The .218 Bee and the .22 Hornet were both put on the market in the 1930s by the Winchester Arms Company. The .22 Hornet experienced great initial success, dominating the small-caliber varmint and small game market until the early 1950s.
The .218 Bee never caught on as well, even though it had a faster muzzle velocity in some sizes and a wider range of bullets it could fire.
Why Was the .218 Invented?
Nearing the end of the Great Depression, Winchester introduced a rival cartridge to their .22 Hornet, a round that was enjoying increased popularity with each passing year. Many people say that Hollywood Westerns were the driving force in the creation of the .218 Bee.
It was designed for lever-action rifles, which were prominent at the 1930s movie theatres with actors such as Tom Mix and John Wayne routinely pulling off incredible shots with their lever-action saddle guns.
In 1938, Winchester met the Hollywood myth with the .218 Bee. It was based on Winchester’s .32-20 cartridge and made specifically for the Winchester 65 lever-action rifle.
The original .218 Bee came in 35, 40, 46, and 50-grain cartridges.
It delivered a fast 3,205 feet per second muzzle velocity when firing a 35-grain bullet, an industry leader for speed in the pre-World War II years.
Further medications necked down the .25-20 Winchester to handle .224 bullets. The name, .218 Bee, doesn’t reflect the actual .224 caliber bullet it fires, but the Model 65 closely resembled the popular lever-action Model 65 from 1892.
It was the perfect gun for the atavistic cowboy, even though other calibers were more effective.
Why Was the .22 Hornet So Popular From 1933 to 1953?
The .22 Hornet filled a niche that no other firearm was able to match in the decade before and after Pearl Harbor.
The .22 arrived as an experimental design based on Winchester’s black powder .22 cartridge. The centerfire round rolled down the barrel at an incredible (for its day) 2400 feet per second with a 35-grain bullet.
The varmint hunting world was limited to .22 long rifle rimfire cartridges or larger calibers designed for big game. There weren’t many options for lightweight bullets, fired at high speed with a flat trajectory reaching out to 200-yards.
The .22 Hornet filled that gap, but only partially, the round was great, but there weren’t many platforms that fired the light, quick round.
Experimenters modified Springfield bolt action rifles to handle the .22 Hornet cartridge, and the Martini-Cadet chambered the round in a single-shot action, but that was it until 1933.
In 1933, Winchester opened an entirely new line of small game and varmint applications with the introduction of the Model 54.
By the 1940s, the .22 Hornet was surpassed in sales by only the 30-06 and the .270.
Which Is Faster the .218 Bee or the .22 Hornet?
The world of ballistics can be confusing, when you ask the question of which cartridge is faster it is a relative term.
Faster at the muzzle is one measurement, but how many times do you fire at targets or game close enough to touch? Not at all is the answer. The real test of which round is faster comes at a distance.
Take a look at the chart below and you’ll discover some interesting information. The 218 Bee in 46-grain hollow point is the standard round produced for large-scale distribution.
The other two, the 35 and 50-grain varieties are custom loads, meaning they’ve been loaded by hand, by an individual trying to get the maximum performance out of the cartridge. The most popular .22 Hornet round is the 35-grain.
In comparing the two cartridges with the same 35-grain bullet you’ll find the .22 Hornet has a slightly faster muzzle velocity, but at 100-yards the .218 Bee is faster, at 200-yards the .218 Bee is 400 feet per second faster and at 300-yards, the extreme range for both cartridges, the .218 Bee is still zipping along at 1530 feet per second while the .22 Hornet has dropped to 1117.
This data indicates the .218 Bee is the superior cartridge for shots beyond 100-yards.
Which Has More Energy?
The .218 Bee wins this metric in most categories. The .22 Hornet when firing a 45-grain bullet has more energy than a custom load 35-grain .218 Bee, but the Bee exceeds the Hornet in the standard 46-grain hollow point and custom 50-grain varieties.
The telling statistic is at the 300-yard mark where the two larger .218 Bee bullets outperform the other three rounds on this chart.
Energy translates into the power to kill. The foot-pounds necessary to take a coyote, or javelina at ranges beyond 200-yards are an important consideration on any varmint or game hunt.
Which Round Shoots Flatter?
The data is explicit on this measurement, the .22 Hornet is the more accurate cartridge at 200-yards, but the .218 Bee is zeroed in and spot-on at 100-yards.
That leaves the question of drop over distance. The .218 Bee is a faster round, but the .22 Hornet doesn’t experience as dramatic a bullet drop beyond the 100-yard mark. The .22 Hornet shoots almost three inches high at 100-yards but flattens at 200.
At 300-yards the .218 Bee drops substantially more than either of the .22 Hornet rounds.
What does this mean?
It means the .22 Hornet is more accurate at ranges beyond 100-yards, while close-range shooting gives the .218 Bee a slight advantage.
The romance of the Hollywood imagery of the “Old West” led to the creation of the .218 Bee in a lever-action model. The round is accurate, delivers good energy for its size, and is a good varmint gun.
The problem is a psychological one. While lever-action rifles are as accurate as bolt-action, the persona is that they are not. People call them “brush guns,” which takes on a derogatory meaning.
Studies indicate it has to do with the lever. In a bolt action rifle, your dominant hand has a solid grasp of the grip and trigger assembly. With a lever-action, that lever is always there, constricting your grip and limiting your hand motion on the trigger.
It doesn’t affect professional marksmen, but it does have an image problem with the occasional hunter.
Both cartridges suffer from a lack of shooting platforms, there just weren’t that many styles of rifles made to chamber the .218 Bee and the .22 Hornet.
Remington no longer offers a .218 Bee in its vast lineup of rifles, and Winchester only produces occasional, limited runs of the .218.
The .218 Bee has always been the “ugly step-sister” of small caliber rifles. It was offered in the late 1930s as an over-under combination gun with a .410 shotgun barrel by Marlin.
Marlin produced the Model 90 in .218 Bee in 1990, but it didn’t catch on. The Thompson Contender with its vast array of single-shot calibers still makes a .218 Bee.
The era of the .218 Bee looks limited, but it dates back to a time when rifles had catchy, attractive names, the Hornet and the Bee take their place in time with the .219 Wasp, a rival round from the pre-World War II years.
The names associated with stinging insects were great marketing schemes in their day, but aside from nostalgia, don’t have the same sting today.