October 2003

Quest for a Great .22-250 Heavy-Barrel Varmint Rifle: We Like Howa

In our view, the Howa 1500 offers as many features and as much accuracy as the more expensive Sako 75.

Field use of a varmint rifle usually involves the use of a makeshift rest, such as the daypack used here by Ray Ordorica, shooting the Sako 75 Varmint.

The .22-250 cartridge, which got its name from wildcatting the .250-3000 Savage (introduced in 1915) to accept .22-caliber bullets, has been around a long time. Early experimenters like Gebby put the finishing touches on it back in about 1937. In 1965 Remington adopted the cartridge as a standard offering, and it has been successful ever since. Although some think the round is about ideal for serious varminting, especially at longer ranges and in the West, the Swift will sling 55-grain bullets about 200 fps faster. Yet not many manufacturers chamber the Swift compared with the vast numbers who chamber the .22-250 Remington.

A common trick among serious users of this cartridge is to “improve” it by blowing out the case to eliminate much of the taper. This simple alteration results in performance essentially equal to that of the Swift.

Although many makers offer rifles, we selected just two this time for a serious look. In upcoming issues we’ll look at several others. The two test rifles were both outstanding “lookers,” though with vastly different looks. The lines of the Sako Model 75 Varmint (about $1,200) were strictly classic. The Sako had a Monte-Carlo stock, dark and figured walnut, and a wide forend that all spoke “business.” The laminated thumbhole stock on the Howa Model 1500 Thumbhole Varminter Supreme (MSRP $692) screamed “modern,” though its metal work was pretty classic. Would they shoot? Let’s find out.

Sako Model 75 Varmint, $1,200

This rifle had nice balance, and we thought it looked great. It was easy to tell the barrel was free-floated, because the scrape of one’s hand on the forend checkering sounded hollow. The barrel was in fact floated back to the action. We thought the checkering was attractive and functional. The overall fit and finish were excellent on this rifle. The dark walnut stock had a palm swell, cheekpiece and significant cast-off, which made it pretty much for right-handers only. Lefties could use it, though, and this setup was more comfortable for them than the thumbhole setup on the Howa, discussed below. The matte stock finish let us see the very good grain of the stock, though the pores were not filled by a long shot. The fit of the hard, red-rubber buttpad was flawless. The inletting on the action, floor plate and trigger guard, and on a small panel placed in the bottom of the pistol grip, was very good. The stock had sling-swivel studs beneath the thick forend and on the butt. We suspect serious users of this rifle would want to remove the forend swivel for easier use of the rifle from a rest.

The action, bolt handle and shroud, floor plate and trigger guard were glossy blue-black, but the heavy 23.6-inch barrel had a brushed finish and was matte blued. The barrel had a deeply recessed crown that gave protection to the muzzle and looked good while doing so. We noted the bolt felt sticky the first few times we worked it, but it quickly slicked up in all its movements. The bolt lockup was via three lugs. It had a recessed face and a strong hook to drag out cartridges. Ejection depended on how briskly the bolt was brought rearward, and was thus as positive as needed or desired. Removing the bolt for cleaning was accomplished by pressing inward on a lever at the left-rear side of the action, and this was both easy and positive for removal or replacement. There was a two-position safety on the right side of the action just behind the bolt handle. Rear was locked, and it worked positively and well. Placed on, it locked the bolt closed. However, just in front of the safety was a clever little button. With the bolt cocked and the safety on, pressing that button permitted opening the bolt to remove a cartridge, if needed.

The Sako had five plus one capacity, but the extra round went only reluctantly into the chamber. We found feeding from the five-shot detachable magazine to be excellent and reliable, but inserting a sixth round often took some doing. Of course, the chamber could be loaded from the mag, which could then be removed and filled. The magazine came out of the rifle by inserting a finger into a depression at the front of the floor plate and pushing rearward. It worked easily and positively, we thought. The system was almost invisible in that the magazine was not easily seen to be detachable.

One curiosity was that the action of this rifle, Sako’s size III, was far longer than needed for the cartridge. There was lots of room at the front of the magazine box with the cartridges loaded, and the bolt moved a long way forwards and back to do its job. We don’t count that as a fault, because some shooters like lots of room for long-seating heavy bullets, and if the barrel won’t accept these, those shooters will rechamber the barrel. That’s a lot more feasible with a longer action like this one than with a short one that barely has room for the standard cartridge length.

Sakos usually have outstanding triggers and this one was no exception. It broke cleanly at just over 3.5 pounds. It was also fully adjustable, though we left it alone. Scope mounting was easy and positive, using the outstanding rings and bases by Optilock, designed for Sako and Tikka rifles. They slid cleanly onto the integral dovetail mounts on the Sako action. We installed our 36X Leupold scope. The complete package was — as predicted —- all business, and it was time to go to the range.

Click here to view "Accuracy/Chronograph Data."

