Delving into the interesting history of the Howa 1500, Byron Pace takes a closer look at this top-value rifle with Japanese heritage
It wasn’t so many years ago when Howa was a non-existent brand among the hunting public. Behind the scenes, however, rifle manufacturers were well aware of a company that was making rifles for some big brand names. Indeed today’s Weatherby Vanguard comes off the Howa factory floor, branded and shipped under a different name.
When we first began seeing Howa advertised in UK hunting magazines, prices seemed to dictate yet another cheap entry-level rifle. There wasn’t anything staggering about their appearance, but nothing suggested corners had been cut in offering such a competitive rifle to the market. The marketing spiel boasted 1.5in groups and a variety of calibres, stock options and barrel profiles, along with an adjustable trigger and three-position safety. Despite this, hunters were guarded about a manufacturer they knew nothing about, and as far as they could tell, had little in the way of a history in making rifles. However, as the story behind Howa began to filter through, people started to take a harder look at this understated rifle.
Price alone was enough for the Howa 1500 to begin walking out of gun shop doors, but it soon started to build a following and reputation on merit. For those who knew their history, it was hardly a surprise. Howa as a company was established in 1907, then under a different name, manufacturing everything from electronics to heavy plant equipment. In the 1940s it secured contracts with the Japanese armaments industry, and this started the ball rolling in the production of firearms.
Although initially its focus was on military firearms, a deal with Sako allowed Howa to produce a copy of its soon-to-be-legendary L61 and L579 series, better known as the Finnbear and Forrester. Although hard to confirm, it is thought that the contract hadn’t allowed for an exact copy of Sako’s rifle, which indeed is what Howa had done with their Golden Bear model. Contract and patent infringements then forced Howa to stop producing the rifle, and today they are very hard to come by. Today’s model 1500 has changed somewhat from the Golden Bear of the 1960s, but it is still based on the great old Sako action, albeit with some design alterations.
The first diversion comes if we start with the barrel. Surprisingly made by Howa themselves, they are formed using the button-rifling manufacturing process, which is the same as a number of big names such as Walther and Shilen. Sako on the other hand have always fitted their rifles with cold hammer forged barrels, which tend to be stronger and harder wearing, although the process is not necessarily better.
In terms of finish, close inspection of the crown offered little to raise an eyebrow about. In fact it was really quite good, with a slight recess on the muzzle. My own Howa featured last year in a series on bedding a rifle, and I had taken it to a gunsmith for re-crowning. Not because I thought there was a problem, in actual fact I hadn’t even fired the rifle at this point. I just wanted to be sure everything was spot on. However, when it came to it the gunsmith suggested I test the rifle out first before getting tools involved. As far as he could see there wasn’t anything to complain about.
From that point on I began to pay much more attention to crown inspection, taking a long look at every rifle which came through, and the Howa’s were certainly cleaner and sharper on the crown than most other comparable rifles on offer. In terms of barrel profiles, Howa offers a standard Sporter or a heavy varmint barrel. The American listings show a lightweight version, which among others comes chambered in 7-08 Rem, but they are hard to find and all but impossible to get in the UK.
The modern-day model 1500 trigger unit wasn’t inherited from Sako, and there is a considerable difference here. Sako triggers have always been excellent, and they are one of the best factory units on the market. The Howa trigger is not terrible by any stretch, but it’s not great. The original trigger was a single-stage unit, which could be brought down with a bit of adjusting to break quite nicely, but lacked the breathtaking crispness of a really good trigger.
There were two choices. Either send the unit away to be tuned by the likes of Roedale Precision, or fit an aftermarket trigger. Easy and cheap enough to do, this brought the rifle back in line with the best on the market. Howa has now upgraded its triggers to a two-stage unit, which has also flowed through to the new Vanguard Mk2, which it brands for Weatherby. I can see where Howa tried to refine it, but unfortunately I think it actually took a step back. I am informed they are a bit harder to tune now, and further to that, the first stage is anything but smooth, and almost feels a bit gritty. I am not saying the current offering is bad – it could just be better.
The receiver is a strong, solid unit with similar lines to the old Sako’s, although the metal finish was most definitely a higher quality when the Finns were in control. There is nothing too fancy here, with the top machined, drilled and tapped, with a flat bottom supported by a substantial integral recoil lug. This is where the strength lies, and the tapered lug makes for a very easy bedding process.
The bolt has changed a little, with the old Sako guide rail being removed in favour of a guide groove found on the right hand locking lug. It’s hard to say if this is better or worse, although the test rifle was a bit sticky on the forward stoke. This was down to the running groove catching in the rail, but I have never come across this before. My own Howa is spot on, and of the many I have fired there has never been an issue.
Turning to the bolt head, there have been a few alterations. The extractor is similar, with a sprung claw clipping over the case head, but I would say Howa has the edge here. The extractor is a much longer and more substantial design than even the modern Sako’s. The ejector is completely different. Sako has always fitted its rifles with a fixed ejector running through a slot in the bolt face. Howa has adopted the ever-popular spring plunger approach, the same as you will find in a Tikka or Remington.
Like the old Sakos, the bolt has simple twin locking lugs and a recessed face. The rear of the bolt is similar too, with an open shroud showing the cocking piece. Today’s Sakos have improved this with an enclosed shroud, and it would be nice to see Howa do the same at some point.
With the metalwork out of the way, we get to the stocks. Here I have to applaud Howa at acknowledging what the market wanted and updating their product to accommodate. The original Hogue overmould stock was not great. The rubberised outer felt very secure in the hand, and certainly provided ample grip in slippery conditions, but did tend to pick up fluff and grime quite easily. More importantly than that, though, the forestock was flexible and could easily be made to touch the barrel in every direction. The wooden stock offerings were fine but nothing special, and this probably hampered the initial launch in the UK.
As time passed, many people realising the great potential of the model 1500, Howa replaced the triggers and fitted the barrelled actions to after-market stocks. Bell and Carlson became a popular choice, with its easy-to-fit drop in aluminium block. With these small changes, the rifle was upgraded to fulfil its potential. Taking note of areas for improvement, Howa began offering its rifles as separate barrelled actions as well as with Bell and Carlson stocks.
In a different league to the Hogue, the shooting public have responded. There are still improvements to be made though, as Bell and Carlson dropped the ball on a few finishing touches, and in particular the action fit in the recoil lug area, which is not as good as I would have liked.
When it comes to how the rifle shoots, the results can be quite exceptional. Pillar and resin bedding their barrelled action, along with a trigger upgrade and my own Howa will drop 5 shots from handloads at 100 yards inside a five pence piece. Off the shelf they are shooters as well, easily shooting sub MOA. Two friends with .243s have been testing some 105-grain Geco ammo, and have had some great results, while the 70-grain Federal Noslers will group under three inches at 300 yards.
The Howa 1500 is quite a rifle for the money and possibly the best value buy around today. It’s hard to think of a reason not to buy one.
For more on the Howa, contact distributor Highland Outdoors on 01858 410683 or www.highlandoutdoors.co.uk.