The Underdog Series – The .218 Bee Caliber

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Most people have different ideas about what makes an “Underdog” caliber. It can be the caliber the rifle is chambered in. It can be their early demise, due to a corporate bean-counter who never even shot the round; or lack of popularity because a new, hotter caliber eclipsed its performance. One this is for sure, these underdog calibers come in all sizes, speeds and energy, but the one thing that makes them important is the fascination that takes hold of the owners who shoot them. They have to be interesting and accurate, or they will lose their luster and the following that cheers them on. A true “Underdog” continues to please for years, sometimes decades, finding a new fan base every time a new wave of shooters discovers it’s hidden strength.

218 Bee Ring

218 Bee Ring

Of all the calibers I have had the pleasure to shoot, one of the calibers that I believe falls in this category is the .218 Bee. It began for me years ago while trying to purchase a fur rifle that needed to be a step up from the 22 Long Rifle. I ended up buying a Marlin 1894CL in .218 Bee, and like most people who own a Bee realized that there was no way in hell I was going to shoot factory rounds at the cost of $45.00 per 50. I began to reload for it and thus started a relationship with a caliber that I feel is the ultimate “Fun Caliber”.

The .218 Bee was introduced by Winchester in 1938 to people who wanted a little more speed then the 22 Hornet. Because of the popularity of Lever-action rifles at the time, Winchester felt that the Bee would be best served in the Model 65. The Bee was formed from the .32-20 case, which also fathered the almost now defunct .25-20, that was “necked down” to the 22 caliber (.224). Because the Bee had an increased case capacity, greater ballistics were capable with factory loads. Eventually the decision to chamber the Bee in a Lever-action would help lead to it’s demise as a readily available factory caliber.

Kimber 218 Bee Group

Kimber 218 Bee Group

After a decade of selling the .218 Bee in the Model 65 Lever-action rifle, it became evident that the required use of round or flat nosed bullets in the tubular magazine limited it’s capabilities. The use of spire tipped bullets (HP or SP) would have shown the caliber’s true ballistics. Winchester then released the .218 Bee in the Model 43 bolt action rifle. The M43 included a detachable magazine (clip) as well as being offered in two versions, the “Standard” and the “Deluxe”. M43’s were known to be very rough on case life. Stretching was apparent and often called for trimming, until the eventual splitting of the necks or shoulders. I own a Winchester Model 43 and I love it, though they are now priced somewhat steep (collector’s driving the price up). It is always nice to own a gun that someone had been shooting in the early 1950’s, wondering what type of game they shot with it and how many memories were made with that gun.

1949 American Rifleman

American Rifleman – 1949
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Even though I “collect” rifles chambered in the .218 Bee, I never purchase any gun if it’s not going to go out hunting with me on a regular basis. Of late, the M43 has been my gun of choice for small game and plinking. I have been using reloaded Hornady 33gr. V-Max bullets in front of 11.5gr. of Winchester 296. Not one month ago I shot a buck Jackrabbit in the high desert here in Southern California. It was not a spectacular kill, but it showed the power of the Bee in it’s true form as a small, quiet, potent caliber. You do not hear more than a “Crack” when the trigger is pulled followed by the simultaneous “wop” heard from the distant target. Without a quiver, the Varmint normally drops and commits to the heavens before you can chamber the next round. Long shots on small game become a reality because down range ballistics far out weigh the .22 or the .22 Magnum. Seeing “dust fly” while shooting at a distant rabbit or squirrel will make you realize the extra downrange ballistics of the caliber.

Winchester Model 43 - 218 Bee - Jackrabbit

Winchester Model 43
.218 Bee – Jackrabbit

Before the lead ban here in Southern California, all my .218 Bee’s saw lots of action. Especially when hunting California Ground Squirrels. My favorites to take were the Winchester Model 43 (as mentioned above) and a Kimber of Oregon. I would also take my Ruger Number 1, but since the shooting was fast and furious at times, the Ruger got left at home most times. I have taken hundreds, if not 1000’s of ground squirrels with the .218 Bee caliber. As a “fun”, centerfire, varmint rifle, I truly believe there is no comparison. With reloaded rounds pushing 33 to 35 grain, highly explosive bullets out at 3000+ feet per second, the results are going to be devastating within 150 yards. Now, I know what you’re thinking, why not shoot a 5mm Rimfire, .22 Magnum or .17HMR, it’s cheaper and you can still kill stuff out to 150 yards, if you stretch it. The difference is, when you have an accurate .218 Bee, you are not stretching it when shooting at those distances. Also, most reloaders will tell you, once you reload the same brass over and over, the cost of reloading gets cheaper. Buying brass is a one-time cost, spread over an average of 8 times reloaded. Some quick math tells me that my rounds average about the same of your typical box of 50 rimfire rounds. But I’m not here to talk about cost effectiveness, I have only my experience of what this so-called, “dead” caliber can do.

Unfortunately for varmint hunters, the advent of the .222, .222 Magnum and the .223 eventually drove the popularity of the .218 Bee to the point of extinction. A resurgence of sorts came about with the Bee being chambered in some great rifles made by Kimber, Browning (replica of M65), Cooper and many custom guns, as well as the Ruger #1. I also own a .218 Bee made by Kimber of Oregon and appreciate shooting this caliber in a smooth, single-shot, bolt action rifle, made specifically for beauty and accuracy. Unfortunately my gun, along with many others once produced is longer available.

Being the diehard that I am, every SHOT Show that I go to sees me in the Ruger Booth begging them to come out with a factory clip-fed bolt action Bee. Though it did not take on the popularity that the Hornet has seen recently, the Bee still has fans that recognize it’s potential and route for this under-dog every time they open the safe and pull out their favorite .218 Bee rifle, handgun and even revolver.

 —  By:  Eric Mayer


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