Last updated 2002-01-18
Notice: © 1994 to 2002, Chris R. Burger. This document may be reproduced as required for personal use, and may be freely referenced from other Web sites. However, publication elsewhere requires express written permission from the author.
Any discussion on Morse code must commence with a discussion on tools.
I am very fond of telegraphy. Over the past nine years, 55% of my contacts have been on this mode, with the remainder distributed between SSB and RTTY. However, I would probably abandon the mode if I had to work with a hand key. A hand key is really hard work, and limits the speed at which you can send. Although you may feel that hard work is not a bad thing, the fatigue induced by a hand key limits your endurance. Sending with a hand key becomes strenuous even after an hour or two, while good operators with good equipment survive 48 hour contests and week-long DXpeditions!
A hand key is not a problem at 12 wpm (words per minute), at which most nations test their hams. Good operators can even send accurately at 20 wpm or more with a hand key. However, as you become more comfortable, you may find that you want to crank up the speed. Most ragchewers find a speed of 25 wpm most comfortable, but pileups are often run at much higher speeds.
Many nations in Europe prefer to express code speed in cpm (characters per minute). A "word" is generally considered to contain five letters and a space, allowing simple conversion between the two systems.
In my case, I seldom rag-chew, and generally only get on the air in contests. The short burst-type sending in contests is suitable for much higher speeds than one can maintain in a friendly chat, and most contest stations run around 32 wpm. I personally am fairly comfortable at 35 wpm, and when I'm in practice I can clip along fairly well at 45 wpm. However, when chatting for an extended period, even 30 wpm is at the very limits of my abilities. One definitely has to work at endurance.
Whether in ragchewing or contesting, I extensively use my keyer memories to send routine stuff, like CQ calls and my callsign. The latter is valuable, as one does not want to make an error when sending a callsign. My code is a little rusty at the best of times, and Mr Murphy dictates that the one error I make will be the one hole in the QRM during which the other operator will clearly hear the callsign!
The best tools to use are a good paddle and a good electronic keyer, with memories. These days, some radios include good memory keyers. The IC756 family is a good example. If one has to obtain a keyer, possibly the best choice is the CMOS SuperKeyer III. This keyer is distributed in kit form by Idiom Press in the States, and is packaged under several names, including Logikey and ETM. W9KNI is the contact person, although locals have been known to import them from time to time. This keyer offers every imaginable feature, and is not too expensive (at least in dollars...).
ZS4TX also includes this keyer in his Super Combo Keyer, offering all its features on CW, and most of them on SSB. Bernie's keyer is excellent value, as it also includes all relay switching to work with two transmitters, and is compatible with all popular logging software programs. It is now in use by many top-notch operators including two-time WRTC champion and CQWW record holder Jeff Steinman N5TJ, and low-band stalwart John Devoldere ON4UN.
Hans Kappetijn ZS6KR of QRV Technology offers Morse Mate, an electronic keyer with a Morse reader in a small box. Hans is also prepared to sell the keyer ICs separately. Using this IC, you should be able to knock together a keyer for under R 100 on a piece of strip board.
The Bencher paddle is a good choice, but many operators swear by various home-made and commercial designs. Talk to a friendly CW operator about a good choice. I'm reluctant to quote names, for fear of omitting someone, but this country, the likes of ZS1EL, ZS1AAX, ZS4TX, ZS6BI and ZS6QU are regularly on the bands and should be able to provide good guidance.
If you use a paddle, learn to send iambically. Iambic sending involves just a single squeeze to send any letter, except "P" and "X". It is a lot less effort in the long run. Just be aware that there are two different iambic timings, and if you're used to one, you cannot use a keyer that uses the other. I use "B" timing, and have no reason to believe that it is a bad choice. It is more common than "A" timing. There are also other timings, like Accukeyer timing, and other keying schemes, such as Dot Preference and Single Lever. However, B Iambic timing is probably the most common.
Another option is a keyboard. Purists cringe at the thought, but we are in the twenty-first century. You can buy a special sending tool that works with a standard keyboard, or use one of the myriad of PC software packages that can send Morse code through a serial port interface. The interface itself can be built in a few minutes using a resistor, a transistor and a diode. Parts costs, including the connectors and the cable, should not exceed R 30. If you don't want to hold down a PC for the job, QRV Technology will sell you a little box that works with a standard AT keyboard, and needs only a 12 V supply to make it work.
