March 15, 2023
The current style of sporting rifles trends towards longer and heavier, often in a tactical or long-range configuration in hopes to wring out a bit more accuracy and stretch out a few more hundreds of yards. Fine, but not everybody needs to shoot at extreme range, and not everybody wants to carry a long, heavy rifle. The new Howa Super Lite is a maverick; a short, light, bolt-action rifle in a classic sporter configuration. In fact, at 4.7 pounds and 39 inches in overall length with a 20-inch barrel, it pretty much ties the Kimber Adirondack ($1,955) as the lightest sporting centerfire on the market.
As they say on TV, “But wait, there’s more!” Imported from Japan by Legacy Sports in Nevada, the Howa Super Lite carries a “one-MOA” guarantee and a lifetime warranty. Expensive or inexpensive depends on your perspective (or budget), and these days there are quite a few basic bolt-actions that cost less than this — and some even more. With a suggested retail of $1,399, there are few that carry comparable warranties, and almost none that compete in the same weight class.
Building a capable rifle at less than 5 pounds isn’t easy. The Super Lite accomplishes this with a slim, trim, classic carbon-fiber stock from Stocky’s (stockysstocks.com) for this new reduced short-action with small-diameter bolt and polymer detachable magazine. At 21 ounces, it feels as though it weighs almost nothing. The 20-inch barrel also saves weight. I wouldn’t call it pencil-thin, but it’s slender, which it has to be to get the rifle’s overall weight down that low.
Cartridge options are 6.5 Creedmoor and .308 Winchester. Both chamberings are offered with stocks dipped in Kryptek Altitude or Obskura patterns. Guns & Ammo’s test rifles were in Kryptek Altitude, and my sample scaled right at 4.7 pounds as advertised. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Creedmoor version was a couple ounces heavier (same barrel with narrower bore), but I can’t confirm that comparison here.
The barrel is threaded 1/2x28 for a suppressor or muzzlebrake, and it’s supplied with thread protector. Atop the receiver is a full-length 51/2-inch Picatinny rail strip with 14 stations to accept a full choice of optics. This rifle was shipped to me with a very capable Viridian Antero 5-30x56mm ($799) riflescope. Of course, what optic you mount is up to you, but a large scope with sturdy rings will add significantly to this rifle’s overall weight. “That’s obvious!” you might say, but there’s the point: The straight-comb Stocky’s stock was intended for use with a full-size scope, having a slightly higher comb. It came up perfectly on target with a full field of view. There was no stretching or scrunching to get a proper sight picture.
The stock also has a half-inch Limbsaver recoil pad, which is a good idea for a .308 of this weight. The stock finish is “soft touch,” offering a very good feel. The Super Lite was light, compact and handled like a dream out of the box; I couldn’t find anything not to like about this rifle, provided it would shoot.
Reduced-Size Model 1500
I expected that it would shoot. The only question was “How well?” in such a light configuration. Manufactured in Japan by Howa Machinery, the Super Lite is mostly based on the Model 1500 action. No stranger to the U.S. market, the Howa Model 1500 bolt-action has been manufactured continuously since 1979! It’s a very long-running system. Through the years, Howa’s M1500 barreled actions have been the basis for several domestic models marketed by Mossberg, Smith & Wesson and Weatherby (among others).
In the fall of ’79, I used a S&W bolt-action example in .243 Winchester on a pronghorn hunt. It was the then-new Howa M1500 action. The story appeared in Guns & Ammo in 1980, which was one of my first articles in this publication. It’s a stretch to say that I have a rich history with the Howa M1500 action — I’m left-handed and it’s a right-hand action — but it’s so common that there have been frequent encounters, always positive. The M1500 is a highly respected bolt-action. In fact, my son-in-law Brad Jannenga needed “ranch rifles” for his place in Texas and acquired several Howa M1500s in .308. Sadly, they weren’t this slick Super Lite configuration, but I gave his decision to use them a thumbs up. Great rifle!
