You could name any of the several firearms advances as the most significant in the last 50 years: large-capacity magazines, very low drag bullets, red-dot sights, but really there’s only one choice. It’s injection-molding.
It doesn’t sound sexy, but the process of injecting hot plastic into a mold to make parts has changed guns more than anything since smokeless powder. Synthetic materials such as Bakelite and Tenite had been used for stocks since the 1940s, but those parts were mere additions to guns that were almost entirely steel. The plastic furniture of the M16/AR-15 provided a place to grasp an assembly of aluminum and steel.
The Remington Nylon 66, introduced in 1959, was a preview of the future with steel parts moving inside a stock-receiver combination made of nylon, a DuPont product at a time when the chemical giant owned Remington. In the late 1970s, guns like the HK VP70 and Steyr AUG showed that the very structure of a gun could be injection-molded, and the deal was sealed in ’80s with arrival of Glock pistols featuring a polymer grip frame.
The question for today’s firearm designers is: What parts have to be made of aluminum or steel? If they don’t need to be, they’re going to be injection-molded. The result is guns that cost less in constant dollars than they did 50 years ago; guns that are more durable and rust-resistant, and guns that are often surprisingly accurate.
The latest example is the Winchester Wildcat in .22 LR, a semiautomatic rimfire that takes injection-molded construction to a new level. The barrel, breechblock and small parts like springs and pins are steel; otherwise, everything on the Wildcat 22 came out of an injection mold.
There are clear influences from the Ruger 10/22, and considering how many millions of them have been sold, why not? Most obvious is the 10-round rotary magazine, a unit that turned the shooting world on its ear when most rimfires used tubular or straight steel box magazines.
While Winchester claims the Wildcat will accept any of the many aftermarket large-capacity 10/22 magazines, the factory unit is quite a bit different. It has a V-shaped contrasting Winchester red design at the base that points your finger toward the magazine release, which is also red. The magazine release is of a piece with heavily serrated red rails on either side above the magazine well. Slide them back to drop the mag.
The bottom tab is easier with the issued magazine, which is ejected forcefully right into your palm. The side rails come into their own when a large-capacity unit is installed, and they can be activated from the top.
The magazine has feed lips cast in EZAC, a zinc alloy that is an improvement over the familiar Zamac. It is equipped with a small capstan wheel at the rear. You can rotate this counterclockwise to move the magazine follower for trouble-free loading and unloading. It’s easier to operate with a thumbnail than with the pad of the thumb. A plunger at the left rear of the magazine lifts the bolt stop, that is a red trapezoid on the left side of the receiver. Push down on it to release the bolt on an empty magazine.
The .703-inch-diameter steel barrel is clamped into the injection-molded receiver by a single transverse screw that passes above a lug that accepts the front stock screw and retains the trigger unit. The stock screw is angled, leaving open the attaching point for the trigger assembly.
The receiver has vents on the left side behind the breech to allow gas to exit on firing. This was common on .22s of the 1950s, but has not been seen lately.
About Those Rails...
A 4-inch accessory rail is molded into the top of the receiver. Winchester calls it a “picatinny” rail (note the lower-case spelling). The late-gunwriter Peter Kokalis decimated many a forest decrying the term in his writings, but it has stuck, for better or worse. What most manufacturers call a “Picatinny” rail is actually a Weaver rail with evenly spaced slots rather than the NATO-standard 1913 rail. This is of no great importance until you try to install a 1913-spec device into the smaller Weaver slots.
Measuring the Wildcat’s rail showed it had the proper .206-inch wide slots and .394-inch spacing. Therefore, if you want to put a tactical optic on the Wildcat, feel free. Standard Weaver-spec bases and devices will fit, too, and are unlikely to slide around under rimfire recoil.
At the rear of the accessory rail is a stepped ramp for a peep rear sight. The aperture is a generous .087-inch, perfect for the sort of plinking and small-game shooting applications for which you’d choose the Wildcat. The sight is adjustable for elevation by moving the base up or down the ramp, and for windage by moving the aperture left or right in its dovetail in the base. It coordinates with a ramped bead front sight, and both units are easily removed if you plan to use only a scope.
The rear sight is retained by a tiny, tiny .048-inch hex socket screw, and I didn’t have a key to fit it anywhere among the hundreds I have in various tool kits and boxes. Winchester, fortunately, has us covered.
The Trigger Pack
The operating parts of the Wildcat are all contained in one module that can be removed and replaced without tools. With the rifle empty and the bolt closed, press down on the red plunger at the back of the action, below the rear sight. A pencil with an eraser is the perfect non-marring helper for this. Then, grasp the triggerguard and rotate the assembly down, unhooking the front end tab from its place on the front receiver lug. Everything you need to access for cleaning or maintenance is now easily accessible. You can even pass a cleaning rod through the plunger hole to clean the barrel from the chamber end, a big advantage.
As for that absurdly small hex key? It’s secured in a recess on the right side of the trigger assembly along with a larger key that lets you remove the receiver and barrel from the stock. I doubt most people will be adjusting the rear sight or removing the barrelled receiver often, if ever, but if you get that part on “Alaskan Bush People” and need to regulate point of impact out on the frozen tundra, you can rest assured the tools will be right at hand.
The red plunger with which you disassemble the Wildcat also serves as a buffer at the rear of bolt travel. The mainspring surrounds a guiderod that passes through the top of the breechblock and retains the pivoting operating handle.
