(This is a reader-submitted review as part of our gun review contest. See details here.)
By Peter Sibello
Everyone has their own personal checklist when purchasing a new gun; some favor looks, some reliability, and some brand recognition. While I geek out over all of those things, what I look for first and foremost is overall value. I do appreciate the beauty of a finely figured walnut stock, however my rifle really doesn’t need that to kill a deer. I seek out guns that do their job well without costing enough to end my marriage.
I shopped around quite a bit when I started deer hunting to find a rifle that fell into that goldilocks zone of suitable performance at a reasonable price. When my brother-in-law stumbled onto a lightly-used Howa 1500 chambered in .308, I started scheming of ways to make it mine. After some horse trading and brother-discount negotiating I finally had my rifle.
I hadn’t heard of Howa rifles until a few months prior to getting mine but since then I have come to be very impressed. The Howa Machinery Company is a Japanese manufacturing operation that produces industrial tools, construction equipment as well as military and civilian firearms. They produce firearms and components for both their own line of rifles as well as for several other manufacturers including Weatherby, Smith & Wesson and Mossberg. As you would expect from a modern Japanese outfit, the machining is excellent and everything fits snugly, slides smoothly and breaks cleanly.
My particular model is the Ranchland variant which includes a 20” lightweight barrel and a Hogue stock. It falls nicely into the “truck gun” niche because its size makes it easy to use in tight or awkward positions. I don’t advocate shooting out of your truck window but I have known people to coyote and pig hunt from the cushioned comfort of the driver’s seat and it would serve those folks very nicely.
The short lightweight barrel is both a blessing and curse. While its length keeps the rifle compact for those cramped deer blind shots, the downside is barrel stiffness and heating. Basic physics and thermodynamics are not friendly towards a thinly contoured barrel.
A thin barrel is inherently less stiff than a thick barrel and therefore suffers more from vibrations. When your powder ignites it generates a pressure wave that travels along your barrel and causes it to vibrate. If you watch the vibrations with a high speed camera it looks like the rubber pencil trick you learned in elementary school. Does it make a big difference for deer rifle accuracy? Probably not but it will open up your groups a little. I had a Limbsaver X Ring lying around so I threw that on thinking it might reduce the vibrations some and it does seem to help.
Barrel heating isn’t a major concern for most hunters because you rarely have time to fire more than 1 or 2 rounds with a bolt action. Sighting in a new scope, on the other hand, becomes a major pain because it really slows down the process. After 5 or 6 shots the barrel will become too hot to touch and you risk affecting your point of impact. Physics is a cruel master and you gotta give something to get something, but the trade-off is still worth it for me.
The trigger is Howa’s 2-Stage HACT match trigger. It breaks cleanly after a short take up at about 2.5 pounds, based on my crude measurements. It makes for a great hunting trigger, light enough to be accurate but not so light as to risk safety.
Speaking of safety, a three-position safety is situated behind and to the right of the bolt. I favor the look and feel of tang safeties like those typically found on shotguns and early bolt action rifles, but a three position safety does the job just fine. It also provides the utility of unloading the rifle while on safe which is a useful feature.
The stock is probably my favorite part of the rifle. It isn’t an especially light weight stock, but man it feels good in the hand. The Hogue rubber has a naturally grippy feel to it that invites your hand to grasp it like a gentleman’s handshake. The pistol grip and forend each have patches of a pebbled texture for increased traction in critical areas. The internal chassis and aluminum pillar bedding produce a very solid platform despite its rubbery feel.
One big selling point for my particular rifle was that it came with an Ammo Boost Advantage detachable magazine kit. The kit comes from Legacy Sports International, the American Howa distributor, and includes a new floorplate and a 10-round magazine. I blazed through the simple installation process to get right to the tacticoolness. The kid in me loved the army man feel it gave me, but once I started actually using it at the range and in the woods I discovered some minor gripes.
The original floorplate is a very nice metal piece that fits perfectly into the base of the stock. The hinged floorplate swings smoothly and then locks ups securely. The new kit however is an all polymer affair that lacks the finished and sturdy feel of the original.
On top of that, the magazine latch has merely a casual hold on the magazine. It is also inconveniently located on the front face of the magazine well. The combination of these two is that it is frustratingly easy to accidently drop your magazine while handling. Not a big deal on the range but the plunk you hear as your mag hits the floor of the deer blind will haunt you as you watch that freezer full of venison run off.
Let’s talk accuracy, shall we? If we’re being honest a deer rifle doesn’t need to be any more accurate than a 5-inch group at 100 yards. A deer’s vital area is 8 inches in diameter and most hunters will never take a shot over 100 yards. So why do we obsess of over accuracy? I honestly couldn’t tell you, yet every hunter I talk to is convinced that they have the most accurate rifle on the planet and will give extensive anecdotal evidence if given the chance.
This rifle is not the most accurate rifle on the planet, but it is more than adequate for deer hunting. I am a novice marksman at best, but I can coax 1 – 2 MOA groups out of it with a variety of hunting rounds. As evidence, see the targets above shot at 50 yards with my two typical hunting loads. Topped with a Nikon BDC scope, I would feel comfortable taking a 200 or 300 yard shot on a deer as long as I did my part.
Specifications (Howa 1500 Ranchland Compact Rifle):
Caliber: .308 Winchester / 7.62×51 NATO
Action: Bolt Action
Trigger Pull Weight: 2 lbs 9 oz
Barrel Length: 20″
Overall Length: 40.25″
Weight: 8.75 lbs (as configured)
Capacity: 5+1 rounds, Expandable to 10+1 with optional detachable magazine kit.
Ratings (out of five stars):
Accuracy: * * * *
Accuracy is perfectly acceptable for a deer rifle. With the right ammo, sub MOA is certainly possible but 1 or 2 MOA is more typical.
Ergonomics: * * * * *
The Hogue stock is excellent. The pistol grip easily aligns the trigger finger for proper placement. The thick rubber buttpad reduces the recoil to a smooth push. The lightweight and short barrel allow for smoothly acquiring the target.
Reliability: * * * * *
It’s a bolt action so no surprises here.
Customize This: * * *
The Ammo Boost kit is really cool option for those needing magazine changes but it comes up short on execution. The barrel is too thin to support threading so no suppressors for you.
Overall: * * * *
The Howa Ranchland rifle is an excellent hunting rifle at a tremendous value. It checks all the boxes for looks, durability, accuracy and reliability that I look for in a gun to take for a walk in the woods. You can pay more for a hunting rifle but you won’t be getting much more than bragging rights. It’s a solid option for hunters looking for quality performance at a reasonable price.