Winchester’s Model 65 was produced for a relatively short time, but it was a big hit with lever-action fans.
The Model 65 had a relatively short run in the time-span of Winchester lever-action rifles. Manufactured from 1933 to 1947, the Model 65 could be described as a successor to the Model 53, which itself was an improvement on the design of the famous Model 1892. The Model 65 was the rarest of the 1892 family. Only about 5,700 were manufactured, compared to 25,000 for the Model 53 and approximately a million for the 1892.
These three models were built on short actions that were scaled-down versions of the Model 1886 and were chambered for several popular small-game cartridges of the day. The 1892 was offered in .25-20, .32-20, .38-40 and .44-40. The same stood for the Model 53 except for the .38-40, and the Model 65 originally in just the .25-20 and .32-20.
However, in 1938, Winchester introduced a new cartridge in the Model 65 that gave the rifle a special place in hunting circles, the .218 Bee. It had a rimmed, bottle-necked case based on the .25-20 Winchester necked down for a .224 bullet. The .218 Bee was named for the bore diameter of the barrel rather than the more common practice of using the bullet diameter for the name of the cartridge.
The Bee was the first competition for the .22 Hornet in the category of varmint cartridges. The Hornet had come to life in the late 1920s, and by the early ‘30s it was available in various bolt-action and single-shot rifles. While the Hornet had become very popular, the Model 65 had its own niche — a lever-action varmint rifle. To those with a fondness for lever guns and small game/varmint hunting, it quickly became an “I want one, too” item.
It should be remembered that the .218 Bee came along in the late 1930s at the end of the Great Depression, before World War II, and more than a decade before the introduction of the excellent .222 Remington. During this period, the Bee and the Hornet were pioneers: The only cartridges that were designed for those varmint and small-game shooters who wanted a flat-shooting round with higher velocity than the .25-20 and .32-20.
As can be seen in the comparison chart, the .218 Bee has a slight edge in velocity, but it was apparently not enough to beat the Hornet in the marketplace. There were many rifles chambered for the .22 Hornet, all either single-shots or bolt-actions. The Bee was only available in the lever-action Model 65 until Winchester introduced the bolt-action Model 43 in 1949, which was offered in .218 Bee, .22 Hornet, .25-20 Win., and .32-20 Winchester.
Failure To Launch
Why did the .218 Bee never catch up with the Hornet in popularity? Some say the reason was because the bolt-action .22 Hornet models generally had a slight edge in accuracy over the lever-action Model 65. That might have been true, but for the avid lever-gun fan, the Model 65 was the preferred rifle. The limited number of Model 65s manufactured (5,700 compared to 62,000 for the Model 43) created somewhat of a “cult” of followers. Even though the .25-20 was the rarest caliber, there seems to be more interest in the .218 Bee.
In 1989, Browning marketed an excellent replica of the Model 65, made by Miroku in Japan. A faithful reproduction, 3,500 were made in Grade 1 and 1,500 in High Grade — all in .218 Bee. The High Grade came with silver-inlayed scrolling, gold-plated game animals and a checkered stock and forend. These models can be found on the used gun market at a fraction of the estimated values shown for the original Winchester rifles.
Editor's Note: This “Collector's Corner” column is an excerpt from the Winter 2017 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.