November 16, 2023
The .22 Long Rifle (LR), which debuted all the way back in 1887, remains one of the most popular cartridges among shooters and hunters. There are, justifiably, a wide array of rifles chambered in this ubiquitous little rimfire cartridge. While plenty of these are bolt-action designs, many people love the various—and now abundant—semi-automatic rifles built for this cartridge as well.
Since the 1960s, one of the most beloved and proven of these semi-autos has been Ruger’s 10/22. Other designs are certainly available from a host of manufacturers, including today’s assortment of .22 LR rifles taking design and style cues from the AR-15. However, the 10/22 has often been viewed as the benchmark for semi-auto .22 LR rifles. Various clones and copies exist, and many modern semi-auto rimfires borrow design features or characteristics from it.
In 2019, Winchester introduced what may be one of the most legitimate contenders to potentially dethrone, or at least challenge, the 10/22’s place atop the rimfire hierarchy: the Wildcat 22 LR. Featuring a simple blowback design, a toolless disassembly/assembly process for cleaning and various ergonomic and functional improvements—while retaining 10/22 magazine compatibility—the Winchester Wildcat has garnered lots of interest. In the years since, Winchester has also produced a few new models such as the Wildcat 22 SR (Suppressor Ready) and Wildcat Sporter and Sporter SR, the latter two being new for 2023.
I requested a Winchester Wildcat 22 LR last fall, as it seemed a perfect companion for an early fall squirrel hunt in Kentucky. While it unfortunately didn’t arrive in time for that hunt, I have had the chance to spend plenty of time plinking with and testing the rifle since then. What I discovered is a supremely reliable semi-auto rimfire packed with innovative features—all at a very affordable price point.
A REIMAGINED RIMFIRE
Like the 10/22 and many other semi-auto rimfire rifles, the Winchester Wildcat 22 LR uses a straightforward blowback design. However, that and the fact that the Wildcat is compatible with 10/22 magazines is somewhat where the similarities end.
The Wildcat 22 LR uses a striker-fired design closer to that found in many centerfire bolt actions instead of the traditional hammer-fired system often present in many rimfires. This decision allows for more reliable ignition and a shorter lock time. The tip of the firing pin is also hemispherical as opposed to the more vertical, chisel-shaped pins found on most rimfires.
The result of this change is deeper rim indentation for more positive ignition on rimfire cartridges. Indeed, during testing, I never once encountered any failures to fire due to light primer strikes.
More than this, though, one of the most innovative features on the Wildcat is that its entire lower receiver assembly can be removed in seconds without tools. To do so, you simply remove the magazine, pull back the bolt to ensure the chamber is clear and pull the trigger to relieve some tension on the spring (with the gun pointed in a safe direction, of course).
Then you depress a circular red button on the back of the receiver and pull the complete trigger/bolt group out of the bottom of the stock by the trigger guard. The uniquely designed charging handle is hinged and will actually swing up and out of the way as the action drops down. No need to remove it.
This entire process probably takes less time to complete than it just took to explain it. And this is important, given that a dirty action is one of the most common causes of malfunctions in semi-auto .22 LR rifles.
Also key, the design of the Wildcat 22 LR leaves a hole in the back of the stock after you drop the lower receiver out. This allows you to run a cleaning rod through the barrel from the breech toward the front, which protects the barrel’s crown.
While the 10/22’s disassembly process has been made a little easier in recent years with the development of takedown models, the Wildcat’s drop-out lower assembly is far simpler. This makes cleaning, in the field or otherwise, a breeze.
Once removed, you’ll also notice that a pair of Allen wrenches are also held conveniently within the complete lower/trigger unit. One adjusts the rifle’s rear peep sight, while the other one is used to remove the barreled action from the stock.
SUPER SIMPLE AND FAST
Operating this rifle is also incredibly easy. One common complaint about the 10/22 is that it can be hard to use the bolt release/hold-open feature. This is hardly the case with the Wildcat.
In fact, Winchester’s engineers built in two different ways to do it. You can press up on a red-shaped tab just in front of the trigger guard while pulling the bolt handle back. Or you can press a skeletonized trapezoid-shaped tab on the left side of the receiver backward while pulling the charging handle back. Both are super simple and fast.
Closing the bolt is just as easy. Simply pull back the charging handle and let it go forward. Or you can push down the same red tab on the receiver’s left that was used to hold the bolt open.
The Wildcat also gives you options when it comes to magazine removal. There is a standard tab (also red) at the front of the magwell that releases the magazine when pulled back. This works just fine, but even cooler, in my mind, is the second method. Just pull backward on the ambidextrous twin red rails on the rifle’s side just above the magwell, and the magazine pops out right into your hand.
Regarding magazines, it’s worth noting that the one Winchester ships with the Wildcat is quite impressive. It’s a 10/22-styled design (the Wildcat itself is compatible with all factory and aftermarket 10/22 magazines). However, it offers some advantages over a standard 10/22 magazine.
The first is that a small metal tab on its left side gives it a last-round hold-open feature. This is absent on other 10/22 mags. Secondly, there is a knurled thumb wheel at the rear of the magazine that helps depress the spring and make loading easier. This could be especially helpful with young shooters or those with weaker hands and fingers, though I enjoyed using it as well.
As mentioned, the Wildcat is compatible with Ruger 10/22 magazines and their many aftermarket companions. If you want to plink away at the range, the Wildcat readily accepts the larger 25-round magazine from Ruger, Butler Creek and others. These magazines just lack the last-round hold-open capability of the supplied Winchester magazine.
