The Husqvarna 640 Mystery
All one man needed to survive in the bush was a Husqvarna 640
By Mike Rogers
I’ll admit from the onset of this piece that I’m a rifle nut. I genuinely like messing around with hunting rifles in all their various forms and permutations and have for all of my adult life and most of my misspent youth. That doesn’t make me all that unusual, Americans in general and those who reside in the American West in particular, tend to be gun nuts. However, Alaska takes an obsession with guns to the next level. Back in the day, before I moved north, I read everything I could get my hands on about rifles for use in Alaska. I had grown up in the Appalachians, and while we were no strangers to guns by any stretch of the imagination, we simply didn’t have wide-open vistas and half-ton animals—some of which carried teeth with which to bite back.
In those innocent days, when the internet was but an infant, researching guns meant reading “gun writers” published in a wide swath of books and magazines. According to the popular press of the day, the only sensible rifle for Alaska was a .338 Winchester or perhaps better yet, a .375 Holland and Holland. The reading was always the same; the brave author ventured forth into the greater unsettled regions of Alaska or the wild parts of Canada and decked some big critter in a dramatic manner with a cannon missing its wheels. There was usually an admonition that if the reader had the cajones to try it, he’d (always a he back then) better be armed with whatever gun he was using on the hunt or face the pain turning into grizzly scat. In those days, I hadn’t yet grasped that most gun writers of the 1980s were completely full of crap.
I soon made the move north, thinking that I was appropriately armed with the knowledge that a big gun was a requirement to settle in the Greatland and it went on my checklist of things to acquire once I had settled into my new home. I was a “cheechako” of the widest stripe. One of the first friends I made here was a fellow by the name of Tom. Tom had been in Alaska for a number of years and had homesteaded a property some miles in the “bush” and eventually feeling the desire to leave hard work coupled with abject poverty; he moved into the city to get a job. Tom and I became fast friends and he taught me a lot of things about life in Alaska during our brief time in Anchorage together. During a dinner gathering one evening with our families the inevitable topic of hunting and guns came up.
Feeling the urge to show off his prized smokepole, he went to a back room and brought back one of the most ill kept weapons I’d ever seen. The rifle wasn’t at all what I expected a seasoned veteran of remote Alaska living to be toting—it was a Husqvarna 640 in .270 Winchester. He was quite proud of the rifle despite it showing lots of age and “character marks” on the worn bluing and stock. That last description is perhaps overly generous—“Drug behind a garbage truck leaking oil” is a better descriptor of the rifle’s condition.
“This here rifle I bought in ’85 in Fairbanks … I took this, four boxes of ammo, an axe, a wall tent, and a kitten and got dropped off in Skwentna to start my homestead…” he told me.
I sat there examining the rifle and wondered somewhat foolishly if he had eaten the kitten when the first winter hit and was somewhat mystified why he’d take such a thing as a kitten for serious homesteading. None of the books I’d read featured a kitten. Come to think of it, none of them featured a .270 either. After I examined the rifle a little more closely, the kitten made more sense than that particular rifle did.
The rifle had started life at Fabrique Nationale in Belgium in the late 1940s as a commercial Mauser 98 action and was then sent to the enterprising Swedes at Husqvarna to turn into a whole rifle. Those were the days when the wheels of America’s economic engine were chugging robustly and war-ravaged Europe was still reeling from collapse as Hitler’s armies vanished and left smoke in their wake. The rifle was simply exquisite despite the wear. In the modern era, that much European handwork is largely unaffordable by anyone outside the upper tax bracket, but in those destitute times these were destined to be “budget” rifles—a lower priced competitor to the big name American manufacturers and sold by catalog houses and department stores. That was also before the Swedes determined that relying on one of your bigger competitors for something so basic as a rifle action was bad for business if that business was making rifles.
This particular rifle was destined for the American market and chambered in .270 Winchester, a cartridge at the very apex of its popularity in the 1940s, largely thanks to the relentless typewriter pounding of one Jack O’Connor. That Husqvarna 640 somehow wandered into Fairbanks during the 1970s oil boom. It was also sold in the 1980s oil bust by a broke pipeline worker looking for cash money to buy a plane ticket home. A very inexperienced drifter named Tom, who had just signed a homestead claim in Skwentna, bought it. The ink on that claim was as wet as he was behind the ears when he loaded the rifle, and the kitten, into a plane bound for the wilds.
Fifteen years later he talked to me about hunting with the rifle, feeding his family and using the rifle for protection on the trail. I checked the action (smooth as glass, those meticulous Swedes), admired the hand knurling on the sight plane of the receiver rings, felt the perfect trigger and rubbed what was once a very nice walnut stock. I shouldered the old warhorse and looked through the rear sight and noticed a major problem.
“Hey Tom,” I asked, “Did you know you’re missing your front sight?”
“My what?” he replied quizzically.
“Your front sight blade. See this groove … you’re supposed to have a sight blade with a bead on top sitting in that little groove there. You place the bead in the rear sight’s notch for windage and elevation control. Surely the rifle had one,” I pontificated. I had lots of experience shooting with open sights and felt very proud of my knowledge about such items.
“Nope, never recall having one of those,” he replied earnestly as if all rifles had optional front sight blades.
At this point I felt like perhaps my leg was being significantly pulled by my new friend and his Husqvarna 640 was some pawn shop pickup prank to his “dumber than a bag of hair” cheechako friend while his “real” gun, perhaps a Winchester or Remington in a real “Alaska Magnum” resided back in the closet somewhere. Feeling a little smug I replied a little sarcastically, “But did you ever kill anything with it?”
“Oh, not much,” came his response in total honesty, “Just a moose or two every year…” (My fingers and toes quickly tabulated a moose count of about 20 total in the last 15 years.) “… a few caribou, a dozen or so black bears and one really pissed off grizzly.” He said it so earnestly the only thing missing was an “Aw-shucks” grin straight out of an old Jimmy Stewart movie.
I sat there dumbfounded now that I realized Tom was entirely serious. I had thought while I planned my Alaska move (fueled by the “objective” sporting press) that all real Alaskan rifles had to have a .338” bore or bigger or the bullet would just bounce off a bear. Now I was confronted by a man who’d raised a family of four on meat provided by what amounted to a surplus war time Mauser in a pipsqueak cartridge that was missing half of its sighting equipment … apparently a man who never knew any better to boot. My confidence in all my outdoors research was dwindling as fast as the yellowing leaves in fall.
“How the heck did you ever hit anything with this thing?” I asked in total shock.
His reply was as deadpan and earnest as the rest of his conversation,” Well … moose are pretty big… if you can get pretty close.”