So, why does Howa have a good reputation? It makes a good action from a sound design. We could call the M1500 a “Mauser clone” because it features Peter Paul Mauser’s dual-opposing locking lugs. We could also call it a “Remington clone” because it’s a push-feed, but with differences. The extractor and ejector are of the AR-15/M16 pattern, rather than common bolt-action designs. The safety is also the common push-lever type, positioned just behind the bolt handle root on the right side. The bolt release is on the opposite side. It is a three-position safety: All the way back locks the bolt and trigger; halfway forward locks the trigger but allows bolt to be worked for unloading; forward is “fire.”
The receiver is machined with the bolt and bolt handle forged as one piece. The firing pin can be removed for cleaning without tools, and the bolt has pressure-vent holes in case of a catastrophic failure. It’s a safe and strong action. After more than 40 years, configurations have been innumerable, but that’s really not the question, is it? Does the new Super Lite live up to the “one MOA” guarantee?
Life Isn't Fair...
...And neither are testing protocols. No different for me than you, ammo can be hard to come by these days. I’m supposed to open a box, slap on an optic — or, in this case, use the optic previously installed — and make this rifle shoot. No problem, I’ve done it all my life, but never in an environment when ammunition is so scarce. Even reloading components are hard to come by! And it’s expensive! The Super Lite comes with an “MOA guarantee,” so the folks who made it expect it to shoot. G&A’s editor expects me to make it shoot, too.
I’ve been doing this job for 50 years and I haven’t written a fib yet; I’m unlikely to start now. With more precise manufacturing, rifles are more accurate than ever before, and ammunition is more consistent. Howa uses good barrels, which is the main component for accuracy, and the M1500 is accurate. But wringing “one MOA” accuracy from a 4.7-pound rifle made this test more of a challenge.
Understand, rifle weight and thickness (or thin-ness) of the barrel have nothing to do with raw accuracy potential. It’s sort of like the trigger pull, except that a heavy, creeping trigger makes it hell on earth to try and realize whatever accuracy a rifle might have. Accuracy is also about consistency of barrel vibrations. Thin barrels vibrate more violently than thick barrels, and light barrels heat up more quickly; both factors contribute to the challenge. The short barrel is an advantage because shorter barrels are stiffer than longer barrels. However, my experience is that light rifles with slim barrels are often more finicky about loads, and certainly the more rapid heating makes shot strings start to walk. The Howa Super Lite has its advantages though. The two-stage trigger is very crisp, with our sample producing a 31/2-pound letoff, and the barrel has an integral recoil lug and block bedded in the Stocky’s stock.
Here goes: It’s supposed to shoot. Let’s see what happens.
If At First…
The boresight looked good and I was on at 50 yards within a few shots. I let the barrel cool and moved back to 100 yards. Most .308s shoot well, but every rifle groups differently with various loads. The fine print behind the MOA guarantee indicated “three-shot groups with premium ammo.” Ideally, I’d have used match loads, but I couldn’t get any, a problem I’ve had since Coronavirus appeared. Truth is, I don’t have much .308 at all, but a couple of my loads should work.
The Viridian Antero scope was bright and clear with good parallax adjustment, while the trigger pull was also excellent. A .308 this light kicks, so I used a Lead Sled to soak up some of it. I started with Hornady’s Precision Hunter 178-grain ELD-X. Most of us would agree that’s a “premium” load. Like any factory load, not every rifle will like it, but I thought it a good starting point.
Housekeeping note: My preference is to shoot five-shot groups. In this case, I elected to go with five three-shot groups. Yes, it’s easier to shoot three-shot groups, but I decided this for two primary reasons: First, limited ammo. Second, I was shooting during a very hot Kansas July. The mercury would hit 90 degrees by mid-morning and keep climbing. With that light barrel, cooling would take too much time and run me into the heat of the day, making things worse. So, with great expectations, I sat with a box of Hornady’s Precision Hunter 178-grain ELD-X.
Folks, things don’t always work according to plan. The first groups were disappointing. No stringing, horizontal or vertical; nice, round groups, but nothing under 2 inches; a couple exceeded 3. Those “okay-to-hunt-with” results are not really awful for a rifle so light, but it’s a way from meeting the MOA guarantee.
