.218 Bee Loads for Winchester's Model 43 Bolt Rifle
Date: Oct 14 2020
The .218 Bee – like the ancient .22 Hornet – remains curiously popular despite the availability of superior, mild-mannered .224-caliber bullets such as the .221 Remington Fireball and .222 Remington. This hinges on the fact that, again like the Hornet, the Bee is just flat-out fun to shoot, producing negligible recoil and tolerable muzzle report. The .218 Bee was the first modern varmint cartridge designed expressly for a lever rifle – Winchester’s Model 65. The bullet is based on the ancient .25-20 Winchester case and was introduced by Winchester in 1938 as a follow-up to their .22 Hornet success. It offers 30 percent more case capacity and a more than 100 feet per second (fps) improvement in velocity, despite lower established operating pressures.
Lever-rifle tubular magazines requiring blunt, low ballistic coefficient (BC) bullets, and slow (1:16) rifling twist, never really allowed the cartridge to live up to its true potential. That slow rifling generally limits the .218 Bee to bullets weighing less than 52 grains; no Greek tragedy, as introducing heavier slugs produces quickly diminishing returns. Modern rifle options were introduced by Marlin and Browning as late as 1989 (also lever guns) and Ruger chambered their No. 1 single shot in the Bee. The latter is likely one of the strongest actions offered for this cartridge; one that would allow pursuing the Bee’s true potential.
Winchester introduced the Model 43 bolt-action in 1949 as a sort of “Winchester Model 70 Junior,” the first rifle produced by the company following World War II. The Model 43 is a well-made, 6-pound rifle that includes a three-round detachable box magazine, allowing the use of pointed bullets (though the confines of that magazine limits overall length). The rifle was also chambered in .22 Hornet, .25-20 and .32-20 Winchester. The Winchester Model 43 “Special Rifle” version, used for testing here, includes a 24-inch round, proof-steel barrel measuring .56-inch at the muzzle, select walnut stock with checkered pistol grip and forend and steel butt plate. These rifles were produced until 1957, with about 63,000 sold.
A few later rifles were apparently factory tapped for scope bases, the test rifle (on generous loan from gunsmith Ron Soderquist) including serial number 20234A, so it was likely drilled and tapped to allow scope use after leaving the factory (though I could be wrong). These rifles were equipped with open sporting rear or Lyman 57A micrometer receiver sights, the test rifle included a dovetailed front bead of fiber-optic, obviously not factory original. Ken Waters, in a January 1976 “Pet Loads” column, warned that the Model 43 “speed lock,” mid-bolt locking lug was not stout enough to handle hot maximum loads. The rifle holds a period Williams Wide Guide 4x scope set in Weaver Top-Mount rings, which were left in place during all load testing. This low magnification and relatively coarse crosshairs might have negatively affected groups somewhat.
New Hornady brass, vintage Lee Reloading Dies and CCI No. 400 Small Rifle Primers were used for all testing. Hornady has become the most reliable source for Bee brass, offered in both loaded ammunition and as a component. Winchester offers sporadic runs of factory ammunition and Quality Cartridge offers handloading hulls. Cases are also easily formed from .32-20 WCF brass. Thin-jacketed, cup-and-core bullets are the logical choice for varmint shooting with the Bee, with Hornet-label bullets generally recommended to assure rapid expansion and reliable stabilization from the 1:16 rifling twist. With that in mind, I chose Nosler’s 35-grain Ballistic Tip Lead Free (later swapped for Hornady’s 35-grain V-MAX, which I’ll get into momentarily) on the light end, Speer’s 40-grain Varmint SP and Sierra’s 45-grain Varminter SP as ideals, and Hornady’s 50-grain SPSX (Soft-Point, Super eXplosive) at the heavy end.
New or newer Bee-compatible powders used here include Vihtavuori N-120, Accurate 1680, Hodgdon’s Lil’Gun and CFE-BLK and Shooters World Blackout. Time-tested standbys include similar Hodgdon 110 and Winchester 296, Alliant Reloder 7, Accurate 2460 and Hodgdon’s temperature stable Extreme Series H-4198. As a varmint shooter who spends a lot of time under a hot sun, I find newer temperature-insensitive formulas give me peace of mind. The tendency with smaller varmint rounds like the Bee is to push maximum, ammunition left in a hot sun or truck cab inviting a stuck case or locked bolt. That said, some of the older powders provide outstanding accuracy and velocity, and precautions such as assuring ammunition boxes remain in the shade, or even placing them in your iced drink cooler on especially hot days, are standard procedures even with the newest powders.