Howa You Do That?
Building Your Own Custom Rifle Just Got a Lot Easier SWith Bolt-on Goodies for Every Application
By Iain Harrison
Photos By Straight 8 and Kenda Lenseigne
We’re all familiar with the ubiquitous Remington 700 action, with its vast array of aftermarket accessories that allow a motivated individual to build up bolt guns ranging from mild to wild. Thanks to Brownells, there’s now an alternative that starts a little higher up the spec sheet, while offering one option that Big Green overlooks. Interested? We thought you might be.
Howa rifles have a long track record and an excellent reputation among the cognoscenti, while, for the most part, staying under the radar of most American gun buyers. That might change in the coming years, as Legacy Sports from Reno, Nevada, has committed long-term to importing them from Japan, which has encouraged many accessory companies to offer products and support for the base models. In addition, they’ve taken the inspired step of partnering with Brownells to offer barreled actions for those of us who like to set up our rifles to meet our specific needs (either real or imagined), rather than settle for whatever rolled off the production line.
We put together three rifles to cover everything we could foresee doing in the next 12 months, from Precision Rifle Series matches to big game hunting to one rifle that’s just as versatile as it is unusual. Common to all is a Howa 1500 barreled action, saving us the headache of finding a good rifle smith to thread, chamber, and barrel a stripped receiver. While this does admittedly limit your options when it comes to barrel length, profile, and chambering, the stock hammerforged barrels are an excellent starting point — by the time they’re shot out, you’ll have a better idea of exactly what you want to spend that particular chunk of cash on and the factory tubes give a good baseline from which to make a decision.
The actions themselves are a two-lug, push feed design, much like their M700 competitors. Where they differ is their extractor, which is usually one of the first items to be replaced on a custom build. In this case, there’s no need, as the upgrade to an M16-style claw has already been done for you. The bolts themselves are well finished and cycle smoothly. While the bolt knob is a little on the small side for a full-house tactical build, it’s no more diminutive than a stock M700, with a slightly longer handle. Overpressure events resulting in case head separations are handled via three large vents on the bottom of the bolt and one small one on the right, which should mean that gasses are safely vented into the magazine and away from the shooter’s face. Hopefully, we’ll never need to put this to the test, but it’s reassuring to know the engineering’s there if we need it.
Wrapped around the bolt, the Howa receiver features a flat-bottomed design that puts lots of real estate in contact with either bedding compound, bedding blocks, or a chassis, depending on how you choose to set up your stock. An integral recoil lug is employed to limit rearward movement as the bullet goes downrange, and the front stock screw is threaded into it. All told, it’s a very competent design. Sure, it’s not an Accuracy International or a Surgeon, but it’s around one third the price, and you get a barrel for free.
The Big Game Rifle
One of the first choices to be made when selecting a rifle for North American hunting is of course the caliber. Just about anything short of a BB gun will take down an eastern whitetail, but when it comes to cross-canyon shots at bull elk, stalking moose through alder thickets, or sneaking up on brown bears, a little more horsepower is preferable. The 7mm Rem Mag is on the lower end of the caliber spectrum for Alaskan grizzlies, but when loaded with premium bullets it works just fine, while offering a flat trajectory and proven performance on everything in the lower 48.
Howa offers a 24-inch barreled, long action that fits the bill nicely, while Hogue supplied an overmolded stock with an aluminum bedding block that should be impervious to anything mother nature flings at it. Further enhancing the weatherproof nature of the project is the action’s matte gray Cerakote finish, which looks like bead-blasted stainless steel.
Up top, an EGW scope base was attached via four screws and a dab of thread locker, ready to accept a Whiskey3 scope from SIG SAUER. This 1-inch diameter 4-12x40 gave us a good price-to-performance ratio, as it’s rated waterproof to 1m, uses low-dispersion glass, and won’t break the bank. It sat in a pair of SIG Alpha medium height rings, and if we had to do it over again, we’d opt for the low versions to get a little better cheek weld.
Previous versions of Howa rifles were blessed with triggers that — how should we put this? — sucked. The current HACT trigger, however, is a good example of how factory rifles should be set up. A two-stage unit that breaks clean at around 3 pounds, it’s very competent and eminently useable; if you’re looking to control costs, leave it alone until it starts to hinder your performance. In a hunting rifle, we’re guessing it’ll be a long time before you need to whip out the credit card for a better bang switch.
Howa 1500 Full-Bed Stock - LA/Bull Barrel
Alpha Hunting 1-inch Med. Scope Rings
WHISKEY3 4-12x40 Scope w/Triplex Reticle
The PRS Rifle
A couple of years back, the guys who run the Precision Rifle Series came up with an excellent idea. In order to build the sport, why not offer a division with a price cap, so that anyone thinking of getting involved wouldn’t have to drop new-car money on a custom rifle, just to get in the door? Production Division has since taken off like a cigarette butt dropped in a California forest, proving that there’s a demand for a competitive rifle that won’t require its owner to trade in their home for a refrigerator carton under a freeway bridge.