…Try, Try Again
Well, that’s why G&A insists on grouping with multiple loads. Next, I had some Australian Outback loaded with 165-grain Sierra GameKing. This ammo is loaded with propellent that has high tolerance for temperature change. I’ve shot it in Kansas heat before and even put some of it in the freezer overnight. There was little change in velocity and consistently low standard deviation (SD).
Changing ammo doesn’t usually work miracles, but you never know until you try. This time, the skies opened and I heard the heavenly choir singing. (Ahh!) Groups were much tighter than any group on the first target. Three of the five were sub-MOA. The best group on that target had three shots touching, measuring .440 inch. Yeah, a sub-half-inch 100-yard group from a rifle weighing less than 5 pounds! The five-group average was .978-inch. Suddenly, this was a very interesting rifle. It seemed to prefer the lighter .308 bullets.
The next load I had available was a random handload that I’d cooked up for my M88 Winchester: 44 grains of WW-748 with Hornady’s new Copper Alloy eXpanding (CX) bullet in 180-grain weight. Tweaked for maximum downrange performance and capped with Hornady’s Heat Shield polymer tip, the CX is probably the most advanced homogenous-alloy bullet. However, we all know that some rifles like the hard copper-alloy bullets and some don’t. The Howa Super Lite was sort of neutral; the CX shot better than the first target, but not nearly as good as the Aussie Outback load. One of the five groups was sub-MOA, but the rest were not. Adequate hunting accuracy, sure, but I’d need to try other powders and lightweight bullets.
Heat aside, I was shooting on a beautiful sunny day, almost no wind. No atmospheric excuses, but also a tough deal; we take a new rifle out of a box, no way to know if or how much it might have been shot at the factory. I had one more load I could try: Hornady’s 165-grain Zombie Max. That stuff is getting scarce and I didn’t really want to shoot it, but I had a thought: I know Precision Hunter is excellent ammo, despite its poor initial showing in this rifle. Between zeroing, chronographing and grouping a couple of loads, the rifle now had almost 50 rounds down the bore, and I’d cleaned it between loads. Accuracy had improved significantly from the starting point. Do you suppose this rifle had one of those barrels that badly needed breaking in? I had enough ammo to try the 178-grain ELD-X a second time. I cleaned the bore thoroughly, fired a couple of fouling shots and tried again.
Was this target spectacular? No, but these groups were significantly better than that dismal first try. One group was solidly MOA at .953, while two others hovered just more than an inch: 1.09 and 1.02. The average on this target was okay, just more than 1.6 inches. (That number was badly skewed by a 3.2-inch group.) I didn’t call a flyer, but that could have been my fault.
Light & Fun
Hard work done, I clipped a Harris bipod onto the front sling swivel stud and had some fun ringing steel. Unlike many light rifles, the Howa Super Lite isn’t whippy or hard to control. It actually handles like a full-size rifle. I attribute this to good balance, the straight stock that comes up perfectly and the stock’s sure-grip feel. The 31/2-pound, two-stage trigger was crisp, and there was nonslip feeding from the polymer mag.
Today, there are many bolt-action rifles at lower price points than a Howa. Some are fairly light, but the Super Lite is unique in its class. It really is “super light,” and it is a top-quality sporting rifle. It can be accurate, is smooth-handling, and built around a long-proven action. This is not just an impressive little rifle — it’s an impressive rifle!
Howa Super Lite
- Type: Bolt action, push feed
- Cartridge: 6.5 CM, .308 Win. (tested)
- Capacity: 3+1 rds.
- Barrel: 20 in.; 1:10-in. twist; threaded 1/2x28 with thread protector
- Overall Length: 39 in.
- Weight: 4 lbs., 11.2 oz.
- Stock: Stocky’s Carbon Fiber; Kryptek Altitude/Obskura
- Finish: Matte blue (steel)
- Trigger: Two-Stage; 3 lbs., 8 oz.
- Sights: None
- MSRP: $1,400
- Manufacturer: Howa Machinery, Ltd., Japan
- Importer: Legacy Sports, 800-553-4229, howausa.com
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