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A Fun Featherweight:  The .218 BEE at Cabela's

A Fun Featherweight: The .218 BEE

Author: Stan Warren

I crouched beside a handy limestone rock and brought the scope to bear on a target roughly 200 yards away. Dirt flew at the sound of the shot. The breeze was stiffer than I had thought. Off to my right, Dave Dennie's rifle cracked.

Martini .218 BEE
Early Season Tactics
No, we were not trying to repel attacking hordes with our lever guns, but if the ones on hand had been around a century and a half earlier the battles of the American West would have been even more lopsided.

Just for the fun of it, and possibly to borrow ammo from me if his ran out, Davy had brought along a rifle that was the twin of one ensconced in my own hands, a Marlin Model 1894 Classic in .218 Bee caliber.

While the idea of a varmint cartridge combined with a lever action rifle might be viewed with skepticism, this combination has proven to be a fun and workable one as long as the shooter realizes his limitations. There would be no shooting from canyon to canyon, so to speak, but given the windy conditions there in the valleys, long shots with anything less than a pack howitzer would have been mostly wishful thinking.

For stalking to within shooting distance of a ground hog condo, the little Marlin worked just fine. On the shooting bench back home, we had found that both rifles were capable of staying within about one minute of angle which is more accurate than I can hold without some sort of support.

We were moving back toward my 4x4 van when Davy said, "A youngster. He's headed up the hill toward that patch of kudzu."

I watched as my friend tried tracking the furry creature with the ridiculous gait, then shook my head as the round-headed "hog" stopped beside an oversized burrow opening. "B'rer Woodchuck, you have erred greatly," I thought.

At the crack of the rifle, the animal went rolling out of sight, propelled by a 46-grain Speer flat-point bullet. Davy went out to collect his trophy to add to the pile. Landowners often like to see proof that you have trimmed their "pasture pig" numbers.

The use of the .218 Bee is certainly not a new thing, and in fact the round itself could be considered something of a gray-beard. Winchester brought the round out in 1938, and at the time, it was met with interest by varmint hunters- looking toward faster and more interesting toys. The .22 Hornet had appeared in factory ammunition in 1930 with rifles coming along two years later, a minor oddity, and the Bee had a considerable number of factors- which placed it ahead of the Hornet. Although factory ballistics were not terribly different, the Bee had marginally higher velocities, a greater powder capacity, could handle heavier bullets effectively and was able to utilize a wider range of powders. With all that in its favor you would think that the later arrival would quickly eclipse the popularity of the older round. Not so!

Another chapter in the book of Great Gun Goofs was written when Winchester elected to take their necked down .25-20 cartridge and chamber it in the Model 65 lever action. I have fired a mint condition Model 65 in .218 Bee enough to know why the buyers stayed away in droves. Given such a poor start, not even the arrival of the Model 43 bolt-action (which came along after WW II) could save the Bee as a factory offering. Both Marlin and Browning have produced guns for it in recent years, but if you want one off the rack today it will be the Marlin.

Although it has long since been surpassed by faster rounds, from the .222 Remington up through the potent .220 Swift, there is nothing in the design of the cartridge to make it a second-class citizen. One rifle which comes to mind that proves that point was a custom job built on a Sako Vixen action, the smallest of the trio of actions once produced by that company. In fact, the same action was actually used to build rifles in .218 Bee shortly after the Big War, but this one had started life as a .22 Hornet. The rifle was a genuine joy to shoot, and with any good spire point bullet, especially those in the 50- to 55-grain category, it was wonderfully accurate. Since there was no recoil and little noise, the diminutive Sako was often used when its owner and I did our part to reduce the number of crows, groundhogs and other vermin that tried to set up housekeeping near settled areas in our community.

While the Marlin lever gun with its tubular magazine does not permit the use of pointed bullets as did the bolt action of the Sako, that does not mean that the round has lost its worth. In terms of a "walking around" rifle that is to be carried and used on what could be classed as targets of opportunity, it does a respectable job. Most bullet makers, probably realistically basing their production on sales, do not make a medium or heavy .22 bullet with the necessary round nose unless you count the Sierra 50- and 55-grain semi-pointed version. Having shot a lot of lever guns, I just cannot help being leery of anything with even a smidgen of a point being placed against the primer of another loaded round so I will be a picky sort and stay with the ones that I know are safe.

