July 16, 2019
By Joseph von Benedikt
Usually, I try to avoid being melodramatic, but what the heck. I’ll stick my neck out and say it: the new Winchester Wildcat rimfire rifle is possibly the coolest semiauto design ever to come down the pike. Now, that’s a pretty brash statement, and time may force me to regret making it, but from what I’ve seen handling and shooting the Wildcat, it is exceptional. It boasts forward-thinking ergonomics and features out of the realm of most competing designs, yet it’s extremely affordable at just $250 suggested retail.
Here’s the skeleton description. It’s a simple blowback design. The complete trigger/bolt group may be removed in about three seconds without using tools, and with it removed, the rifle may be cleaned from the breech. The included 10-round rotary magazine is easy to load, and even better, the Wildcat accepts and functions with Ruger 10/22 magazines. Plus, it offers the quickest, most inherently simple magazine release I’ve used on a rimfire.
A peep rear sight comes standard on an integral rail-type optic base. Overall weight is just four pounds, and in my testing so far, it’s been 100 percent reliable and is surprisingly accurate.
Okay, but why do I think it’s exceptional? Like Gaston Glock, Winchester took a risk and built the action framework out of polymer. Advertised as “black composite,” I suspect it’s of the glass-filled nylon material that’s become legendary for its toughness and rigidity.
This same material makes up the lower receiver assembly framework: trigger guard, magazine well and the structure that contains the bolt and trigger group. Two Allen wrenches are stowed onboard the lower receiver assembly—one for adjusting the rear sight and the other for removing the barreled action from the stock.
Predictably, the barrel is not threaded into the forward end of the receiver. It’s a slip-fit design secured by a massive crossbolt through the lower portion of the receiver. A relief cut through the bottom of the front receiver ring allows the bolt to clamp securely around the barrel’s breech.
Speaking of the barrel, it’s 18 inches long, is made of chrome-moly steel, and is advertised to have “precision button-rifling…with a recessed target-style crown.” Rate of twist is 1:16, and it’s finished with a non-glare matte blue.
One common complaint with traditional 10/22 rifles—the standard by which all others are measured—is the difficulty of locking the bolt open. Winchester didn’t make the same mistake.
A small red tab at the front juncture of the trigger guard and stock makes it easy. Just haul rearward on the charging handle, press the red button upward, and let the charging handle go. Likewise, it’s easy to drop the locked-back bolt. Just press the red metal tab on the left side of the receiver.
As mentioned earlier, the magazine is a 10-round rotary design made of opaque dark grey polymer with metal feed lips. Of particular interest is the magazine release. You’ll find red serrated slides on each side of the stock above the magazine. To operate, grasp around the magazine, tug the two slides rearward, and the mag will pop right into your palm. There’s also a mag-release lever in the traditional location at the forward end of the mag.
Racy styling with red polymer across the magazine’s back and around the floorplate make it easy to identify and orient correctly into the mag well. To add ergonomics for kids and folks with lesser hand strength, a knurled wheel in the rear of the mag may be used to compress the internal spring, enabling the loader to simply drop cartridges into the top rather than battle to wedge them down through the feed lips.
The fact that the Wildcat accepts and functions with the standard 10/22 magazine bears repeating. Want a high-capacity “banana clip”? No problem. Buy one designed for the 10/22 Ruger and run with it.
The sights are excellent, too. Rimfires, even more than most other rifle types, really benefit from useful barrel sights and a versatile optics mounting system. But because they’re usually built to be affordable, it’s rare that a .22 actually comes with all of the above, which makes the Wildcat that much more impressive.
When I first saw the sturdy, fully adjustable peep sight integrated into the rear of the also-integral rail-type optic base, I thought, “Finally!” Not surprisingly, the sights are made of sturdy composite material just like the action.
As mentioned earlier, an Allen wrench for adjusting the peep is contained in the lower receiver assembly. To mount a scope low above the bore, just slide the peep rearward on its elevation adjustment ramp until the scope tube clears. Easy.
