There's never been a better time to be in the market for a budget hunting rifle because dozens of companies are producing well-built, accurate guns with good triggers. Howa, the Japanese manufacturing company, has been in the business of building budget bolt guns for years, and now that Legacy Sports International is importing and selling these guns Stateside, they're more available than ever.
The basic Howa 1500 action sports a push-feed, dual-opposed locking lug bolt design with a small extractor and plunger ejector — a system that has proven popular and functional. Howa has dressed up this functional action with Hogue stocks, which are durable and comfortable and superior to the cheaper injection-molded jobs.
The Howa 1500/Hogue combination has proven to be functional and accurate while maintaining a reasonable price ($608 to $681, depending on configuration). Now Legacy Sports is offering these rifles as a package deal with a Zeiss Terra 3-9x42 scope. It comes bore-sighted and mounted in a DNZ one-piece scope base, and package prices range from $1,043 to $1,197, depending on caliber and finish.
I had the chance to test one of these Howa 1500 rifles in 6.5x55 Swedish Mauser, the darling hunting cartridge of Scandinavian sportsmen for more than a century. The rifle was blued and featured a black Hogue grip and a 22-inch No. 2 free-floated barrel and came out of the box ready to shoot. The combo package is available in a variety of other calibers, ranging from .204 Ruger all the way up to the mighty .375 Ruger, so whether you're hunting rock chucks or buffalo, there's a Howa 1500 package gun to meet your needs. It's also available with a green stock, a stainless finish and, in some calibers, a fluted barrel.
The Howa 1500 certainly doesn't give a bargain-basement impression. The stock is soft to the touch and doesn't sound like a drum when you tap your fingers on the side. Another thing I immediately appreciated about the Howa 1500 is the smooth, fluid bolt that runs through the action like it's on greased bearings.
For those who loathe the current movement toward lightweight, plastic detachable magazines, the Howa employs a hinged floorplate that locks tightly into place with a release blade located on the front of the trigger guard. The three-position rocker-style safety is located on the right rear of the action, and on the opposite side is a small bolt release button. Additionally, the package rifle incorporates Howa's HACT (Howa Actuator Controlled Trigger) unit, a two-stage design that requires minimal sear engagement.
For this particular test, I used three 140-grain loads (Federal Fusion, Winchester Super-X, and Nosler Trophy Grade AccuBonds) because this weight is the most common choice for hunting applications in the 6.5x55 Swede, and the long, heavy-for-caliber bullet has proven highly effective on Scandinavian moose for years. Velocities were a bit below factory listings for all ammo, probably because of the 22-inch barrel.
While Howa claims this package rifle comes bore-sighted, that wasn't the case with my sample. The first shots were off the paper, low and to the right. A quick adjustment of the Zeiss 0.25-m.o.a. knobs had me on the white. I'm a fan of the Zeiss scope with its clutter-free No. 20 Z-Plex reticle.
Loading, feeding and ejection were smooth and flawless and are hallmarks of the Howa 1500. The HACT trigger aids in accuracy, thanks to a smooth take-up and a crisp, clean, three-pound break.
The three-position safety is a nice touch, and although it's not as easy to manipulate with certainty as a large wing-type safety is, it's well positioned and stays out of the way. Recoil was manageable, thanks in part to the 6.5's inherent soft touch and the squishy pad on the Hogue stock.
In a world teeming with budget rifles, the Howa 1500 package is a contender. It doesn't look or feel cheap, the action is smooth, the trigger outstanding, and the overall quality of the gun belies its price tag. Will Howa sell a bunch of them? Time will tell. There is serious competition from other companies such as Ruger and Savage that are producing similar packages, but Howa's has all the makings of a reasonably priced, versatile hunting gun that's ready to go.