The Speer 46-grain flat point mentioned earlier has proven itself time and again, as long as the shooter restricts his efforts to under 200 yards - 150 yards is even better. The Winchester factory bangers with their 46-grain hollow point bullets are equally good or possibly a hair better due to a slightly more aerodynamic shape. When I first started shooting the Bee, and no we are not contemporaries, the only ammo to be found in the cotton country of western Tennessee was an occasional box of Winchester-Western, usually a dirty and dog-eared box in the back of a hardware store. It sported a bullet very much like those available today. I suspect that they are identical. This might be a case of sticking with something that works, going by the old adage that "if it ain't broke, don't fix it".

Both the flat point and hollow point bullets expand with authority, yet do not fly all to flinders upon hitting most targets. Having a liking for predator hunting, I have had occasion to send both types of bullets to explore the rib cages of assorted foxes, coyotes, bobcats. The same bullets that will send a prairie dog, woodchuck or other small varmint to his rewards will do the same for a predator, but I have been careful to try for heart/lung or head shots and then at angles that will allow relatively short and easy penetration.

What might be called an extended test period on mid-sized specimens took place in a land called Namibia, formerly South West Africa, in the company of a couple of an old amigo and a newly acquired friend, professional hunter Atti Hoffman of Anvo Safaris. We had a couple of days to burn, which we did primarily by taking our scatterguns out in an effort to prune the numbers of various species of highly edible bird life. It was only after a black-backed jackal darted from the brush to grab a wounded guinea fowl that the idea for another sort of diversion came along.

My hunting partner, the inimitable Peter Capstick, happens to be an excellent wingshot and more than a fair hand with any sort of shooting iron, but he arched an eyebrow when I handed the little Marlin up to him in the rear of the Land Cruiser. He was not a bit reluctant to do his part, but he did find it necessary to mumble something about feeling "like John Wayne's gun bearer."

Shots ranged from about 40 yards out to the edge of the cartridge's realistic limits, and while we did not decimate the jackal population, Atti allowed that we had probably assisted the nesting game bird populations upon which these fox-sized canids often prey.

In all honesty, the factory ammunition produced by Winchester is difficult to beat for general use, but hand-loaders will try and lose nothing in the effort. I stand as a witness to that. Also, on a Wyoming prairie dog outing my supply of .218 fodder became depleted, and a ninety-mile drive to Rawlins was in order to acquire more. The price, counting tax, was in excess of $40 U.S., which equates to about $0.80 per round. For that kind of money you can buy a new gun and hire someone to shoot it if you plan on keeping it up very long.

Hand-loading for the .218 Bee is not a tricky proposition, but some primers do seem to produce erratic pressure signs. For that reason the data that follows has been kept specific, and the chart below utilizes the CCI 400 small rifle primer.

For the Marlin lever action, or anytime that the 46-grain, .224 diameter Speer flat point bullet is used:
Powder Starting load Maximum load Velocity
IMR 4198 10.8 grains 14.2 grains 2,748 fps
Accurate 2460 15.3 grains 17.0 grains 2,551 fps
Accurate 1680 10.8 grains 12.0 grains 2,517 fps
For those fortunate enough to get their hands on a nice, accurate bolt action, here are some additional guidelines. Both the Winchester 6 1/2 and, Remington 6 1/2 primers were used here as well as the CCI 400.

50-grain spire point bullet:
Powder Starting load Maximum load Velocity
H4198 12.5 grains 14.7 grains 2,800 fps
H4227 10.5 grains 12.5 grains 2,700 fps
55-grain spire point bullet:
Powder Starting load Maximum load Velocity
H4227 10.7 grains 12.8 grains 2,700 fps
H4198 12.5 grains 14.4 grains 2,800 fps
Like any cartridge, the .218 Bee is not for everyone. With its limited power it will certainly never replace the far more potent .22-250, yet for a pleasant shooting companion it is entirely adequate for many situations. European rifle manufacturers can still be found who build the .218 around a bolt action, but for general use around the farm or for plinking purposes the lever action Marlin should prove entirely satisfactory. If it is not the size of the bang that attracts you, and if you have no desire to vaporize a varmint at a quarter of a mile then this mild round might prove to be quite satisfactory for your needs.

Now, if you will excuse me there are some groundhogs out in the back pasture that are making the land look like an artillery practice range. Perhaps a few well-placed 46-grain bullets will change their destructive attitudes.

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