Review: Howa/Axiom Varminter Rifle Package

posted on June 26, 2009

Howa Machinery, Ltd. of Aichi, Japan, makes what may be one of the most underrated bolt-action rifles sold in the United States. Marketed in this country by Legacy Sports International (LSI), and also sold under the Weatherby Vanguard name, Howa Model 1500 rifles are highly regarded by knowledgeable rifle enthusiasts.

In mid-2006, LSI combined the Model 1500 Varmint barreled action with the Knoxx Industries Axiom recoil-reducing stock to create the Howa/Axiom Varminter Rifle. LSI also offers the Howa/Axiom Varminter Rifle and Scope Package, which adds a Nikko-Stirling 4-16X 44 mm Nighteater scope, mounts and rings to the basic rifle. We received such a package for testing.
The Howa’s single-stage trigger can be gunsmith-adjusted to around 2 lbs.The Howa’s one-piece forged bolt has two massive lugs, an AR-15-style claw extractor, a plunger ejector and large gas ports. The right lug has a slot for an anti-bind rib in receiver.

The Howa action is a two-lug repeating design with a forged-steel receiver. The upper portion of the receiver is round with a 1.340" diameter, while the lower part of the receiver is flat on the sides and bottom, giving extra rigidity as well as simplifying bedding. A pivoting lever on the left side of the receiver serves as a bolt stop/release.

The receiver ring has a 0.090" gas vent hole on the left side, and incorporates an integral recoil lug that is drilled and tapped for the forward action screw. Four holes drilled and tapped in the top of the receiver allow scope base mounting.

Cartridges are fed from an internal four-round steel box magazine. A lever at the front of the trigger guard is pressed rearward to release the hinged floorplate and empty the magazine.

The bolt, also a one-piece forging, has two large lugs, with a slot in the right lug for an anti-bind rib in the receiver. Threaded into the Varminter’s receiver is a heavy-profile hammer-forged barrel. Both 20" and 24" lengths can be had, chambered in a variety of calibers from .204 Ruger to .308 Win. Our test .308 Win. gun had a 24" tube rifled in a four-groove, 1:12" right-hand twist, with a recessed crown.

The Howa two-lever override trigger is set to 5 lbs. pull weight at the factory, but it is gunsmith-adjustable down to about 2 lbs. A three-position safety lever at the right rear of the receiver blocks the trigger and bolt when moved all the way to the rear. The middle position allows the bolt to be worked, but still blocks the trigger. Pushing all the way forward disengages the safety.

The Axiom stock offers two recoil-reducing mechanisms. The primary one is contained in the pistol-grip area of the buttstock. Upon firing, the upper component of the pistol grip, which attaches to the forward stock section by means of a large screw, slides in relation to the rest of the buttstock against the resistance of a spring-powered cam mechanism in the grip. Additional recoil reduction is provided by a telescoping, spring-loaded section of the buttstock.

The forward section of the Axiom stock precisely fits the bottom of the Howa action, so no bedding is required. Knoxx makes two versions of the Axiom, with both machined aluminum and polymer forward stock sections; the Howa/Axiom, however, is currently available only with the polymer version. In addition to its recoil-taming capacity, the stock also offers a two-position removable cheekpiece, front and rear Uncle Mike’s-type sling swivel studs, and additional sling attachment points. Howa/Axiom rifles are made in black or camouflage. Camouflage models for 2007 could be had in a Montana Camo Prairie Ghost pattern; for 2008, only a Mossy Oak Brush camo finish is available. The rifle we received for testing had the Prairie Ghost camo finish.

Our test gun also came with the Nikko-Stirling 4-16X 44 mm Nighteater scope that is part of the Howa/Axiom Varminter Rifle Package. Given the Howa/Axiom’s heavy barrel, we wanted to test our sample gun with three .308 Win. loads having excellent accuracy potential: a Black Hills load with a 180-gr. Nosler AccuBond bullet; a Federal match load with Sierra’s 168-gr. MatchKing bullet; and a Hornady load with a 150-gr. SST bullet....

The Howa/Axiom rifle exhibited excellent accuracy for a factory gun, with all three brands of ammunition printing five-shot groups averaging less than one m.o.a. Not surprisingly, the best performance was obtained with the match load from Federal, which produced an average of 0.79". We encountered no malfunctions in our test-fire sessions. Feeding from the magazine was smooth, and ejection was strong, with cases thrown several feet out of the ejection port. The Nikko-Stirling scope also performed well, with sufficient clarity and freedom from parallax to promote good groups. We also appreciated that the scope’s eye relief prevented the scope from hitting the eyebrow during the rearward travel of the gun that occurs with the Axiom V/S stock upon firing.

Of course, the ability of the Axiom stock to mitigate recoil was one of the most important aspects of the gun’s performance. Knoxx suggests reduction of perceived recoil up to 70 percent; that level of effectiveness, however, is usually obtained only with heavier kicking magnum calibers. While we cannot accurately validate such a claim, we did judge the rifle’s kick to be quite low for the .308 Win. chambering, even one with a heavy barrel. We also had praise for the stock’s feel and ergonomics.

The raised cheekpiece put the eye in excellent alignment with the scope, and the length-of-pull adjustment made the stock easily adaptable. Also, the flat-bottomed fore-end rode the bags well, yet its rounded edges were comfortable in the hand. Legacy Sports’ Howa/Axiom Varminter Rifle and Scope Package represents a happy marriage of the proven Howa barreled action with Knoxx Industries’ innovative and effective Axiom stock and the Nikko-Stirling 4-16X 44 mm scope. It will be of great interest to anyone seeking an accurate, soft-recoiling, reasonably priced and ready-to-shoot rifle.

Howa/Axiom Varminter Rifle Package Specs

Manfacturer: Howa Machinery, Ltd.
Importer: Legacy Sports Int’l;
Caliber: .204 Ruger, .223 Rem., .22-250 Rem., .243 Win., .308 Win. (tested)
Action Type: bolt-action, repeating center-fire rifle
Receiver: hammer-forged, ordnance steel
Barrel: heavy profile, 20", 24" (tested)
Rifling: four-groove, 1:12" RH twist
Magazine: internal, four-round-capacity steel box
Sights: [rifle only]: none supplied, receiver drilled and tapped for scope mounting; [Varminter Rifle Package]: Nikko-Stirling 4-16X 44 mm Nighteater scope installed
Trigger: single-stage; 4 lbs, 12 ozs. Pull
Stock: Knoxx Axiom: length of pull, 11 1/2" to 15 1/2"; drop at heel, 1 7⁄8"; drop at comb, 12"; drop at heel of comb, 5/8"
Overall Length: 38 1/2" (buttstock collapsed), 42 1/2" (buttstock extended)
Weight: 10 lbs., 2 ozs. (rifle only); 11 lbs, 7 ozs. (with Nikko-Stirling scope installed)
Suggested Retail Price: rifle only with black stock, $850; rifle only with camo stock, $990; rifle with black stock and scope package, $999; rifle with camo stock and scope package, $1,050


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