The Wildcat is striker- rather than hammer-fired, and the striker looks a lot like a centerfire rifle’s firing pin, including the round point. This is in contrast to the chisel point of most rimfire rifles. The long sear engages a ring about an inch from the rear of the striker. Pulling the trigger lowers it out of engagement, allowing the striker to fall. There’s a secondary ring about a quarter-inch behind the first to prevent the rifle firing if the trigger is not pulled.
To replace the trigger assembly, be sure the breechblock is forward. Engage the hook at its bottom front in the slot just in front of the magazine release tab. Fish the rotating operating handle through the ejection port, then lift up at the rear and snap the assembly in. Note that the Wildcat will not fire if the red plunger has not passed through the rear of the receiver. It doesn’t appear to make any difference if the magazine is installed or not during this process, but removing it is always a good idea.
The trigger-blocking safety is a crossbolt behind the trigger-guard. It can be reversed by following the instructions. At the front of the triggerguard is a red blade. Push up on it while retracting the hammer to lock the bolt back with the magazine removed.
The Wildcat’s stock is clearly intended to serve both junior shooters and adults, and it succeeds at that as well as can be expected. Length of pull is 135⁄8 inches, which is certainly a bit short for the 6-footer, but if you’ve ever managed a short carbine such as SKS, for example, you’ll find it acceptable.
The pistol grip is just 4¼ inches in circumference at the top, which feels pretty toy-like for a grown man, but if you slide the hand down a bit there’s a comfortable flare that makes getting a sure grasp easy. The buttstock is a biathlon-style skeleton design with a very slight Monte Carlo toward the butt. There’s a loop for a sling swivel at the toe.
The forend is deeply grooved for a good grasp. Its tip has a flexible plastic cover marked “Wildcat” over a two-slot length of accessory rail, used for installing a bipod or light. There is also another loop for the front end of your sling.
At The Range
Guns & Ammo’s editorial staff fired the Wildcat for accuracy with results shown in the accompanying table, and we function-fired it with Aguila, Browning, CCI, Federal, Remington and Winchester ammo ranging from subsonic to high velocity. Ammunition was in age from 25 years old to fresh off the shelf.
The gun had arrived quite dirty from Winchester (a test mule?), and we only cleaned the bore at the start. Despite the best efforts of three different shooters, we were unable to induce a jam, even with the usual tactics of limp-wristing it, firing upside-down and sidewise. Ours was remarkably reliable.
You’re not going to win any benchrest competitions with the Wildcat. The dimensions and flexibility of the stock meant we often had three shots hit in a tight group and then the two that followed would land wide. That said, when used for its intended function — firing on reactive targets offhand — the Wildcat was pleasingly effective. Hitting a 4-inch steel spinner offhand at 50 yards was no task at all.
The trigger won’t make you forget your Anschütz or Savage rifles, but it’s plenty good for plinking and small-game hunting. And let’s remember that a little heavier trigger is a safer trigger when starting new shooters. Any rifle designed to serve both junior shooters and adults will necessarily be a bit of a compromise.
The pull length is short and the comb rather high to align small faces with the iron sights. I found that I had to slide my face all the way forward (nose against thumb) to see through the iron sights. A normal cheekweld left me looking over the sights. Other staffers weren’t bothered by that, so you’ll need to give it your own careful inspection at the gun counter.
The buttplate is separate, and I assumed it would be easy to make and install spacers to increase pull length. But the buttplate has an odd forward extension that would make that tedious. We’ll have to hope that Winchester comes up with an accessory.
The first time I showed up at a high-power rifle match was with an AR-15 in 1976, and there was plenty of derision from Col. Blimp-types about my “Matty Mattel” rifle. We like to think we’ve come a long way, but the reaction of one wag to the Wildcat was that it was a “Happy Meal” gun. With millions of plastic-framed pistols in the holsters of most cops in America, we should be over that reflexive thought pattern, but I suppose a lot of us still need some convincing when it comes to injection-molded major components.
As for aesthetics, compare the Wildcat with the economy-priced autoloaders of the 1950s rom H&R, High Standard and Mossberg. Those were some unlovely guns, with their clubby birch stocks and crudely angular actions. By comparison, the Wildcat has trim, racy lines that are completely modern.
The Wildcat 22 a great value, too. The suggested retail price of $250 equates to about $25 in 1965 money. In constant dollars, that’s about half what Winchester’s then-current Model 190 would have cost.
I suspect the young shooters who are the target audience for the Wildcat won’t be bothered a bit by the plastic parts since most of them are attached to a plastic rectangle with a glass screen. I suppose it’s time for the rest of us to see it their way.
Winchester Wildcat 22
- Type: Blowback, semiautomatic
- Cartridge: .22 LR
- Capacity: 10 rds.
- Barrel: 18 in., 1:16-in. twist
- Overall Length: 36¾ in.
- Weight: 3 lbs., 14.7 oz. (tested)
- Stock: Polymer, black/red
- Length of Pull: 13.625 in.
- Finish: Blued (steel)
- Trigger: 4 lbs. (tested)
- Sights: Bead, fixed (front); ghost ring, adjustable (rear)
- Safety: Crossbolt
- MSRP: $250
- Accessories: Nylon carrying case
- Manufacturer: Istanbul Silah, Istanbul, Turkey
- Importer: Winchester Repeating Arms Co., 800-333-3288, winchesterguns.com