I personally use a Bencher paddle and Superkeyer, but in contests I use TRLog for the majority of sending. I use my left hand on the paddle, as I want to leave my right hand available for operating the radio and making notes as required. However, if you are using a keyboard for logging, it makes more sense to put the paddle near your best hand.
Use a pen or pencil that writes effortlessly. A felt-tipped pen or a soft pencil (not less than 0,7 mm) works well. Anything that occasionally refuses to write or occasionally gets stuck in the paper won't work.
Learn to write in italic lower case letters. Some people are compulsive capital-letter writers, but it's almost invariably poor practice. It's harder to read, and is a lot slower to write.
If you're a competent touch typist, you might decide to open a word processor on your PC and take down the incoming text that way. As long as you don't plan to operate away from your PC, it's a very good strategy. However, remember that your eventual aim is to copy the code in your head, without having to take down every letter. If you are copying text (i.e. taking down every letter), try to lag a word or two behind, so that you first assemble every word mentally before committing it to paper. You'll make less corrections, and will also progress more rapidly towards pure mental copy. Mental copy is definitely the final goal!
How to tune a received signal
Many moons ago, when people were still using separate transmitters and receivers, one could listen to one's own signal to hear if one was on the same frequency as the other station. These days, with virtually universal use of transceivers, the technique has changed. However, it is imperative that one learns to tune stations accurately.
With the bands becoming fuller and fuller, most operators now use a 500 Hz filter. Some use even sharper filters, often DSP or audio filters of 150 Hz or less. In the latter case, a signal that is only 100 Hz off frequency is already substantially attenuated, and 200 Hz is probably enough to make the operator blissfully unaware of one's presence.
Most modern transceivers, post-1985, use the transmitter sidetone to spot the receiver. The basic idea is simply to listen to one's own sidetone, and to turn the dial until the incoming signal has exactly the same pitch. Anyone who has trouble with this procedure can solicit help from someone who plays music. Tuning a station is not dissimilar to tuning a musical instrument!
To obtain sidetone to compare the incoming signal to, could be difficult. Some new transceivers have a "Spot" button, which activates the sidetone without transmitting. Most transmitters will activate the sidetone when the keyer is keyed, without transmitting, if Break-in and VOX are turned off. If the radio doesn't allow sidetone without transmit, it is unfortunately necessary to transmit while tuning in a station. A single "dah" should suffice. One should obviously try to minimise transmitting in this way, as it creates interference to those listening. Fortunately, the designers of late-model transceivers have addressed this problem.
My FT1000MP has a Spot switch, while my IC746 doesn't. On this radio, I use a footswitch for T/R control. When the receiver is on (i.e. I'm not stomping on the footswitch), I can just touch the paddle to hear the sidetone. The radio doesn't transmit until the footswitch is pressed.
Many transceivers offer variable sidetone pitch. Choose a sidetone that is comfortable to the ear. A lower tone is preferred, as it offers better discrimination between stations. To understand this statement, one must understand that musical pitch works by frequency ratios. An "octave" is defined by a 2:1 frequency ratio. The greater the difference in perceived pitch, the easier it is to distinguish between tones (or signals!). Let's assume that we are trying to listen to a station, and there are interfering signals only 500 Hz off frequency, on both sides. If we are using a 500 Hz sidetone, and we tune the desired signal correctly, the one interfering signal will be zero-beat (inaudible), while the other will be an octave above the desired signal. One will easily be able to hear the desired signal and mentally exclude the interference. If, on the other hand, we choose a sidetone frequency of 2 kHz, we will hear both interfering signals, and there will be less than three tones (or a quarter of an octave) of separation to help us mentally reject the interference.
In practice, a choice of 700 Hz or so is a good one. I would prefer to go down to 500 Hz, but my radios won't let me.
Where in the band?
When you start off on telegraphy, you will hear a bewildering array of machine-gun type Morse on the bands. Don't be intimidated. It's merely a question of practice, and just as a five-year-old eventually turns a daunting array of squiggles into a natural reading process, you can learn to understand Morse comfortably and effortlessly. It's merely a matter of practice and exposure.
In most cases, the speed merchants hang out in the first 25 kHz of each band. You will find big pileups there, and around 025 you will often hear long ragchews at breakneck speed.
However, as you move up the band, you will encounter more sedate QSOs, with people exchanging ideas about life, the universe and everything. This is where you will also find someone to talk to at your speed.
