The .218 Bee

By Chuck Hawks

The modern age of varmint shooting began in 1930 with the introduction of the .22 Hornet, the first of the high velocity, specialized varmint cartridges. The second factory offering along those lines was the .218 Bee, introduced by Winchester in 1938.

The .218 featured a higher muzzle velocity than the Hornet, extending the range for varmint shooting from about 150 yards (Hornet) to 200 yards (Bee). The original factory loads drove a 46 grain bullet at a muzzle velocity (MV) of 2860 fps.

The .218 Bee was named for its bore diameter, it actually uses standard .224" bullets. It is based on a necked-down and blown out .25-20 case with a 15 degree shoulder. It is a neat little rimmed cartridge with an overall case length of 1.345". The SAAMI maximum average pressure for the .218 Bee is 40,000 cup.

It is not only a higher performance cartridge that is every bit as accurate as the Hornet, but its stronger case is easier to reload. It should have quickly supplanted the Hornet in popularity. However, Winchester made a critical mistake by introducing the Bee in the Model 65 lever action rifle, a .22 caliber revision of the Model 92. A lightweight lever action rifle that ejects spent cases straight up and therefore requires an off-set side mount for a telescopic sight is not the best venue for a hot new varmint cartridge. Particularly since the Model 65 used a tubular magazine that required a ballistically inefficient flat point bullet.

After the end of the Second World War the .218 was made available in the Winchester Model 43 bolt action, but the damage was done and the Bee never really caught on with most shooters. I have always thought that naming the cartridge for its bore diameter was also a mistake. It gives shooters the impression that the .218 uses some odd size bullet. I think the name ".22 Bee" would have met less sales resistance from the shooting public.

Sometime during the 1980's Kimber (of Oregon) built a few bolt action rifles in .218. In 1989-1990 Browning offered a limited edition of their replica Model 65 lever action in .218 Bee. At the same time Marlin also built some lever action .218's. I believe that at one time T/C offered their Contender in .218. The only rifle that I know of regularly chambered for the Bee is the Ruger No. 1 single shot, which has got to be the best rifle ever factory produced for the cartridge. As of 2002 the .218 is available in the No. 1-B Standard Rifle (26" barrel, semi-beavertail forearm) and No. 1-S Medium Sporter (26" barrel, Alexander Henry forearm).

Winchester's .218 Bee factory load uses a 46 grain hollow point bullet at a MV of 2760 fps and muzzle energy of 778 ft. lbs. At 200 yards the figures are 1550 fps and 245 ft. lbs. According to the Winchester ballistic tables, the trajectory of that load looks like this: +1.5" at 100 yards, 0 at 150 yards, and -4.2" at 200 yards.

Winchester factory loads are the best source of brass for reloading. Alternatively, .32-20 or .25-20 cases can be necked down to handle .224" bullets and fire formed in a .218 chamber. The handloader with a good single shot or bolt action rifle can use spitzer bullets for superior down range ballistics.

According to the Hornady Handbook, Third Edition a 45 grain spire point bullet can be driven to a MV of 2900 fps with 13.0 grains of H4227 powder, a 50 grain spire point to 2700 fps with 14.2 grains of H4198 powder, and a 55 grain spire point to 2700 fps in front of 14.0 grains of H4198. All of the foregoing loads were developed in Winchester cases using Winchester primers. Reloaders wishing to duplicate the factory load can use the Speer 46 grain flat point bullet in front of 14.2 grains of IMR 4198 powder with a CCI primer for a MV of 2738 fps, according to Speer reloading data.

The trajectory of a Hornady 45 grain spire point bullet at a MV of 2900 fps looks like this (Hornady figures): +0.4" at 50 yards, +1" at 100 yards, 0 at 150 yards, and -2.8" at 200 yards. This is a very useful trajectory for a great deal of varmint and small game hunting.

For the reloader with a Ruger No. 1-B the .218 has got to be one of the best varmint cartridges for use near populated areas. Its relatively mild report may well be acceptable when more powerful cartridges, such as the .223, might cause problems with nearby landowners.

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Copyright 2002, 2012 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.