .32-20 and used each to take several called-in gobblers.
The Marlin Model 90 was the most unusual. Developed for the mail-order firm Sears, Roebuck and introduced in 1936, it began life as an over-under shotgun in 12 gauge. In 1939 a small-frame version in .410 was introduced, and with it came a combination gun with one barrel in .410 and the other in .22 LR, .22 Hornet, .218 Bee, or .30-30 Winchester. Load data for the .218 Bee published in some Lyman reloading manuals of the past were developed in a Marlin Model 90.
The .218 Bee, .25-20 Winchester, and .32-20 Winchester were added to the modern version of the lever-action Marlin Model 1894 around 1989. I had known they were coming for quite some time, and when Tony Aeschliman of Marlin asked me which of the three would be the best seller, I went with the Bee. More rifles in that chambering were sold, but none of them made the cash register ring often enough to remain in production for more than a few years.
Moving on to other companies, Browning introduced a Japanese reproduction of the Winchester Model 65 in .218 Bee in 1980. Production was limited to 3,500 Grade I rifles and 1,500 of the more expensive High Grade version. The Ruger No. 1 rifle has been available in .218 Bee, and Thompson/Center chambered Contender pistols and carbines for it. The barrel of the T/C carbine I have has a 1:14 twist.
Favorite .218 Bee Rifles
My all-time favorite rifle in .218 Bee, and the only one capable of consistently shooting its preferred bullets inside a half-inch at 100 yards, is a Sako L46 (it’s shown in the introductory photo to this report). Its detachable magazine holds three rounds, and it was imported by Firearms International and introduced to American hunters and varmint shooters in 1949. The .22 Hornet and .218 Bee came first, followed by the .222 Remington around 1952. The complete rifle sold for $117.50, and a barreled action was $97.50. I bought my L46 in .218 Bee and a heavy-barrel version in .222 Remington from a varmint-shooting friend, and the latter came with the standard three-round magazine and an optional six-rounder. Adding a bit more history for Sako rifle fans, the 7x33mm Sako on a lengthened 9mm Luger case was developed specifically for use by Finnish seal hunters, and very few L46 rifles chambered for it left that country. Most of those in .25-20 and .32-20 were exported to Australia.
Holding second place in accuracy among various .218 Bees I have shot through the years is a Model 82 built during the 1980s by the original Kimber of Oregon. A single-shot rifle, it has a solid-bottom receiver and a heavy, 24-inch barrel.
Handloading the .218 Bee
When filled to the brim with water, the Winchester .218 Bee cases I have hold 14.2 grains, about 4.0 grains more than .22 Hornet cases also made by Winchester. Even though the .218 Bee holds a pinch or two more powder, the same propellants work equally well in both. As old-timers go, IMR 4227 and 2400 are as good today as they were back then, although some of the newer kids on the block, such as H110, W296, VihtaVuori N120, Accurate 1680, and Hodgdon Lil’Gun, sometimes deliver higher velocities at similar chamber pressures. Hodgdon lists impressive velocities for CFE BLK, but charges are heavily compressed.
Like many rifles in .22 Hornet, the majority of those in .218 Bee have barrels with a rifling twist rate of 1:16 inches. The fact that bullets much longer than 0.600 inch are not stabilized by that twist rate rules out the use of the Nosler 40-grain Ballistic Tip and Hornady V-Max of the same weight. Softnose Spitzers as heavy as 45 grains from Speer, Hornady, and Sierra work fine because they are shorter. Those of that weight designed specifically for use in the .22 Hornet are better choices for the .218 Bee because at the far edge of its effective range, they expand more violently on varmints than 40-grain tipped bullets that are constructed to withstand higher velocities when fired from larger cartridges like the .22-250 and .223 Remington. As tipped bullets go, the Hornady 35-grain V-Max is an excellent choice for bolt-action and single-shot rifles. It can also be used in lever actions when single-loaded directly into the chamber. In an article I wrote not long back, I mentioned that the Speer 40-grain Spirepoint has long been my favorite bullet for the .22 Hornet; the same applies when loading the .218 Bee for bolt-action and single-shot rifles.
When handloading for lever-action rifles, the Speer 46-grain FNSP and the Hornady 45-grain FNHP are equally effective on varmints ranging in size from ground squirrels to groundhogs. Both bullets shed velocity fast, and for this reason, 100 to 125 yards is about the maximum distance for consistently dropping mature groundhogs in their tracks. The Speer bullet is a better performer on coyotes because it does not expand as quickly and penetration is greater. When one comes sneaking in to my tormented bunny call, I wait until it is inside 50 yards before squeezing the Marlin’s trigger.
Winchester has not made a run of .218 Bee cases in many years. Hornady has, but they are impossible to find. The good news is the .218 Bee case can be formed from Starline .32-20 Winchester brass, which is available as this is written. Doing so does not require form dies, but attempting to neck down with a .218 Bee full-length resizing die alone will result in collapsed shoulders. Use a .25-20 Winchester sizing die prior to the .218 Bee die, and you end up with a supply of cases. A secondary shoulder will appear, but it vanishes on the first firing, and while the neck will be a bit shorter, it is not enough to matter.
Trimming to the same length is the next step. Should neck diameter with bullet seated exceed 0.242 inch, its wall will have to be thinned by reaming or, preferably, by outside turning. Many years ago, Remington developed the No. 6½ Small Rifle primer for the .22 Hornet, .218 Bee, .25-20, and other small rifle cartridges. It remains my first choice for those cartridges. Tied for second place are the Federal GM205M and the CCI BR4.
In the absence of factory-loaded ammo or jacketed bullets for handloading, you might do as I do and use a Lyman mold to cast 45-grain bullets from scrap wheelweight metal. Punching paper with the .218 Bee loaded with cast bullets is not only fun, but also an inexpensive way of keeping one of my favorite cartridges alive.