Winchester Wildcat 22 SR: A 21st Century Rimfire
The aptly named Wildcat, shown topped with a Leupold DeltaPoint Pro, is full of surprises. Unconventional stock lines contribute to a comfortable shooter interface, red-accented controls offer multiple magazine-removal options and unique construction allows for straightforward disassembly of major components, and eases cleaning and maintenance chores.
Blowback-operated rifles chambered for rimfire cartridges are often believed to be relatively simple guns to manufacture. It’s true that the actions they employ are mechanically less complicated when compared to some of the gas-operated, center-fire rifles currently in production, but making a .22 Long Rifle autoloader that can operate reliably with an expansive selection of ammunition and aftermarket magazines is no mean feat. And don’t forget that bringing a new model to a well-populated marketplace means it will need to stand out from the crowd, stand up to some longtime favorites and do so at a favorable price point.
These were the challenges the design team tackled when it took on the project that led to the launch of the Winchester Repeating Arms Co. Wildcat 22 rimfire carbine in 2019. It’s a handy little gun that successfully blends modern features into a configuration that meets long-held expectations. For 2021, the company has released the SR model, which leaves the factory with a suppressor-ready threaded barrel. This latest variation of the platform is a great opportunity to take a closer look at this innovative rimfire rifle.
Before I took the Wildcat 22 SR to the shooting range, I had the opportunity to meet with Ryan Cook, senior design and analysis engineer responsible for this project. He explained that the company didn’t want to just clone an existing platform or count on a brightly colored stock to catch a buyer’s eye. Instead, a good deal of thought went into bringing this rifle in line with modern design and manufacturing processes to make it a more attractive option to today’s shooting enthusiasts.
The Winchester Wildcat 22 SR employs a striker-fired ignition system instead of a traditional hammer-fired system. A striker configuration was selected because it provides a faster lock time and a lighter, more consistent trigger pull. Also, a hemispheric (rounded) firing pin has been employed because it is intended to deliver more reliable ignition than the typical chisel-profile firing pin.
The loads currently available for .22 Long Rifle semi-automatics like this one operate at a wide range of bullet velocities and pressure levels. These changes in ammunition-generated pressure cause the bolt to speed up or slow down depending on the load used, potentially causing jams in traditional rifle designs. The Wildcat’s bolt is outfitted with a patented governor mechanism that manages the bolt’s cyclical rate in order to make it more reliable.
The bolt assembly, with its right-side charging handle, rests in a one-piece black polymer lower receiver that’s comparable in many ways to the lower receiver of an AR rifle or the modular fire control group of the SIG Sauer P320 series of pistols. This housing contains the moving parts and controls, including the trigger group, magazine releases and bolt releases. It also integrates the skeletonized trigger guard and magazine well. The one-piece design lends itself to improved reliability because its rigidity ensures proper alignment of the magazine well, trigger group and bolt assembly. The design has another noteworthy advantage, namely, easy cleaning with a tool-less disassembly process. At the rear of the action’s lower receiver is a round red button secured in place by the spring pressure of the recoil and striker assemblies. Along with a hook at the front of the lower receiver, the button secures the action into the upper receiver via a port located directly below the rear sight.
To remove the action for cleaning, start by removing the magazine and verifying the rifle is completely unloaded. With the muzzle pointed in a safe direction and the bolt in the closed position, disengage the crossbolt safety button and press the trigger. This releases some of the spring tension on the red button. Next, depress the red button to release the action, and swing it down and out of the upper receiver. The charging handle does not need to be removed. Instead, it’s hinged so that it swings up and out of the way as the action drops down. The action stays together in one convenient unit; there are no small parts to go flying away or tiny screws to go missing. The port for the release button provides an in-line cleaning access point that allows a rod to be pressed through the bore from chamber to muzzle.
The Wildcat 22 SR’s drop-out action allows for easy maintenance in the field or at home. If it gets gummed up at the range, it can be quickly cleaned and re-lubricated with a couple of blasts from an aerosol spray, such as Hoppe’s 9 Gun Medic. At home, the action can be broken down further for a more detailed scrubbing, if needed. On the right side of the lower receiver you’ll find a pair of hex wrenches clipped in place just above the trigger guard. The larger wrench fits the screw that secures the shoulder stock to the upper receiver and barrel assembly; the smaller one can be used to adjust the rear sight.
One of the interesting things about the Wildcat 22 SR that Cook pointed out during our conversation is that, in most cases, a new rifle’s action will be designed to fill a particular role and then a magazine is configured to fit it. In this case, the work was conducted the other way around. This rifle and its magazine system were designed to be compatible with many of the extended aftermarket magazines available for Ruger 10/22-pattern semi-automatic and bolt-action rifles. It will also accept Ruger brand BX-1, BX-15 and BX-25 magazines.
Ensuring that the Wildcat series is compatible with 10/22-type rifles was a wise choice for several reasons. The magazine design is time-tested and has proven to be durable and reliable. Several different companies make them in various configurations. And much like Glock pistol magazines, which have been adopted by many manufacturers, 10/22-pattern magazines are plentiful (during typical gun sales conditions), easy to find and available at affordable prices.
