My thoughts on the Howa 1500 Varmint rifle
Though it may strike you as a new company, with a name unfamiliar to most shooters in Britain, Howa has been producing firearms in Japan for decades now.
Weatherby Vanguard rifles use its actions, so when a pure Howa-badged rifle came for review I was eager to give it a thorough going over.
Howa offers many sporter-type rifles in its range, but I was keen to test a fox rifle and chose this blued version of the varmint profile in .22-250 calibre, which sported a good-looking laminated stock.
Strong, stiff, reliable action
The heart of any rifle lies in its ability to maintain a strong, stiff and reliable action, from which all the appendages can synergise together. Get the action right and you are halfway there.
The Howa 1500 Varmint utilises a single forged-steel action that is machined to the correct dimensions, either in steel or stainless steel. This gives a good strong action from the off. The top-receiver bridge is drilled and tapped for scope bases, just as Remington rifles are, and there is an integral recoil lug beneath.
The Howa logo adorns the left side, with a bleed hole on the front receiver ring in case of a blown primer, while on the right the loading and ejection cut-away is large enough not to impede operations, even when wearing gloves.
The blued finish was a deep, rich, satin blue-black, which complemented the barrel and stock well, and with proper care will cope with the challenge of some real-life shooting. At the base is a hinged floor-plate magazine, holding four cartridges in .22-250 calibre, with a simple lever operation sited in the forward section of the trigger-guard.
Bolt from the blued
One real asset of the Howa action is the large and well-engineered bolt and handle. Stemming from a single piece of steel bar stock, its dimensions give a comforting and robust heft to the action as a whole. There are two large locking lugs up front, which, when cammed into the action on closure, bind or mate true to the action body, thus imparting no unwelcome torque to the action.
The bolt is totally encapsulated at the front end, rather like a Remington bolt, and so has a good deal of strength should anything untoward go wrong.
Sprung within the bolt body, the plunger-type ejector forcefully ejects spent cases from the action. Primary extraction is accomplished by way of an M16 rifle-type extractor claw. A good, solid extractor, it grips the rim of the case securely and never failed to extract a case from the rifle’s chamber.
The bolt handle, too, has a nice, slightly swept-back gait, with a semi-ball/tapered bolt knob that is both comfortable to use and cleanly avoids any scope contact when the action is cocked.
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Safety and trigger
The Howa uses a side safety system that is an integral part of the trigger unit. Operation is performed by way of a simple sliding knurled lever, accessed from the right-hand side of the action tang.
In the forward position the rifle is ready to fire, while a swift and reasonably quiet roller action to the rear makes it safe, locking the trigger and sear, but allowing you to operate the bolt and safely to unload the rifle should you wish. The trigger itself is a lovely affair and a breath of fresh air compared with some I have tested.
Set at no more than 2lb, it is light, responsive and totally predictable, and it does aid in shrinking those groups down-range. I would choose to leave the factory settings well alone, but you can adjust if you feel competent to do so; getting access to the adjusting screws necessitates removal of the stock first.
As far as varmint stocks go, you would be hard pushed to find a better designed and finished stock for this class of rifle. Though laminated stocks may not be to everyone’s tastes, especially in some of the garish colours on offer these days, the Howa’s is subdued and yet striking enough to set off the blued action and barrel.
There is no chequering for extra grip at the pistol grip and fore-end but the stock design takes care of any concerns in this department.
The fore-end has a wide shallow form, commonly referred to as beaver tail this means that the base fills the hand or rest to support the rifle and counteracts any sideways slippage, while the raised ridge section allows a good grip for the fingers of the supporting hand to wrap around.
To enhance the design further there are three slotted ventilation holes to each side that transcend the entire girth of the fore-end. This has a dual role in allowing the barrel quickly to cool after a rapid session of shots and it does look rather good, too.
Being a Varmint model, this Howa had a great thumbhole configuration to the butt section of the stock, which was really well thought out.
The firing hand is afforded support that is practically vertical and gives a good length of pull to the trigger, and thus correct trigger tension.
The hole of the thumbhole is large enough to use quickly if the rifle has to be mounted in a hurry, and the swept-back roll-over cheekpiece does a good job of positioning the eye central to the axis of the scope. Finished in a black laminated wood structure with a tough lacquered external surface, this stock hits the mark in terms both of looks and function.
A great all-round fox/varmint calibre, .22-250 readily lends itself to good accuracy potential. This Howa was no exception, as I tested factory and reloads all the way out to 400 yards in order to assess the rifle’s true accuracy.
The barrel is a heavy varmint profile, tapering from 1.2in to 0.82 at the muzzle and is fully free-floating, thereby allowing a reasonable number of rounds to be shot before heat build-up impairs accuracy.
It is hammer-forged in construction, button-rifled with a 1-in-12 twist rate and six-groove rifling, and has a properly recessed crowned muzzle. My only gripe is that I usually shoot all my rifles with moderators these days and the Howa’s barrel was unthreaded – it isn’t a problem, but I’d imagine this option would suit many other shooters, too.
Shaun, at DJ Litt’s, had set the rifle up with a Leupold Tactical scope and, at 100 yards, the factory Remingtons, Federal and Norma ammunition, with bullet weights from 40 grains to 55 grains, all shot below the 1in mark or slightly over.
For a production rifle with factory ammo that is superb. Best group went to the Remington 50-grain AccuTip boat-tail, which put four of the five shots inside 0.55in and the fifth opening out to 0.75in. With a velocity averaging 3,706fps and 1,525ft/lb energy from that 24in barrel, you can feel confident in shooting this Howa at long range.
I did experiment with some reloads and found that 55-grain Nosler Ballistic Tips loaded in front of 34.75 grains of Varget powder produced 3,622fps and 1,602ft/lb energy, and shot five-shot groups at 100 yards of 0.75in all day long.
Howa 1500 Varmint rifle review
With build quality and accuracy far better than one might expect for a factory rifle, the best part of the Howa story is that this model 1500 Varmint with blued steel will set you back just shy of £570.
Considering the thought that has gone into this rifle, to my mind that offers great value for money.
With no problems either during testing or out in the woods, whether in this guise or as a lighter sporter-weight version, you have to hand it to Japan’s Howa engineers they have turned out a smart, reliable and viable varmint rifle.