Saturday, November 26, 2016

Howa Targetmaster .308 Rifle Review

Howa Targetmaster .308 Rifle Review

I have been a bit "into .308 rifles" since I first started writing for the industry almost a decade ago at this point. To me, this caliber represents the best all around do-it-all caliber everyone should own. If you want to hunt North American game, the .308 round is deadly efficient and while having legendary precision accuracy performance at longer ranges. At this year's SHOT show I stumbled into the Legacy Sports booth and starting handling the Howa line of rifles and was very impressed with what I saw. Admittedly the Howa .308 line is not new, however it was a newer brand for me. For the price, these rifles seemed to be well finished, nicely appointed and had a build quality which was noticeably higher than my similar Remington 700 rifles for around the same price tag. After a little research it seemed there was a cult following of the Howa rifles with plenty of aftermarket parts as well. With more than a few mentions of sub-MOA accuracy, I  ordered the heavy Howa Targetmaster barrel kit complete with optic to see what the Howa brand could deliver to shooters.

Howa Machinery Company Limited is a Japanese firm is a highly diverse manufacturer of construction vehicles, door, window, manufacturing products, machinery and of course firearms. They have a long history in the firearms development and manufacturing business including being one of manufacturers involved in creating the prized and accurate Japanese Arisaka rifles. In the 1970s they were manufacturing AR18/AR180s under a licensing agreement with Armalite and currently they manufacturer the “1500” and Vanguard receivers for Weatherby, S&W, Mossberg and others. With this history of innovation and firearms manufacturing, it should be no surprise that they deliver some very nice firearms. Here in the US their Japanese made line of Howa precision rifles are marketed by Legacy Sports.

The Howa rifles are incredibly well made with a fit and finish that is steal for the price. In fact the finish and overall fit of this Howa 1500 Targetmaster is notably better than my Remington 700 actions. The bolt runs smoother, the receiver is beefier and the barrel is actually finished with a very crisp recessed match 90 degree crown which looks a bit more well defined than the end of my Remington 700. With the exception of the fluting which is a little rough, the entire surface finish is a very nice lustrous deep blued finish. Considering the $699-$750 street price of this Howa 1500 Targetmaster rifle and scope package, the quality, fit, finish, and excellent accuracy should make the Howa an easy choice on the showroom floor.
The Howa’s are seldom sold without the scope kit, however those models without the rings, base and scope, the Howa Model 1500 are less expensive but very comparable to the Remington 700 SPS model. 

The Howa 1500 is now available with a threaded muzzle model like the Remington however the final out-of-the-box accuracy is also nearly identical between the rifles with the edge going to the Howa. The threaded muzzle model is what I would recommend.

MDT Billet Stock with AICS mag well.
Stocks are also available from XLR also.
I will reiterate the same compliment and complaint about the stock Hogue stock that I have made in my Remington 700 reviews. The Hogue stock is is probably one of the best budget conscious light factory gun stocks available which can take a beating in the field, however the non-rigid flexi stock design of the Hogue does not allow the shooter to get the best from the rifle. This rifle’s accuracy potential deserves better than the factory Hogue stock just as my Remington 700 did. I saw first hand what an upgraded Howa 1500 could do with the shooter next to me snapping off easy sub-MOA hits all the way out to 300 yards with a better stock, optic, and trigger off of just a bipod. The Howa’s capabilities can definitely take advantage of the upgrades.
MDT has a fully adjustable billet stock option.

MDT 's unique side plates can be swapped with
various colors.
Just to prove how great this Howa could be I swapped the Hogue stock for a $499 MDT HS3 precision billet magazine fed chassis plus $289 MDT Skeleton Stock and upgraded the trigger to a $116 2lb Timney. The results easily matched the consistent sub-MOA capabilities I had seen demonstrated at the range with an upgraded Howa. As with any trigger upgrade and Hogue to billet stock swap I have done before, the upgrade improved my groups easily by 30% which meant sloppy 1” groups moved into the .7” and my best groups shrank to the .4x” range. For $900 in upgrades the Howa can play with the more custom guns even with the included Nikko Sterling optic, but you might also want to spring for a higher end scope if you are willing to go that far with upgrades. Also my experience is that money invested in a Remington 700 will not get you a gun that shoots this well. I can say this because I have three Remington 700 which I love, but the Howa's are more accurate for me.

