Photos by Mark Fingar
This may be going out on a limb, but I can say without reservation that with such clever engineering and forward-thinking features the Winchester Wildcat .22LR will win rifle of the year.
I know that’s saying a lot considering all the excellent firearms introduced this year, but after taking the Wildcat through weeks of testing, I believe Winchester Repeating Arms has produced the perfect plinker. It’s fun to shoot, reliable, accurate, easy to operate and stunningly simple to take down and clean.
A rifle with so many great features deserves to be discussed in detail. While you read on, keep in mind the goal Winchester’s engineers were shooting for – to build “the most reliable semiauto .22LR available on the market with the addition of new and innovative features.”
One Button Breakdown
Most shooters know how dirty a semiauto rimfire gets, but cleaning a rimfire rifle can take the luster off of the shooting moments.
When it’s time to clean the Wildcat, one simply pushes a small red button on the back of the receiver and pulls the lower receiver assembly out of the bottom. There are no screws, no need for a third hand and no complicated maneuvers with tiny springs and pins that get lost in the carpet. This is the most practical innovation I have seen on a firearm.
Cleaning From Breech
Pushing a cleaning rod down a barrel from the muzzle end results in erosion of the crown and degraded accuracy over time. On some models of 22s, there is no other way to do it.
On the Wildcat, the takedown button hole on the back of the receiver doubles as a port for inserting a cleaning rod so the barrel can be cleaned correctly from the breech. It’s an ingenious solution.
The 10/22-style magazine is a bastion of reliability and ubiquity. I have several that have been feeding ammunition for over 20 years. The Wildcat uses any of the various capacity and brands of 10/22-type magazines that are in my shoe box at home, but the Winchester engineers provided their own version that ships with the gun.
According to the engineers I spoke with at Winchester, the Wildcat magazine has a “load-assisting wheel” as well as a feature that activates a lock open mechanism in the rifle to keep the action open after the last shot is fired.
I really like the last round hold open function for safety. A quick glance is all that is needed to see that the chamber is clear and the gun is safe. Also, it saves the firing pin from bashing into the chamber wall when I’m out of ammo.
Once a fresh mag is inserted, the bolt can be released by pushing a red button on the left side of the receiver or by pulling back and releasing the charging handle.
Empty magazine removal is slick. I saw a video where one of the engineers removes one so quickly and smoothly that it looks like he performed a magic trick. This was possible because of the red rail releases right above and on either side of the magazine well. Slide them back and the magazine is ejected by a spring right into your cupped hand. Everyone will enjoy this feature, but I can really see the benefit for young, new or arthritic shooters.
It is great to see peep sights come standard on the Wildcat. Peep sights are the most intuitive, accurate and fast type of sights to use. They do not obstruct the view of the target and its surroundings like typical buckhorn irons. Using the peep, I was able to score four first-round hits on six pop cans at 100 yards. For general use, they negate the need to buy a scope.
As an added bonus, inside the lower receiver assembly are tabs that secure the included Allen wrench required to adjust the sights. It was extremely convenient at the range when I needed to adjust the rear aperture to the gun’s preferred brick of ammo. A second Allen wrench next to it is included for removing the stock.
Integral Top Rail
It is extremely frustrating when scope bases work loose. The Wildcat’s integral rail on the top of the receiver solves that problem, and almost any red dot or scope rings will mount directly to it.
There is also a short section of rail under a cover on the tip of the forend where a laser, light, bipod or sling can be mounted.
Striker-fired guns are some of the most trusted and reliable firearms on the market. Instead of a hammer swinging into the back of a firing pin, a striker is powered by inline springs that push it straight forward. This results in reliable ignition and a shorter lock time. It worked great on the test gun. The Wildcat never failed to ignite a single shell of the cheapest bulk variety I could buy.
The trigger on the Wildcat is a plinking trigger that measured 5 pounds. When shooting spontaneously and intuitively at reactionary targets, I was able to shoot very well. When it came time to do serious accuracy testing, I had to double down on concentration and form to get good results.
For any .22 to be relevant, it has to be reliable, which can only be tested by sending heaps of lead downrange. My wife and I took two bricks of ammunition and two Ruger magazines, a BX-25 and a BX-25X2 (50 rounds), to the range. While she emptied one magazine down range, I loaded the other, then we switched.
The Wildcat chewed its way through 650 rounds of Federal AutoMatch without a hiccup. The next day, it tore through a 500-round brick of Winchester M-22 Black so fast the barrel got too hot to touch. The Wildcat never stopped shooting once.
After mounting a 4X scope, 50-yard groups with the Winchester M-22 Black ammunition clustered around an inch and Remington Thunderbolts grouped around 1.25 inches. Using the holdover reticle in the scope, I hit a pop can on the 100-yard berm 10 times in a row, and I laughed and smiled as it skittered and jumped high into the air. That is great plinking accuracy and exactly what the Wildcat was designed for.
With the supplied peep sights, I was able to consistently shoot 1.5-inch groups at 50 yards. That’s very acceptable for general plinking and hunting.
This is where the gun really shines. It’s lightweight, so it transitions quickly from target to target and packs easily in the hand. The plastic stock is slim with a very comfortable, vertical pistol grip. Since it’s polymer, there is no worrying about mud, rain, snow, or scratches. I didn’t receive the test gun in time for cottontail rabbit season, but the Winchester Wildcat would be an apex predator in the deserts around my house.
To replicate a hunting scenario, I laid out a course of pop cans in the badlands next to my house and took the Wildcat on a walk. In keeping with the light and handy spirit of the gun, I mounted a Vortex Venom 3-MOA reflex. From field positions, like kneeling and sitting, improvised rests and snap shots, the Wildcat excelled. The good ergonomics of the stock, the quality peep sight and rapid-fire capabilities meant the pop cans stood no chance.
All guns have trade-offs. At 4 pounds, the gun transitions quickly and won’t cause undue fatigue after a day of packing in the field, but the low mass requires more concentration and good breathing control to hold on target from unsupported positions.
A Purr-fect Rimfire
If you divide the cost of a Wildcat by how many features it has, the Wildcat is the best value .22LR on the market. It’s accurate, the controls are easy to operate, it’s fun to shoot, easy to clean and lightweight. It would make a great first rifle or a 10th rifle.
All the work the Winchester engineers put into its design translates into more fun for the shooter at the range, less time spent cleaning and an easier learning curve to firearm proficiency for new shooters. My son will be old enough to learn to shoot soon, and I bought the test gun for him. It’s as perfect for plinking and small-game hunting as a gun can get.