Since starting writing for the industry nearly a decade ago, I have been a bit into .308 rifles. 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 while having legendary precision accuracy performance at longer ranges.
At SHOT 2017, I visited the Legacy Sports booth. As I started handling their Howa line of rifles, the Targetmaster captured my attention. Admittedly, the Howa .308 line is not new. However, it was a new brand to me. For the price, these rifles are well-finished, nicely appointed, and quality-built 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.
Howa Machinery, Ltd. is a highly diverse Japanese 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 AR-18/AR-180s under a licensing agreement with Armalite, Currently Howa manufactures the 1500 and Vanguard receivers for Weatherby, S&W, Mossberg, and others. With its history of innovation and firearms manufacturing, it should be no surprise that Howa delivers some very nice firearms. Here in the U.S., Legacy Sports markets the Japanese-made line of Howa precision rifles.
Fit, Finish, Feel, Features, and Functions
Incredibly well-made, Howa rifles’ fit and finish is a steal for the price. In fact, the finish and overall fit of the Howa 1500 Targetmaster is notably better than my Remington 700 actions. The bolt runs smoother, the receiver is beefier, and the barrel is 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, that 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.
I will reiterate the same compliment and complaint about the Hogue stock that I have made in my Remington 700 reviews. The Hogue stock is probably one of the best budget-conscious light factory gun stocks available and can take a beating in the field. On the other hand, 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. With a better stock, optic, and trigger off of just a bipod, I saw firsthand 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. The Howa’s capabilities take full advantage of the upgrades.
Just to prove how great this Howa can be, I swapped the Hogue stock for an MDT HS3 precision billet magazine fed chassis plus MDT Skeleton Stock and upgraded the trigger to a 2lb-Timney. The results easily matched the consistent sub-MOA capabilities I saw 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%. It also meant sloppy 1-inch groups moved into the .7 inches and my best groups shrank to the .4x” range. For about $900 in upgrades, the Howa can play with the custom guns even with the included Nikko Sterling optic. However, 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.
The Howa is an excellent precision rifle at a very reasonable price. 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- to 3-pound range all with a consistent let off. The vast majority of shooters who use one of the Howa rifles for hunting will leave the trigger as is. Having shot side-by-side with the Timney trigger, the aftermarket $120 Timney match trigger is well worth the price if precision shooting is your game.
The Targetmaster package includes a 4-14 Nikko Sterling scope, rings, and base. The Nikko Sterling optics take a lot of heat and often noted as being very low quality. I was pleasantly surprised with the decent quality of the Targetmaster scope included with this kit. The 4-14 Targetmaster scope looks similar to a Nightforce 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 darn fine scope for the estimated $200 MSRP. It is also better than many marketing package scopes that bigger gun dealers add onto rifles. 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 that actually delivered a usable illumination setting when pitch black out.
During my test, I found the scope easy to use and quite clear. It held perfect zero throughout testing with well over 1000 rounds. I really cannot complain 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 incident of scope bite. From my perspective, the short eye relief is the major shortcoming of scope, while the optic clarity and features are in line with the price.
Take note that it requires assembly. Should you decided to buy one, I suggest you install the base and rings with Loctite, and then mount and zero the scope. This is a similar expectation to pretty much any rifle setup and a DIY process that assures that everything wasn’t screwed together with just gun oil.
During my first zeroing at the range, a fellow shooter had a nicely upgraded and suppressed .308 Howa 1500 complete with a McMillan stock and Timney trigger. He was casually painting a nice 2-inch lead splatter on the 300-yard gong. He noted that the rifle regularly delivers half-inch 100-yard groups.
Once everything was set, and I was dialed at the range with a 100-yard zero, I was able to use all my same Remington 700 hold overs to connect easily with my 4-inch 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-inch’ish 100-yard groups. One rather impressive 5-shot group was a 2-inch 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 and delivers good accuracy with a wide range of bullet weights. I found this rifle to prefer heavier 168gr+ bullets. The standard MilDot reticle offers shooters a simple option for calculating impact when paired with most ballistic apps. I could see why Howa rifles have such a following just after the first 50 rounds.
The Howa Targetmaster is a fun rifle to shoot and totally useable right out of the box. It is one of those rifles 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-inch barrel is hammer forged for durability and long-lived accuracy.
Howa even offers an “Ammo Boost” add-on that allows the 1500 models to become magazine fed, but why stop there? I have an MDT HS3 Chassis on order for this rifle as well as a Timney trigger and higher tier scope. 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
Have you shot the Howa Targetmaster? Share your experience with us in the comment section.