Howa Contractor SP Combo Deal (in .243) - test & review
- Credit: Archant
The Contractor package from Highland Outdoors includes a rifle, scope, moderator, mount/rings and a gun bag, for less than £880! Read our review
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Review by: Broadsword
A ready-made package or combination deal on a rifle makes sense as you not only have a cost saving over buying each individual item separately but by coming from the same supplier you know everything will fit and work correctly.
Highland Outdoors are very good at this concept with the products they provide, especially with the Howa range of rifles. Here you can choose a barrelled action of sporter or varmint configuration in a range of calibres and then add alternate stocks, magazine systems, sound moderators, scopes and so on to make the perfect rifle set-up for your needs. Highland Outdoors now offer a complete package called the Contractor, which has a superb price point and offers everything a stalker or fox shooter would need to get started.
We had the Contractor SP combo, which is the sporter version, although a VT combo with varmint-profiled barrel is available too. With the SP combo, you are supplied with a Howa Sporter blued-steel-barrelled action, available in short-action calibres (.223, .22-250, .243, .308, 6mm Creedmoor & 6.5 Creedmoor) and long-action versions (.270, .30-06 and 7mm Rem Mag).
You have a rigid and tough polymer stock, a Nikko Stirling Metor 3-12x56 30mm illuminated scope, complete with a one-piece base and matching ring set. The new Swedish-made RCC Reflex style sound moderator and a deluxe gun bag plus lifetime guarantee complete the package for a reduced price down from the normal RRT of £1,231.99 to only £879.99 for the SP model or VT combo down from £1,310.99 to £949.99. The reality is that you have a time-proven barrelled action with sub-MOA accuracy straight from the box, that is lightweight, tough, reliable and at an excellent price point.
The Howa range are produced in Japan and have been around for donkeys’ years. I remember shooting a friend’s Smith and Wesson 1500, which was a rebadged, Howa-made 1500 rifle, when I was a teenager. It’s a testament to Howa’s build quality and design that it is still going strong today and offered at a very fair price considering how well they shoot. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it – just updated a little to keep up with modern times!
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The Contractor is offered in the polymer, synthetic, sporter-style stock that’s pretty universal and will fit a wide range of shooters. It also keeps the cost down and contributes to the overall lightweight feel of the Contractor without any flimsiness. In fact, the design is very good as it blends a light weight with rigidity in the forend and action bedding area.
The ribbed inner sections of the forend ensure zero twisting so the free-floated barrel stays free-floating in all conditions, including with the addition of a bipod, completely avoiding closure of the gap or recoil bounce adversely affecting accuracy. The bedding area has a very well-cut mortise for the integral recoil lug of the action to sit in and the stock screw holes have aluminium pillars to avoid stock compression; tension is thus even and constant.
It’s a stock built to be used and handled in all weather conditions and it feels nicely solid and has a black moulded-in colour with textured finish with stippled areas applied to the pistol grip and forend for extra grip.
The overall design is a typical sporter with a slim profile and pretty ambidextrous stock orientation with a low comb and the forend has a fluted beavertail profile to accommodate fingers, allowing ample grip. I like the pistol grip’s rake with a lipped end that cradles the supporting hand well.
The large rubber recoil pad gives a 14” length of pull and the Limb Saver recoil pad is very soft and squishy, which really does grip the shoulder for excellent support.
Literally the heart of the Contractor is the Japanese-made action, which provides consistent and reliable function; it has been serving the shooting fraternity since its introduction of the 1500 action model in 1979.
You have a forged-steel, single-piece action with a standard-turn bolt operation and an integral recoil lug with a drilled and tapped receiver top for scope bases. The bolt is again one piece with dual opposing locking lugs with the stem of the bolt handle acting as a third safety lug. The bolt is cocked on opening and utilises a one-piece striker with a travel of 0.45”, so a pretty good locktime (Rem 700 0.3”) with a coil mainspring.
The extractor is large at 1.5” with an inset design that pivots from the bolt body with ejection provided by a sprung plunger set in to the bolt face’s recess.This bolt utilises an enclosed head so the cartridge is surrounded by steel – rather like a Remington Model 700 – and thus is strong and safe. The bolt handle has a cropped teardrop design and is easy and smooth to operate; it has three vents along its length to redirect gases if you get a primer puncture.
The action is 8.45” long with a 1.33” rounded diameter profile on top with a square base and a bolt travel in excess of 4.5”. The underside has the forward-mounted integral recoil lug on the receiver ring, which beds securely into the stock mortise for more consistent results.
Scope mounting is taken care of with a 6” one-piece aluminium-blacked Picatinny rail, which could do with a small cutout to the right-hand side to allow easier cartridge loading, as the Howa is a top-feed system due to the hinged floorplate arrangement.
QD 30mm low mounts are suppled as part of the package and the four-screw clamping system of the rings does not crush the scope tube and also provides a secure union to the base. Both the barrel and action have a tough satin black/blued finish, which is both subdued for hunting and pretty scratch-resistant.