The Howa is an excellent precision rifle at a very reasonable price, however as noted with the stock components, there is still room for upgrading. Howa’s new HACT (Howa Actuator Controlled Trigger)  2-stage trigger is really very good for a factory trigger and delivers a decently crisp creep-free trigger in the 2-3 lb range all with a consistent let off. The vast majority of shooters who use one of the Howa rifles for hunting will just leave the trigger as is, but having shot side-by-side with the Timney trigger, the aftermarket $120 Timney match trigger is well worth the price if precision shooting is you game.
Not my favorite optic but it works. 

The Targetmaster package includes a 4-14 Nikko Sterling scope, rings and base. The Nikko Sterling optics take a lot of heat and are often noted as being very low quality, so I was surprised with the decent quality of the Targetmaster scope included with this kit. The 4-14 Targetmaster scope basically looks like a Nightforce knock off with most of the features at a very reasonable price.
Granted this is not a $1000 Leupold, Bushnell, Vortex or Nikon, but it is a damn fine scope for the estimated $200 MSRP. It is also better than many “marketing package” scopes that are added onto rifles by bigger gun dealers. This NikKo Sterling 4-14 adjustable Mildot scope included side parallax adjustment, MilDot calibrated reticle, re-zeroable Mil-based turret adjustments and an illuminated reticle which actually delivered a usable illumination setting when it is pitch black out.

During my testing I found the scope easy to use, pretty darn clear, and it held perfect zero throughout my testing of well over a 1000 rounds. So I really cannot complain too much about the scope. I will note that the scope does have a rather short eye relief which made the scope kiss my safety glasses lightly during recoil, however I never had an issue with an actual incident of scope bite. From my perspective, the short eye relief is the major shortcoming of scope, however the optic clarity and features are in line with the price.

It should be noted that assembly is required. The buyer will need to install the base and rings with LockTite, and then mount and zero the scope.  This is a similar expectation to pretty much any rifle setup and a DIY process which assures that some minimum wage tool at a FFL dealer did not just screw everything together with gun oil.

During my very first zeroing at the range, a fellow shooter had a very nicely upgraded and suppressed .308 Howa 1500 complete with a McMillan stock and Timney trigger which he was using to casually paint a nice 2” lead splatter on the 300-yard gong. He noted that the rifle regularly delivers ½” 100-yard groups.

Once everything was set up and I was dialed at the range with a 100-yard zero, I was easily able to use all my same Remington 700 hold overs to connect easily with my 4” steel plates at 200-400 yards. Yes the Howa Targetmaster is easily a 1 MOA gun. In fact based on my testing I saw a few .6”ish 100-yard groups. One rather impressive 5-shot group was a 2” lead painted set of hits on my steel silhouette head at 300-yards with Hornady 168gr Z-Max .308 Ammo shoot off sandbags. Hitting clays at 300 yards should not be an issue and hitting most standard steel targets out to 500-yards should be simple after you figure out your ballistic drops. The barrel is a 1:10 twist which delivers good accuracy with a wide range of bullet weights. I found the this rifle to prefer heavier 168gr+ bullets. The standard MilDot reticle offers the shooter a simple option for calculating impact when paired with most ballistic apps. I could see why the Howa rifles have such a following after just the first 50 rounds.

The Howa Targetmaster is a pretty fun rifle to shoot and is totally useable right out of the box. It is one of those rifles which I would feel completely comfortable picking up at a FFL dealer to save a hunt while the airline attempts to find the rifle they lost in transit.

Out of the box, the Howa Targetmaster is impressive and unless you are a jaded writer who has the luxury of opting for a custom rifle any time he wants, the Targetmaster will probably do what you need it to do and more. If you do want custom, the available aftermarket options are there to really improve performance further. Beyond the previously noted smooth action, the 20” barrel is hammer forged for durability and long lived accuracy. I have a fresh Howa 1500 .308 with a threaded barrel and I would say that is the way to go with an aftermarket optic simply because you can attach a brake or suppressor to reduce recoil to a point that you can self-spot shots.

Howa even offers an “Ammo Boost” add on which allows the 1500 models to become magazine fed, but why stop there? I have a MDT HS3 Chassis on order for this rifle as well as a Timney trigger and higher tier scope. From what I saw this is a solid sub-MOA gun which is begging to have just a few tweaks added to it to take it from really good to great.

.308 Caliber
Hogue Green Stock
Barrel Length 20"
Profile #6 Heavy Fluted
Twist 1:10
Length of Pull 13.87"
Length 40.25"
Weight 9.8lbs
MSRP $913
Street Price $699-$750 (depending on Rebate Offers)


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Unknown said...

Nice post

jwillis said...

Nice read-up on the Howa. Thanks for posting.