A robust front sight is screwed into place and consists of a bead atop a ramp; it’s all one piece. This is the one thing I’d have changed. Rather than a bead, I’d prefer a simple, clean-cut post. At first blush, many shooters think a bead centers up in a peep more easily, but the opposite is actually true. Using a six o’clock (top of the bead) hold on your target, which is necessary to achieve a fine sight picture, you’re forced to either center the bead or center the target in the aperture. You can’t do both. Switch to a flat-topped post and you can center both. There’s a reason competitive shooters in iron-sight disciplines eschew bead front sights.
On the plus side, this is an issue that is easily fixed. Use a sharp, fine-cut file and shape the front sight the way you want it. You don’t even have to use touch-up bluing after because the composite sight is black material clear through.
In terms of stock design, the Winchester Wildcat is futuristic without being awkward-looking—an aesthetic many competing companies have failed to achieve. The grip is almost vertical and tight. It’s comfortable for big adult hands but also great for small kid hands.
An integrated rail at the fore-end tip enables the easy attachment of an accessory such as a little bipod or a weapon light—for, say, weeding nighttime raccoons from the cabbage patch. A sling swivel stud is incorporated at the rear of the rail. A rail cover is included, and it gives the fore-end a nice sleek look and feel when the rail isn’t in use.
A rear swivel stud is cast into the toe of the skeletonized stock, which also features a well-thought-out buttplate. The heel is aggressively beveled, which will help prevent little kids in heavy clothing from snagging the stock beneath their arm when they attempt to mount the Wildcat. Ribbing across the buttplate provides a non-slip surface.
To clean the Wildcat, eject the magazine, clear the chamber, lower the bolt, and remove the lower receiver assembly. To do the latter, stick the tip of a strong finger into the rear of the action, tug the trigger guard downward, and rotate the assembly down and forward. It will come free easily. As it does, the charging handle will rotate into an upward-pointing position in its slot in the bolt in order to slide out of the ejection port. With that accomplished, you can clean and lube the lower receiver as well as the bore.
To replace the lower receiver assembly, align the upward-pointing charging handle into the ejection port, hook the front of the lower receiver assembly into its mortise in front of the magazine well, and simply rotate the rear of the assembly into place. It will snap home with a satisfying click and be ready to rock and roll.
Before moving on to range performance, it’s worth touching on the trigger. It’s made of a composite, breaks quite cleanly at five pounds, one ounce with about four ounces of variation over a series of five consecutive measurements, using my Lyman digital trigger gauge.
To check how well a Wildcat’s barrel sights come zeroed from the factory, I first fired the little semiauto at 25 yards, testing point of impact with a series of three consecutive five-shot groups. While the rear sight is easy to adjust and the correct Allen wrench is contained in the lower receiver assembly, I didn’t have to touch it. Point of impact was an inch high at 25 yards with 40-grain Winchester Super-X ammo, which gave the rifle a useful 50-yard zero. CCI 32-grain Stingers impacted about two inches high.
With another selection of ammo in hand, I sallied forth with my old Leupold VX-7 3.5-14x50mm scope mounted atop the Wildcat to see how well it would group when not hindered by iron sights and middle-age eyes.
Resting on sandbags fore and aft, I bored down on a 50-yard target and attempted to give the little rifle a chance to shine. A strong crosswind gusted to 25 mph, buffeting me and the portable bench hard enough that I couldn’t get the crosshairs to settle completely. However, my deadline loomed, so I pressed on.
Accuracy with several commonly available loads was perfectly adequate for small game hunting, but it was not eye-bulging. Then I tried two German-made SK Ammunition loads through it. Velocity with both was slow by small-game hunting standards, but each turned in amazingly tiny groups. Complete results can be seen in the accompanying chart.
Formal testing concluded, I stepped away from the bench, put the Wildcat in the hands of William, my eight-year-old son who is already an avid shooter and hunter, and let him plink to his heart’s content. Watching how quickly and naturally he adapted to it confirmed my evaluation of the rifle’s superb, user-friendly ergonomics.
By the end of our range session, I knew that this was one test rifle that wouldn’t be going back to the manufacturer. I’d be sending a check instead.
Throughout my testing, the Winchester Wildcat churned through all the various ammo types without a hint of a malfunction. It’s light, accurate and reliable, and it offers ergonomics beyond any other rimfire I’ve used. At $250, it just might be the best value on the market.