Our sniper match rifle started out life as a 24-inch barreled short action in 6.5 Creedmoor, chosen because the .260 caliber blows away the .308 ballistically, while offering much longer barrel life than a 6mm. A KRG 180- XRay chassis gave us a place to hang AICS magazines, as well as an adjustable cheekpiece, near-vertical pistol grip with optimum finger placement, a rear hook for our off hand and replaceable butt pads to shift the length of pull. KRG makes this chassis for other rifles, but the Howa 1500 version is available only from Brownells. If we got to feeling froggy and wanted to upgrade to a folding stock at some point in the future, well, that takes three screws and a credit card, or as we like to call it, a typical Friday night.
Being less than $1,800 into the build at this point, we decided to splurge on some glass, opting for Vortex Optics’ top-of-the-line Razor HD 5-20x50, mounted in their own rings. With a 35mm tube, this monster optic allows up to 33 Mils of elevation adjustment, which means we could exploit the 6.5’s ballistics out to its transonic range, without ever running into the stops.
A precision rifle is best served by a precision trigger, so Allen wrenches were pulled from the toolkit and a Jard, single-stage adjustable unit swapped in. This brought the pull down to just under 2 pounds, with zero slack and overtravel.
Kinetic Research Group:
Howa 1500 180-XRay Short Action Chassis
Howa & S&W 1500/Weatherby Vanguard Adjustable Trigger
Razor HD 5-20x50 Rifle Scope w/EBR-2B Reticle
Vortex Precision Matched 35mm Scope Rings (.95-inch Height)
Howa 1500/Vanguard Heavy-Duty Steel Scope Base
Remington 700 PMAG 10 7.62 AC AICS Short Action Magazine
Remington 700 PMAG 5 7.62 AC AICS Short Action Magazine
AICS-Style 10-Round 223/5.56 Magazine
The CBD Rifle
Wait, you’ve never heard of the CBD rifle before? That’s probably because we just made it up. The acronym stands for “cute, but deadly,” and it’s a sub 10-pound, 1,000-yard capable bolt gun that’ll fit in a regular backpack.
We kept the weight down, and performance up, through the use of a “mini”-length action. Howa is one of just three manufacturers we know of that build a bolt gun specifically for the shortest of commonly available cartridges. Usually, rounds such as the 5.56 NATO, 7.62x39, and their derivatives are fed through actions more suited to their .308-length brethren, which means they’re longer and fatter than they need to be, with a concomitant weight penalty.
By using a mini action and chambering it in 6.5 Grendel, we’re able to stuff an awful lot of performance into a very small package. That package size is reduced even further if we incorporate a folding stock, made possible through the use of an MDT LSS chassis system, which also permits a degree of customization, as the buttstock and pistol grip are both sourced from the ubiquitous AR-15. This MDT chassis is brand new and appears to be the only such system available right now for the mini action. As a bonus, it accepts Howa’s standard 10-round detachable polymer magazine, so spares are readily available. It’s a skinny little fella though, so if you’re expecting tons of acreage for a skid plate or a flat area the size of Kansas to lay against a barricade, this is not the chassis you seek, though it does come drilled and tapped for an optics bridge, so you can use it at night. Although I only needed the half-inch cheek riser, other sizes are available.
Add a Timney trigger and a scope rail, and you have the makings of a rifle able to wring everything possible out of the Hornady factory load with the 123-grain SST bullet, and if you don’t mind single loading, 140-grain projectiles are a perfectly feasible option. Our CBD performed admirably on the range. While it was slightly sub MOA with the Hornady ammo, I reckon handloads could get it down from that with CFE powder. In keeping with our “most bang for the ounce” theme, a Nightforce SHV 3-10x42 scope was chosen — at 21 ounces it’s one of the lightest and most capable pieces of glass in its price bracket, and was used to ping distant steel on Cowtown’s West range.
Howa Mini Action Mountain Tech Scope Base
Modular Driven Technologies:
Folding Adapter for LSS Chassis
AR-15/M16 Mil-Spec Buffer Tube
AR-15 CTR Carbine Stock - Mil-Spec
Modular Driven Technologies:
LSS Chassis for Howa 1500 Mini Action
By doing your homework and turning wrenches, building a bolt gun to fit your criteria, rather than those of some corporate marketing team, is easier than ever. Start with a barreled action and pay only for the parts you need — there’s no one better than you to figure out just what features are important and which are superfluous to your requirements.