The Contractor I have on test has a hinged floor magazine design, holding five rounds of .243 Win ammo and can be unloaded by pressing the release lever sited in the trigger guard front face. Highland Outdoors sell detachable magazine options, so if you want one of these it’s always possible to upgrade later on.
The three-position safety system is operated by a small, sliding, knurled, metal lever on the right side of the action tang. In the forward position, the rifle is ready to fire; ¾ back locks the trigger but allows bolt operation; while the rearmost position locks the trigger sear as well as the bolt.
Howa’s new H.A.C.T. trigger system is a single-stage unit but adjustable for weight and travel after removing the stock. As always, at 3.25lb, the factory preset is a sensible weight for hunting in my opinion.
Howa have a good reputation for providing dependable accuracy that is not only good with factory ammunition but responds very well to reloads too. The hammer-forged barrel on the Contractor is typical Japanese: i.e. very good, few tool marks and concentric with well-defined rifling lands and grooves.
At 22” in length, and with a 0.165” muzzle diameter typical of a sporter profile, it is also threaded at ½” UNF, and ships with a thread protector. The gun was supplied with a new RCC Hunter sound moderator.
You have a twist rate of 1 in 10” – that is good for 55-105gr bullet weights without over-rotation on the lightweights and enough stabilisation for the heavy stuff. 1 in 9” would be my choice, though, and, as previously stated, it is free-floated for its entire length.
Reloading a .243 Win always helps up the ante with shorter barrels and the Contractor responded well in this regard.
My favourite .243 Win load is with the Hornady 95gr SSTs (Interlock). Here, 41.25gr of Swiss RS50 powder gave 2916 fps and 1794ft/lbs and lovely ½” groups. But for red deer, I need 100gr bullet minimum so the Sierra Game Kings were the ticket with 44.25gr of RL19 powder. Nosler Ballistic Tip achieved 2864 fps and 1821ft/lbs energy; you can switch to Nosler Ballistic Tips or Sierra Pro Hunters for a near identical result.
Going over to the lightest bullet here, the Nosler 55gr Ballistic Silver Tip achieved 3679 fps for 1653ft/lbs energy and ¾” groups at 100 yards.
I like the mid-range .243 Win for English deer and the best load for this was the 95gr SST as discussed – or the 70gr Sierra HP, which shot 0.55” groups with a load of 45gr Vit N150 for 3337 fps and 1731 ft/lbs.
The Hornady 80gr GMX bullets shot 3151 fps for 1764ft/lbs with a load of 47.5gr of RL19 powder and MOA accuracy – but watch for pressure.
In the field
Remember that short barrels are a bit fickle with the .243 Win and I have had 100gr ammunition hovering on the edge of that legal ft/lbs figure. I was up in Scotland and after hinds so had to use 100gr bullets for large species deer. I chose the Geco factory to try out and with MOA accuracy I was more than happy, as these were woodland hinds and ranges were short, but stalking was very hard work. Those radar-like ears catch every little sound and the groups of hinds and calves make it doubly difficult to move unseen and unheard.
The fact that the Contractor is built and priced to be used makes stalking easier as you aren’t worried about the odd scratch or ding or crawling through the mud or hedges to achieve a shot. All set up, the Contractor handles well and the RCC mod sits nicely on the barrel and balances well, impressively quiet too. I liked the Nikko scope (I had the 4-16x50mm model by mistake); the optics and low light capabilities are impressive for the money.
I knew a parcel of hinds frequented a small field between two large forestry plantations, so an excursion at first light was needed and it was then a case of sitting and waiting, nestled in the bracken for cover. Sure enough, movement on the fields gave away seven hinds feeding slowly between the timber and with the Contractor now steadied on my knees and the Nikko’s reticule tracking the vital area, the Geco 105gr bullet was soon on its way as a mature hind broadsided at 130 yards. No fuss or drama, the Contractor completed the job in hand admirably and is one of those rifles you can just pick up and you know you can rely on it to place the bullet where you aim.
You can’t keep a good dog down and it’s a testament to Howa’s longevity and still excellent accuracy and value that the Contactor is carrying that tradition on and as a complete hunting package at a really good price.
Just add ammo and go!
Maker: Howa Japan
Name: Contractor (combo) SP Sporter model
Type: Bolt action
Barrel: 22 inches, ½ UNF thread
Calibre: 243 Win on test
Overall Length: 40.25 inches, 47.25 with RCC mod fitted
Finish: Matt blued and synthetic
Stock: Black synthetic Sporter
Trigger: Single stage adjustable trigger
Safety: Three position
Magazine: Hinged floor plate
Sights: One-piece Picatinny rail
Weight: 6.75 lbs
Features: Rifle, scope Nikko Stirling Diamond 3-12x56mm, RCC Hunter sound moderator, one-piece mount/rings and deluxe gun bag.
Price: £879.99 SP sporter or £949.99 for the VT varmint
+44(0) 345 099 0252