We tested with four brands of ammo, Remington 55 grain, Winchester 50 grain, Hornady 40 grain and Federal 40 grain. Most fur hunters who shoot larger varmints like coyotes seem to like 55-grain bullets best in this caliber (and in the Swift). We thought it would be interesting to see if the rifle would shoot well with the newer, lighter bullets as loaded by Hornady and Federal. The Sako liked all the ammo about equally, and worked perfectly with all four brands. It had no grand favorites, though the Winchester 50-grain did make one stunning cluster of three shots.

Howa Model 1500 Thumbhole Varminter Supreme, $692

The Howa was made in Japan, and imported by Legacy Sports International, of Virginia. We thought this rifle was striking in appearance. The metalwork was uniformly matte blued, and the eye-catching stock had a pleasant orange cast, the combination designated by Howa as Nutmeg/Blue. Available options include a gray-black stock and stainless steel metalwork, and you can mix and match as you see fit. Other calibers in this rifle configuration are limited to .308 and .223.

Either you like thumbhole stocks or you don’t. We confess we didn’t care for them much, but the look and feel of the Howa treatment changed our minds. The laminated stock looked just great. Made by Boyd’s Gunstock Industries, it had excellent workmanship and finish, we thought. The stock seemed to lend itself to excellent trigger control. We were able to hold this rifle on target (using our machine rest) easier than the Sako, though the Howa had a trigger pull about a pound heavier.

The forend was wide, a typical beavertail design. The stock had a sling-swivel stud at its foremost end, pretty much out of the way, we thought, so it wouldn’t need to be removed. There was also a second sling-swivel stud near the toe of the stock. The stock had three slots through the forend to help cool the barrel. The stock was set up for right handers. Lefties were totally lost with this one. The stock had a butt pad that made no promises to reduce recoil, which was essentially nonexistent anyway on these heavy rifles. The pad was very hard, but ribbed to provide excellent traction on the shoulder, regardless of the type of clothing worn. It was fitted well to the wood. The overall fit and finish of the Howa was as good as on the Sako, and the inletting was at least as good if not better, in our opinion.

The 24-inch barrel was hammer forged, and featured cut rifling, per the manufacturer’s catalog. One interesting feature was that the barrel was drilled and tapped for a barrel-mounted scope block, if desired. The action was drilled and tapped for normal mounts, and we used these to mount a Bausch & Lomb 36X scope in Weaver rings and bases. Again the action was longer than needed for the cartridge. The action was a bit rough at first, but smoothed up with use. It never got as slick as the Sako’s bolt.

The non-detachable magazine held five rounds, and it was possible — but again not easy — to insert a sixth while pressing down on the loaded rounds. Placing a round loose in the magazine gave easy and positive feeding into the chamber, a slightly easier task than with the Sako, we thought. Except for having two lugs instead of three, and for the Howa having plunger ejection, the Howa’s bolt head was similar to that of the Sako. The face was recessed, and the extractor was in a cutout just like on the Sako. It worked very well. The trigger pull was 4.6 pounds, with a clean break.

The bolt came out via a small plunger near the left rear corner of the action. On the right side was the safety, which when “on” (rearward) permitted opening the bolt normally. The magazine floor plate was hinged. Depressing a small tab in front of the trigger guard opened it. The floor plate latch was just right in feel, in our opinion, neither too easy nor too hard. It closed securely.

At the range we were surprised that the Howa didn’t like the Remington 55-grain ammo any better than the Sako had. Both rifles gave their poorest accuracy with that specific ammunition. It averaged 1.4 inches out of the Howa at 100 yards. Best average groups were with Hornady’s ammunition, at 0.6 inch. Two or three samples of each rifle would most likely give near-equal accuracy with either brand of rifle, we’d guess. There were no failures to feed, fire, or eject.

Gun Tests Recommends
Sako Model 75 Varmint, about $1,200. Conditional Buy. The rifle performed well enough, looked great, and had a trigger that permitted getting the most out of the setup. We suspect specific load selection or careful reloading could improve its accuracy, though the same is undoubtedly true of the Howa. There we no failures of any sort with the Sako. Although we liked this rifle and think you will too, its high cost made us wonder why anyone would choose it over the Howa, which you can get for about half the price. The Howa outshot the Sako slightly, but we suspect individual rifles could change that somewhat. Still, we could not justify buying the Sako for twice the price of the Howa unless you really liked it a whole lot more.

Howa Model 1500 Thumbhole Varminter Supreme ($692). Our Pick. We liked this rifle a great deal. It seemed to offer great value for the money, had acceptable accuracy with all loads tested, and looked good to boot. The finish of wood and metal were more evenly blended, in our opinion, than on the Sako. We were easily able to adjust the trigger down to 2 pounds, though we had to remove the factory-applied sealant to the weight-adjusting screw to do so. We left the engagement adjustment alone. Our slight effort of taking the metal out of the wood gave us a far better trigger for the intended use of this rifle, we thought. While the factory trigger pull was by no means bad, we were pleased that we found it so easy to improve. Though the Sako name commands any shooter’s attention and respect, the Howa 1500 got, and continues to get, our attention. We thought it a very worthy rifle.