Some countries limit novices by law to frequencies high in the band. You will often find really slow chatting high in the band, perhaps above 28100 or 21100 kHz. Experienced operators with a philantropic side also often prowl high in the band, and provide excellent practice when they slow down to a novice's speed.
If you cannot find anyone who can maintain your speed, find a clear frequency. The first step is always, always, always to find out if the frequency is occupied. Someone may be transmitting, inaudible to you, and you may trample on top of the hapless listener if you start calling CQ. As you are bound to be one of the slower stations on the band, you will cause a huge amount of frustration.
On Phone, one should simply ask something like "Is this frequency in use?". On telegraphy, the term "QRL?" is used. Someone might respond "QRL", and you will have to move. If no-one responds within about two seconds, you should ask "QRL?" again, after which you can commence the CQ. Keep it relatively short, rather than a long, tedious CQ. You can always call again if there is no response. Emphasise your callsign, rather than the CQ. Everyone can recognise a CQ at first pass; your callsign is not so obvious. Example: CQ de ZS6EZ ZS6EZ CQ de ZS6EZ ZS6EZ K.
Send at a slightly slower speed than you can copy. Most operators are comfortable at a higher speed than you are, so they will tend to come back at a slightly higher speed than you're sending at. You must leave some headroom, otherwise you'll always find yourself unable to copy what's coming back.
What to say
At 12 wpm, you can say precious little in a QSO. However, you'll find that very little is said in most Phone QSOs too (especially on repeaters!), and by using abbreviations you can say things at a rate close to that of phone QSOs.
In a contest, most QSOs consist of a callsign sent once at 35 wpm and a number, also sent once at 35 wpm. That being the case, you have to accept that good operators do not require repetition, especially if signals are good. Do not say anything more than once, unless requested, or unless you are dealing with a poor or inexperienced operator or the other operator is not hearing your signals well.
If the operator asks for a repeat, you might decide to send things twice, as clearly the operator isn't hearing you clearly.
If you make a mistake, just send a string of dits (six or more), or "III" (i.e. di-dit di-dit di-dit). Then backtrack one word and continue.
Finally, try to learn to copy in your head, rather than writing everything down. Most experienced operators only jot down notes to enable them to respond to remarks, and make the necessary log entries (callsign, name, QTH and QSL information). Copying in your head frees you from the limitations imposed by your own writing speed, and is essential if you ever want to go beyond 20 wpm or so. Very few people can write at 35 wpm, yet that speed is commonplace on the air.
Relax, and get on the air. Pretty soon you'll find yourself enjoying it, and you'll find that the CW crowd is a lot more fun than the hooligans who often inhabit the Phone sub-bands. People who are prepared to work at something, are also people who have considered opinions and who can understand that not everyone will be as fascinated as they are by their inane chatter. They are generally to the point and often provide fascinating perspectives on things. You may just find that SSB holds less attraction for you in future, and you may never get onto your local repeater again!
Incidentally, while one hears a high percentage of "599"-type QSOs on the bands, ragchewing (or just chatting) is also an extremely satisfying pastime. As your proficiency grows, you'll find yourself able to sit back and enjoy a long QSO about this, that and the other thing. There are clubs (such as the FOC) that promote such operating, and their members and others can often be heard exchanging ideas at relatively high speed. I personally find myself out of my depth, as I cannot send good quality code for a long period, but I sometimes join in, and occasionally just listen. Besides, unlike on Phone, you can even have lunch while you're chatting...
I would even go as far as saying that the content of ragchew QSOs on Code is superior to that of typical Phone QSOs. Perhaps it's just that the kind of individual who will go to the effort to learn something like Morse code properly, is someone who will make more of an effort in other fields too, and acquire informed and considered opinions that are worth listening to. You might well find common interests, or discuss travels through the other guy's country, or even just personal experiences in operating, station construction or anything else.
If you continue growing, you may eventually be pleasantly surprised to find yourself nominated to one of the CW clubs. Apart from the FOC mentioned before, there is also a High Speed Club (HSC), as well as a VHSC and other derivatives. The FOC is originally British and the various HSC derivatives originally German, but all these organisations now have world-wide membership. Their activities also include much in-person fraternising, and you might well find that a few life-long friendships develop through this medium.
