Building a custom 308 Winchester precision rifle: Howa 1500 action & MDT ESS chassis

I’m impressed with the Legacy Sports International Howa 1500 barreled actions from Brownells. In this post I’ll show you how I built a custom 308 Winchester precision rifle with one.

The 308 Winchester has been getting some bad press lately.  It isn’t so much what the 308 can’t do, as much as it is what some other, lighter cartridges can do better (see “Why not 308?” for more).  Do I like the newer 6 and 6.5 mm cartridges, of course I do!  But the 308 Winchester still has plenty of advantages (see “Why 308?“).

The Howa 1500 does share some similarities to the Remington 700.  To learn more about the 1500 and how it compares to the Remington 700, check out Howa 1500 barreled action review: Howa 1500 versus Remington 700.

This is going to be set up in an MDT ESS chassis.  The chassis offers the benefit of not requiring bedding, this means you have fewer steps required to complete the rifle, saving a considerable amount of time.

Before we get moving on our build, let’s take a few minutes to read and understand the following disclaimer:

The contents of are produced for informational purposes only and should be performed by competent gunsmiths only. and its authors, do not assume any responsibility, directly or indirectly for the safety of the readers attempting to follow any instructions or perform any of the tasks shown, or the use or misuse of any information contained herein, on this website.

Any modifications made to a firearm should be made by a licensed gunsmith. Failure to do so may void warranties and result in an unsafe firearm and may cause injury or death.

Modifications to a firearm may result in personal injury or death, cause the firearm to not function properly, or malfunction, and cause the firearm to become unsafe.

For this project I ordered the following products from Brownells:

For this build I’ll be starting with a Howa 1500 barreled action.

The first step is to pull the barrel off of the action.  I’ve posted about this before, but despite what you hear on the inter webs, Howa 1500 barrels are easy to remove (at least on the current production actions I’ve been working with).  To remove the actions you’ll need a Remington 700 Mauser (wrap around) style action wrench and a barrel vise.  I like using these two from Brownells.  Simple and they work well.

With the action removed I can measure the action and determine how I’ll machine the barrel shank.  For reference purposes, I’ve inserted the image above showing the factory Howa 1500 barrel tenon (left) next to a factory Remington 700 tenon (above, right).  You’ll note the Howa tenon is slightly shorter and has a chamfer on the edge.  The shorter length is primarily a function of the internal recoil lug on the 1500.

I’m using a Shilen Select Match 1:10″ 30 caliber barrel with a Remington Varmint contour.  As a rule I like to cut the last inch or so off a barrel, face the blank, then dial it in on the lathe. For this build I’m holding the barrel in a set of spiders on my lathe.

To properly thread and chamber a barrel you need to have the barrel concentric with the bore of the lathe.  There are a number of ways to accomplish this.  My preferred method is to either use a tapered range rod (above) to locate the bore, or simply use a long stem indicator to take the reading directly off the barrel.

A quick note for my readers:  Currently I am running a Grizzly 4003G lathe, however, this will be one of the last barrels I’ll be spinning up on it.  I have a Precision Matthews PM-1440GT Ultra Precision Lathe inbound!!!

I’m beyond excited to get this bad boy into operation (to learn more about the PM-1440GT click here).  Anyway, back to the build.

With the barrel dialed in, I cut the tenon to length and diameter.  On this lathe, I’m running a spindle speed of approximately 360 rpm.  I’m running a carbide insert tool, however the high-speed steel insert tools Brownells sells work just as well.

This is my threading set up.  The threads on the Howa are M26x1.5mm.  On my lathe, I can’t use the thread dial and have to leave the half nut locked the entire time I cut the threads.  I make a light pass, stop the lathe, retract the tool, run the lathe in reverse, set the cut to a deeper depth and start the process again.  In this case, I’m using a carbide insert tool, however, high-speed insert tools work as well if not better for lower speed applications like this.

Like the Remington 700, the Howa 1500 requires a counterbore to receive the bolt nose.  You can cut this with an end mill, form tool or boring bar.  I like using a high-speed steel boring bar.  Spindle speed is set at 360 rpm.

Finally I can start reaming the chamber.  I am not a fan of pre-drilling or pre-boring chambers. I prefer to form them in one step.  Like everything else on, I’ve done these a number of ways over the years.  Lately I’ve been back to using my Manson Floating Reamer holder.  The reamer itself is a Manson with a live pilot.  To ream the chamber, the reamer is coated in Do-Drill cutting oil and inserted into the barrel.  I run the lathe and slowly feed the reamer.  Once I take a cut, I stop the lathe, remove and clean the reamer and repeat the process.  No sense in rushing anything.  If you roll a chip in the chamber you might still be able to use the barrel, but your work looks sloppy.

When the chamber is the proper depth, the handle on the action will close on the go gauge and stay open on the no go.  Editor’s note: I didn’t take a picture of the action in this post so I’m using the file copy above, you’ll note the set true three-jaw chuck as opposed to the spider.

With the chamber cut to depth, I break the inside edges of the chamber to prevent the brass from being scratched.  I recently read a post on another blog where the gunsmith recommended polishing chambers to a mirror smooth finish.  I don’t do this and would advise against it.  I use a Scotch-Brite pad.  You don’t want the chamber walls too smooth.  When the rifle is fired, the brass expands against the chamber walls.  If the walls are too slick you’ll increase the thrust against the bolt face.

The muzzle on this rile will have a Badger Ordnance brake.  To thread the muzzle, I dial the tube in through the headstock and cut a 5/8″-24 thread.

Finally, I head back to the barrel vise and tighten everything in place.  Once the barreled action is assembled, I check the headspace to make sure everything is within specification.

Since I’m using a chassis (MDT ESS), final assembly is fairly straight forward.  The barreled action simply drops in; no bedding, no fitting.  Drop it in and you are ready to go.  Check this bad boy out!!!

I am a huge fan of the MDT ESS chassis system.   Offered in a wide variety of configurations by MDT, the ESS is also available for a wide variety of rifles.  The ESS is my favorite chassis.  In this configuration, I am running a continuous top rail, Spuhr mount and Revic PMR 428 rifle scope.

Does it shoot?

Sure does!  Federal 168 gr. Gold Medal loaded with the Sierra 168 MatchKing!