By Paul Helinski
Legacy Sports International
You can always tell which guns are surprisingly good by how many fans they have. Howa, a Japanese firearm maker that dates back to WWII Arisaka rifles, is one of those companies that if you say a bad word, hundreds of defender fanboys and girls will appear out of the woodwork to explain how you are mistaken. Maybe not the biggest kept secret in the gun world, Howas are great guns, and they are imported exclusively under their own brand through Legacy Sports International. Howa also makes the Weatherby Vangaurd, and the two rifles are for the most part interchangeable. This Howa 1500 Zeiss combo is a new gun for 2014, and we were able to test it before SHOT Show. Our test gun is a .308 Winchester, with a 3-9x power Zeiss sporting optic. The Zeiss is likewise made in Japan, not Germany or America like the flagship Zeiss products, but like most Japanese optics we have tested, it is clear as a bell with great edge clarity. The rifle itself is flawless, and a tack driver with factory Hornady ammo. Howa also has a nifty three-position safety, so you can open the bolt to unload your round with the trigger blocked. The Howa 1500 is a high-end rifle with a middle-of-the-road price. We don’t have a price for this gun yet, but most Howa rifle/scope packages go for $650-$800, and this one should fall somewhere in there as well.
One of the appeals of this gun is the soft touch Hogue OverMolded stock. If you are a fan of wood and just don’t like the way plastic feels, try to find one of these Howas in a gun shop and check it out. The finish is rubberized, and will briefly hold a fingernail mark it is so soft. The result is a gun that has the heft of a wood rifle, without the weather instability of solid wood or the butt-ugliness of laminate. But yet it just doesn’t feel like the plastic. Our test rifle with scope, empty, weighs 6 lbs., 14 ounces. It is a not a featherweight rifle by any means, and the full weight, plus the nicely fitted Hogue 1” recoil pad make .308 Win. effortless to shoot. Howa textured the forend and handgrip, in the same way that you would checker a wood stock, so handling of the gun is also very good.
If you Google around on the gun forums, you’ll see that the fanboys claim great accuracy with the Howa rifles. I had my doubts, even though I am a fan of other Japanese guns, the Miroku Brownings and Winchesters. Boy oh boy, was I wrong, and at first I didn’t want to believe what I proved myself either. We generally zero our scopes at 50 yards, because down here in Florida the hunting shots are usually in the 30-80 yard range. Even though this gun is a .308 and capable of deadly shots to 300 yards and more, I decided to try a three-round group at 50. It made one ragged hole, just over ¼ wide. Can’t be. Try it again. Same thing. So I moved back to 100 yards, assuming that shooter error should at least take the groups out to 1” or so. Nope. Hornady 150gr. American Whitetail repeatedly shot into .5-.75 inches. This duplicates the accuracy of rifles costing much more than the Howa, and though I do shoot a lot, I’m not even a competitive level shooter. Mind blowing, from a rifle I really didn’t want to like. Later I tried Hornady Superformance 165gr., and that got the more expected 1.5” at 100 yards, but even that is well within top-quality performance, with an extremely hot round that throws off most guns.
The Zeiss scope is “designed by Zeiss,” and it isn’t the first time that the company has sold or licensed a scope not made in Germany under their name. The Conquest line is made in the Czech Republic (probably by Meopta, which now sells scopes in the US under its own name). Many of the high-end Zeiss scopes are actually now made in America (probably by Leupold). This Japanese Zeiss is a Terra 3X model, which are all made in Japan to compete with their own Conquest scopes. There are a number of excellent Japanese optics makers, not the least of which is Vortex, and this scope greatly resembles the Vortex Crossfire II. But unlike the CII, this Zeiss has a fully connected crosshair, called the Reticle 20, or Z-Plex. This is a limiting factor in long-range shots because the center cross of the crosshair is close to one MOA. Stretched out to 300 yards, this is going to cover about the width of a prairie dog. Some prefer complete crosshairs and some like a space or post in the middle. For most North American, game the reticle is adequate. I don’t care for the plastic scope caps on the scope, but it was comforting that the adjustment knobs didn’t resemble the carbon-copy Chinese scopes sold under a dozen different brand names. Looking through the scope, you know that you are looking through Japanese glass. It is nice and clear, and as bright as the Conquest line easily.
One thing you will notice about the Howa is something it doesn’t have: what I call a paddle trigger. There is no extra safety device built into the trigger. It is just a regular old trigger. But one of the slightly confusing things about this gun is that comes with a “two-stage match trigger.” What that means exactly I have no idea, but the trigger is very light. Yet this model is much more a hunting rifle than something for long-range target or competition. If you are crossing New England stone walls or wire fences in the South East, you will want to make sure to carry the gun on safe at all times. There is about a ¼ of an inch of free take-up on the trigger, but it breaks clean on the first resistance at under 3lbs. The nice thing about the three-position safety is that if you put downward pressure on it, you can switch it almost silently. And having that middle position where you can open the bolt but the trigger is blocked is a really nice feature.
Another feature of this gun is more of a side note. All of the Howa/Vanguard guns can now be modified easily to take a removable box magazine. Howa sells the replacement bottom metal and 10 round magazine for this rifle in .308 for $98. So if you wanted to take this from more of a hunting rifle to a sniper configuration, it isn’t that hard, and the quality and accuracy of the rifle are certainly worth it. The Zeiss scope comes on an integral 1” single-piece mount, so there isn’t a ton of room to load shells, and the detachable mag will be welcome for those who plan to put a lot of rounds downrange. With the bottom metal and magazine, plus an inexpensive Caldwell bipod, this rifle could be a very underpriced high-end police sniper rifle. Just remember to shoot Hornady American Whitetail in it! If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Your dealer should be able to order the Howa 1500 Zeiss combo soon, or even now.