In 1999, a small firearms importing company was founded in Alexandria, Virginia. The fledgling business, Legacy Sports International, was staffed by a small crew with years of experience in firearms wholesale and retail, and they had the lofty goal of competing in a crowded bolt-action marketplace. On top of that, they intended to do it with a Japanese product – a quality Tokyo import, no less, that had failed to make market share in the U.S. before, the Howa 1500.
Howa rifles had previously been imported throughout the 1980s and ‘90s by Smith & Wesson, Mossberg, Interarms and Weatherby. With the exception of Weatherby, which, to this day, sells far more Howa-based Vanguard rifles (a unique variant on the 1500) than it does its iconic Weatherby Mark Vs, these Howa importers had only mediocre success at best.
When Interarms folded in the late 1990s, three of its employees purchased its inventory and Legacy Sports was off and running.
“Interarms sold somewhere between 500 and 2,000 Howa rifles annually back in those days,” said Andy McCormick, Legacy VP of sales and marketing. “Today we are closer to 30,000 a year! And that’s just scratching the surface of the rifle’s true potential.”
McCormick joined Legacy in 2003 following a long career in retail firearms sales and marketing and a great understanding of what people are willing to pay for. Under his guidance, the company has looked for niche marketing avenues for which to move Howa rifles.
For example, while other rifle companies were trending toward rubber grip panels on ordinary injection-molded stocks four years ago, Legacy teamed up with handgun grip-maker Hogue Inc. At the time, Hogue just happened to have introduced an aftermarket stock consisting of a polymer frame that was entirely over-molded with soft rubber. The combination of the Howa 1500 barreled action and a Houge over-molded stock sold like hotcakes and has made its way across much of the Howa line in several configurations. It remains highly popular.
The Howa Axiom is yet another success story. Designed by Knoxx Industries and now owned by Blackhawk, the Axiom is a unique recoil reducing stock with a space-age appearance. It reduces recoil by way of a cam and spring absorber in the pistol grip and an additional spring absorber in the stock tube. During recoil, under the tension of the springs the fore-end is allowed to slide backward over the grip and buttstock, which absorbs recoil on larger caliber rifles (watch your forehead and scope positioning on heavy-kicking calibers). The stock’s AR-style pistol grip and adjustable butt-with instant length of pull adjustment from 11.5 inches to 15.5 inches-gives it a military look that appeals to a great many shooters. Howa rifles were the first on the market available with this stock as a standard model.
“Marketing is important,” says McCormick. “However, the Howa sells itself in many ways.”
True enough. The Howa 1500 platform is simple in design and about as solid as a bolt-action can be. The bolt features very traditional twin opposing locking lugs and a large M-16 style extractor with plunger. In addition, the 1500 has a 3-position safety. Like similar designs, this allows the user to set the safety lever in its middle-most position and unload the rifle without the chance of accidental discharge. Forward is “fire,” fully rearward is “safe” with the bolt locked into position.
Over the years I’ve shot a number of Howa 1500s in both sporter and heavy-barrel varmint configuration. All of them have produced fine accuracy after narrowing down your load selection to one or two choices that really performed well in a given rifle.
The Axiom I’ve been shooting recently is a Heavy Barrel Varminter in .223 Remington film-coated in King’s Desert Shadow Camo. With a 24-inch varmint barrel it’s a bit on the hefty side (9.65 lbs.), but it would make for a perfect varmint rig or a long-range coyote sniper. Its camo finish no doubt aids in that pursuit as well. I do enjoy the comfort of the Axiom stock, however, I have found that the comb height is rather high for my cheek and I’ve had to use high scope mounting rings to get a proper sight picture. For varminting this is not really a problem. I would not choose this set-up for deer hunting as I like my deer rifles lean and trim, with a scope mounted as tight to the barrel as possible.
Variety is the beauty of the Howa 1500 line. Without considering caliber options (from .204 Ruger to .375 Ruger) and barrel length options, there are nine model variations to choose from, including laminated stock versions.
You can even buy a barreled action. Available in blued chrome molly or stainless, the 1500 receiver has become more widely used as the basis of custom rifles and has been giving the Remington 700 a run for its money in this arena. One of my favorite Howas is a 24-inch barreled 7mm WSM (a caliber that is, unfortunately, no longer available) custom bedded to a Bell & Carlson stock. This particular rifle shoots half- to one-inch groups routinely with factory ammo in various configurations.
In the last 10 years, savvy marketing and standout uniqueness has truly set the Howa 1500 apart from the crowd, allowing it to finally grab hold of the American marketplace.