But building the Wildcat 22 SR to accept a mixed bag of magazine makes and models comes with its own set of challenges. The tolerances of the magazine well and bolt assembly have to be forgiving enough to operate with differences in magazine dimensions and materials, such as metallic or polymer feed lips. And just as variations in ammunition pressure can affect the cyclical rate of the bolt, magazines also have different feed rates. The 10-round rotary magazines tend to feed fresh cartridges fairly quickly, and can keep up when using high-velocity ammunition. But the longer models feed more slowly, which can, with traditional rifle designs, lead to jams with some ammunition and magazine combinations. The Wildcat bolt assembly’s governor is designed to cope with changes in cycling speed and feed rates to ensure this rifle will run reliably with a broad range of ammunition and magazine configurations.
At any point the development team could have simply contracted out the magazines to another company and called it a day (other companies have). But Winchester wanted to add a few useful new features to the 10-round rotary magazine that was developed in parallel with this gun.
Topped with a set of metal feed lips, the Wildcat 22 SR magazine has a translucent housing that allows the rounds inside to be seen and counted. The magazine’s rear panel is red to provide a visual indicator for proper alignment with the magazine well. A small steel tab on the left side of the housing activates the mechanism that locks the bolt open when the final round is fired, which is a feature most customers prefer. The 10/22-type magazines from other manufacturers will not lock the bolt open on the last shot.
One of the most thoughtful, but sometimes overlooked, features of the Winchester magazine is the toothed loading wheel at the right rear. This wheel can be used to relieve the spring tension on the follower, which is helpful when loading, but even more so when unloading the magazine. Instead of pressing on the rim of the cartridge to strip it out of the magazine, turning the wheel a bit loosens the pressure just enough for the rounds to conveniently drop free of the feed lips.
With some rimfire rifle models you have to pay your way up from the base model to the features you want or purchase upgrades separately. But the Wildcat 22 SR is snazzy looking and feature-rich right out of the box. Durable polymers are used throughout to give the rifle a lightweight feel and quick handling, with an unloaded weight of only 3 lbs., 13 ozs. with an empty factory magazine in place. The black polymer receiver is topped with an integral 11-slot Picatinny-compatible optics rail. A fully adjustable polymer rear peep sight is paired with a ramped polymer post front sight.
The matte-blue, carbon-steel, sporter-profile barrel has been shortened for the SR model from the standard length of 18″ to 16.5″. This helps to accommodate the added length and weight of a sound suppressor. The muzzle is threaded (1/2×28 TPI) and shipped with a knurled thread protector. The textured polymer stock is a pleasing dark gray instead of tactical black, which is a nice change of pace.
At the front of the fore-end is a three-slot accessory rail and sling swivel port fitted with a removable black polymer cover. This cover preserves the smooth outline of the stock when the rail is not in use. The fore-end and grip are comfortably contoured to fit both youth- and adult-size hands. The shoulder stock is skeletonized with a textured black polymer buttplate and a second sling swivel port.
The red polymer controls have been duplicated for more intuitive and bilateral operation. The bolt can be locked open by depressing a button located in front of the trigger guard. It can then be released to close by pulling back on the charging handle or by depressing the skeletonized lever located on the left side of the receiver. If you prefer a magazine release lever located on the belly of the shoulder stock, the Wildcat 22 SR has a spring-loaded lever in front of the magazine well, however, the magazine can also be removed using a set of textured rails located on either side of the magazine well. Wrapping a hand under the magazine well to grip and pull back on these rails drops the flush-fit magazine right into the palm of your hand, a useful option when wearing gloves.
After learning about all the efforts that went into making the Wildcat 22 SR a reliable rifle, I was curious to see for myself how well it would perform. Informal and formal accuracy testing were conducted using a Crimson Trace CTS-1300 red-dot, which is designed for use with rifles and shotguns.
Test ammunition included a mix of bulk-box practice-grade loads up to premium-quality small-game hollow points, ranging from lightweight to heavier projectiles, along with bullet speeds ranging from subsonic to high velocity. To check its magazine compatibility, this mix of ammunition was fired from not only the factory-provided 10-round rotary magazine, but also Ruger BX-15 and BX-25 magazines and three aftermarket polymer 25-round magazines from Butler Creek, Black Dog Machine LLC and Tactical Innovations. The rifle experienced three failures to feed within the first 25 rounds fired. After that, it ticked along like a Swiss watch with all of the ammunition and magazines tested. I frequently switched around the magazines and ammunition throughout the range evaluation without any other malfunctions.
Shooting rimfire rifles is an American tradition that’s near and dear to my heart. Although the pleasant pastimes of casual plinking and small-game hunting rarely grab the headlines in shooting media, it’s safe to say that quite a few shooting sports enthusiasts learned the basics using a .22 rifle. Many of us have plenty of good memories of quality time spent with friends and family enjoying soft-shooting rimfires.
I’m glad to report that the Winchester Wildcat 22 is a lightweight and easy-to-operate semi-automatic that the whole family can enjoy. It’s loaded with features modern rimfire enthusiasts are looking for, including a weatherproof shoulder stock, integral sight rail, clean trigger pull and now, with the SR version, a threaded-barrel configuration for those who want to take advantage of sound suppressors and other barrel accessories.
The only thing that really interrupts the fun that guns like this one have to offer is when they jam up on us. That’s why the company put serious thought into how this rifle’s design could successfully address three of the most predictable causes of .22 Long Rifle malfunctions—a dirty action, variations in ammunition pressure levels and differences in aftermarket magazine feeding rates. Winchester succeeded in meeting each of these goals while implementing an up-to-date, modular, striker-fired design.
The Ruger 10/22 has been the king of the rimfire rifle hill for several decades. The Winchester Wildcat series is one of the few off-the-rack contenders for that title to come along in quite some time. And that’s coming from someone who really enjoys shooting 10/22s.