Howa Lightning 1500 rifle review.
Howa sporting rifles are produced in Japan.
It has supplied various well-known manufacturers with actions for their rifles, such as Weatherby Vanguard and the old Smith & Wesson 1500 rifles in the early 1970s.
These days, Howa markets its own brand in many configurations. Having tested the Varmint laminated version last year (Howa 1500 Varmint Laminate, 12 July 2007) – I was keen to test a newer version designed as a ready-made stalking or foxing rifle with a choice of stainless or synthetic finish and a sound moderator if desired.
The sporter version of the 1500 can be supplied either with varmint or sporter profile barrels in blued steel or stainless as well as two choices of stock colour, black or green. I opted for a black stocked sporter weight rifle in the new calibre .204 Ruger with a threaded muzzle.
It would make a good lightweight hard-working fox rifle and with a stalking calibre it would serve just as well as a deer rifle.
Unusually, Howa has used a stock made by Hogue, which is known among British shooters for its rubberised models for the .22 calibre Ruger 10/22 repeater.
The stock has a characteristic tactile rubberised feel, making it a good and practical finish for a hunting rifle.
The soft, non-slip stock has a dimpled finish that ensures grip even in the worst conditions and to some degree absorbs recoil hardly necessary though on the .204 calibre.
The soft rubber covers a reinforced fibreglass structure into which the action fits neatly. This combined with aluminium pillar bedding for the stock screws ensuring a uniform and even grip to the action means increased accuracy.
The fore-end is semi beaver-tailed and extra stippling gives a really good grip.
The solid black recoil pad and sling swivels finish off an extremely practical stock. Ambidextrous with a relatively short length of pull at 13¾in, the Howa has an average shooter specification. One thing to note is, though the stock finish is imperious to cleaning solvents and will not harden through use, it does have the undesirable tendency to attract dirt that can get ground in.
The best aspect of the Howa is the action. I have seen many custom rifles built on this solid unit. The machined stainless steel single-forged action provides a strong basis. Its tool marks are still visible.
The top receiver bridge is drilled and tapped for scope bases in a way identical to Remington rifles. There is a large integral recoil lug on the receiver ring that beds securely into the stock.
The stainless steel is smooth with a satin finish complementing the barrel, which is matt enough not to attract the attention from game and subdued enough to look pleasing.
The magazine is not detachable. It is the tried and tested hinged floorplate design, holding five .204 calibre cartridges. A simple lever operation sited in the forward section of the trigger-guard allows the plate to drop under spring tension to dump the cartridges into a waiting hand.
The Howa action has a well engineered bolt and handle manufactured from a single piece of steel bar stock. Its large 7in dimension contributes to the robustness of the rifle as a whole. There are two large locking lugs up front that when cammed into the action on closure give even and positive support.
The ejector is a plunger type. Sprung within the bolt body, it forcefully ejects spent cases from the action. Primary extraction is accomplished by an M16-type extractor claw that is 1½in long. It grips and extracts cases from the chamber with attitude.
The swept-back style bolt handle has a nice teardrop bolt knob. It runs the bolt smoothly within the action and avoids any contact with the scope when the action is cocked.
Trigger and safety
The trigger on the Varmint model I tested was good but the 1500 had a lot of over-travel and creep to the trigger. The pull weight was fine at the factory setting of 4lb.
I would normally leave well alone but I did make a few adjustments that necessitated the removal of the stock to make the trigger more manageable. The single-stage operation suits me but the grooved trigger blade is a bit too slim for my liking.
The Howa uses a new three-position safety system operated by a small sliding knurled metal lever on the right side of the action tang. In the forward position the rifle is ready to fire. At three quarters back it locks the trigger but allows the bolt to be operated and fully back it locks the trigger and sear as well as the bolt.
Barrel and moderator
The 22in barrel is stainless like the action. It has a svelte sporter profile and a muzzle diameter of 16mm. This can be cut with a ½in UNF thread for a moderator in this case a new Wildcat Predator.
Being fully floated along its entire length, the barrel should have greater accuracy but when a heavy moderator is fitted the gap can close between barrel and stock so they come into contact.
This was the case with the Wildcat but it was easily remedied by enlarging the barrel channel or by fitting a lighter moderator. Also, the fore-end has a glued-in profile so that one stock can be used for both sporter or the heavier Varmint profile barrels. Remove this and you are in business.
The Howa is an instantly likeable sporting rifle. It is light, pointable and reassuringly well built, meaning you just concentrate on the stalk without worrying about scratching the stock. I recommend the .204 Ruger calibre, which I see as a rifle for lamping from a truck or walking-up vermin.
Making use of some impressive ballistics the new 20 calibres are only now getting the attention they deserve. However, unlike some larger slower velocity ammunition, small-calibre high-velocity rounds are affected by shorter barrel length.
This was the case with the .204 and the Howa’s 22in barrel length.
Ammunition makers quote impressive figures but these are largely based on data from test guns which often have longer barrels to maximise velocity gain. I shot Remington and Hornady factory loads with 32- and 40-grain bullet weights as well as small selection of reloads to see if I could improve accuracy and velocity potential.
The Remington 40-grain load sped out at 3,634fps and 1,173ft/lb energy, which is more than 200fps down on list velocities for the 40-grain projectile.
Similarly, the Hornady 40-grain bullet produced 3,605fps and 1,155ft/lb, a bit sedate but still in real terms more than good enough for any foray.
Reducing the bullet from 40-grain to 32-grain with the Hornady V-Max projectile gained another 200fps, shooting at 3,808fps and generating 1,031ft/lb. This would be a nice, flat-shooting, highly frangible and safe round to use for a lamping trip. Accuracy was mixed.
The Howa achieved the 1¼in guarantee but I had hoped for better. The Hornady 32-grain was best with several ¾in shot groups at 100 yards. Both 40-grain bullets had larger shot groups.
A reload of 25.5-grain of Vit N133, Federal Match primers with the 32-grain V-Max managed a velocity of 3,899fps with good accuracy of ¾in at 100 yards and was my choice for the field. I am compiling a cartridge review of this calibre in which I will list all the reloads.
The rifle is well priced and represents a complete stalking or foxing set-up for shooters without the hassle of threading the barrel. However, it is vital to ensure that the right weight of moderator is fitted so that the correct barrel channel gap is maintained for accuracy.
As a capable rifle that could be used anywhere, it will certainly appeal to many professionals.
The guaranteed 1¼in groups at 100 yards will instil confidence. The Hogue stock transforms the feel of the rifle and the overall build quality will give its owner a long service life.
For gamekeeper, active deerstalker or cost-conscious shooter, the Howa Lightning 1500 rifle will do well.