This handy little rimfire also clearly takes its styling cues from modern rifle design. For starters, much of it is made from polymer. This helps it weigh in at its scant 4-pound listed weight.
The rifle features a slim forend, a skeletonized stock and a vertically angled grip—all of which proved highly comfortable when shooting and carrying the rifle. The butt of the stock, meanwhile, is a simple textured plastic piece, which is perfectly acceptable given the .22 LR’s minimal recoil.
The 18-inch steel barrel has a matte blued finish and a sporter contour. The rifle’s length of pull is 13.5 inches and it has an overall length of 36.25 inches. The SR versions, meanwhile, sport a shorter, threaded 16.5-inch barrel to accommodate the added length of a suppressor.
The Wildcat comes outfitted with a fully adjustable ghost ring rear sight and a ramped post front sight. However, it also has a built-in top rail for mounting optics, which most modern shooters desire.
Front and rear sling eyelets are molded into the stock and there is a built-in rail section on the forend’s underside for mounting a bipod or light. If you don’t want to use the front sling eyelet or attach accessories, a detachable rail cover protects your hand from the rail’s rough edges.
Meanwhile, the manual safety—a push button design located on the rear of the trigger guard—is ambidextrous and can be changed for left-handed shooters. So, all in all, lots of fantastic features, many of which hunters and shooters have come to expect on new rifles.
During testing, the Wildcat performed flawlessly. I ran several different .22 LR loads through the gun over numerous trips to the range and never experienced a failure to feed or fire.
Operating the Wildcat proved incredibly easy, courtesy of Winchester’s thoughtful design of the rifle’s controls and ergonomics. Everything from loading the magazine to closing and holding the bolt open seemed intuitive. For this reason alone, I imagine the Wildcat is a big hit with the new and youth shooter crowds. And then, of course, there’s the ease of disassembly and cleaning.
The rifle’s trigger wasn’t exceptional, but it’s perfectly fine for plinking and general small-game hunting.
The Wildcat’s accuracy trended a similar way. With Leupold’s VX-Freedom 3-9x40 Rimfire scope mounted on the built-in top rail, five-shot groups at 50 yards generally averaged between 1 1/4 and 1 1/2 inches.
An especially good group, like the overall best 0.67-inch group with CCI’s Mini-Mag 40-grain Segmented Hollow Point, might be under an inch. However, most will fall in the 1- to 2-inch range. I find that acceptable for a semi-automatic .22 LR under $300, and it’s plenty good for recreational shooting and hunting small game.
The fully adjustable ghost ring rear and ramped post front sight are great for plinking. A non-magnified reflex red dot, like Bushnell’s RXS-250, would be another good option for casual shooting. For hunting, though, I’d personally prefer a fixed or variable power scope. With its 60-yard focus setting and 3-9x magnification range, the VX-Freedom Rimfire scope I used is an excellent choice, but similar models from other brands could be equally suitable.
Overall, I find there’s a lot to be excited about with this rifle. Having a rifle that is quick and easy to disassemble and clean offers an incredible advantage, especially with notoriously dirty rimfire cartridges. The Wildcat’s disassembly/assembly process is among the fastest I’ve seen. Plus, its unique design lets you clean the barrel from the rear.
Then there are the ergonomic and operational advances. Controls are easy and straightforward to find and use—and largely ambidextrous. The Wildcat’s included magazine offers improvements over the standard 10/22, yet the rifle itself remains compatible with existing factory and aftermarket magazines, of which there are many.
The Winchester Wildcat may not have the established legacy that the 10/22 does yet but give it some time. It’s an impressive little rifle with a lot of forward-thinking design points, and so far, it’s shown itself to be durable, reliable and reasonably accurate. I’m excited to see what the future holds for this one.
Winchester Wildcat Specifications
Type: Semi-automatic, blowback
- Caliber: .22 LR
- Barrel: 18 in., matte blued steel
- Rifling: 1:16 inch twist
- Overall Length: 36.25 in.
- Weight: 4 pounds
- Magazine Capacity: 10 rounds, accepts larger-capacity 10/22 magazines
- Safety: Two position, push button, reversible
- Stock: Composite, gray
- Receiver Finish: Matte Black
- Length of Pull: 13.5 inches
- MSRP: $269.99
Accuracy Testing Results/Winchester Wildcat .22 LR
Load: CCI Mini-Mag 40-grain Segmented HP
- Average Group: 1.12 in.
- Best Group: 0.67 in.
- Average Velocity: 1,202 fps
- Extreme Spread: 38 fps
- Standard Deviation: 12.69 fps
Load: CCI Green Tag 40-grain
- Average Group: 1.20 in.
- Best Group: 1.01 in.
- Average Velocity: 1,023 fps
- Extreme Spread: 33 fps
- Standard Deviation: 10.74 fps
Load: Remington Golden Bullet 36-grain
- Average Group: 1.36 in.
- Best Group: 1.10 in.
- Average Velocity: 1,246 fps
- Extreme Spread: 68 fps
- Standard Deviation: 23 fps
Load: Winchester Super X 40-grain
- Average Group: 1.54 in.
- Best Group: 1.33 in.
- Average Velocity: 1,298 fps
- Extreme Spread: 52 fps
- Standard Deviation: 18 fps
Load: Federal Premium Auto Match 40-grain
- Average Group: 1.65 in.
- Best Group: 1.49 in.
- Average Velocity: 1,154 fps
- Extreme Spread: 45 fps
- Standard Deviation: 18 fps