Don't let the magnitude of this list scare you off. Most of these abbreviations are very easy to remember once you've seen them, and you can probably master their use in an afternoon. You don't need to be able to use all of them. Any particular operator may only use a few of these, but you may hear all of them in your lifetime. As long as you can recognise them, you're fine.
ABT about AF Africa AGN again ANT antenna AS Asia B4 before BK break, back BN been, being BND band BTW by the way C correct, yes (Spanish "si"!) CBA Callbook address CFM confirm CL callsign (also used as ending signal: Clear) CLG callsign, calling CONDX conditions (propagation) CPI copy CPY copy CS callsign CU see you CUL see you later CUZ because DCT direct DE this is DWN down DX distance EL element(s) ES and EU Europe FB fine business (used by old fogies and non-native English speakers) FER for FM from FU I don't agree (you may hear this; don't use it!) GA good afternoon, go ahead GD good day, good GE good evening GL good luck GM good morning GUD good HI laughter (sometimes sent HEE) HLO hello HNY happy new year (often used in December!) HR here HRD heard HV have HW how LID poor operator LP long path MX merry Christmas (often used in December!) NA North America NW now OC Oceania (i.e. Australia and environs) OM old man (used by old fogies and non-native English speakers) OP operator (e.g. Op Chris) PAC Pacific PIX pictures PSE please PWR power R roger (i.e. "everything understood"), decimal comma (3R503) RCV receive RCVR receiver RGR roger RPT repeat, report RPRT report RST signal report (readability, signal strength, tone) RX receiver SA South America SP short path STN station SUM some TEST contest TMW tomorrow TNX thanks TU thank you TX transmitter UR your, you're VY very WL will WRK work WX weather XCVR transceiver XYL wife YDY yesterday YDAY yesterday YL young lady (i.e. girl friend, woman) YR year, your YRS years, yours = dah-di-di-di-dah, used as a pause to collect thoughts
QRM Man-made interference QRN Natural interference (static etc.) QRQ Send faster QRS Send more slowly (very useful for beginning telegraphists!) QRT Stop transmitting QRU I have nothing more for you QRZ? Who is calling me? QSL? Do you acknowledge receipt? QSL I acknowledge receipt (could also refer to QSL cards) QSY Move frequency QTH My location is...
These ending signals are sent as one character, not as separate letters. Example: [SK] and [VA] are the same thing (sent as one string, di-di-di-dah-di-dah).
[AS] Stand by K Go ahead (anybody) [KN] Go ahead (only one area or station) [AR] End of message [SK] Signing off
The RST system uses three digits and a possible suffix.
R is readability. 1 is uncopiable, 5 is effortless copy.
S is signal strength. 1 is puny weak, 9 is plenty loud.
T is tone. One does not often hear anything but T9 these days.
599 is the best possible signal.
339 is hard to copy, and weak.
489 is strong, but hard to copy (either distorted or QRM?)
There are also suffixes that can be appended to RST, such as X for crystal-type tone, C for chirp. The C is the only one still in common use, but not many signals warrant a C these days.
Because reports on CW are often 599, and a 9 takes forever to send, the 9 is normally abbreviated to N. Examples: 56N, 5NN.
In other numbers, 0 is often abbreviated to T. Example: Pwr 1TT W.
Please let me know if you use this tutorial. I'd love to know if there is something that needs more clarification, or that needs to be re-written.
Some example QSOs
CQ de ZS6EZ CQ de ZS6EZ K
ZS6EZ de ZS4TX ZS4TX [KN]
ZS4TX DE ZS6EZ GM = TU fer cl = Name Chris QTH Pretoria = RST 599 = Hw cpi? ZS4TX de ZS6EZ [KN]
ZS6EZ DE ZS4TX TU Chris = RST 599 plus = Name Bernie QTH Bloemfontein = Nice meet u fer 1st time = Ant 3 el Yagi up 30 m = Pwr 100 W = Wx hr fb temp 30 C = ZS6EZ de ZS4TX [KN]
ZS4TX de ZS6EZ Name agn? BK
BK Bernie Bernie BK
BK Thanks Bernie = Sri had QRM = Hr 2 el up 22 m es 1TT W = Wish I had ur 3 el = hr no space fer big ants = Wx hr also fine temp 26 C = hv bn ham 1 yr, still getting used to cw = condx rotten past few days = hv hrd vy few stns on 40 m = only sum W6 on LP b4 sunset = hvnt had much luck wrking them tho = ok must run hv to do sum chores arnd house = 73 cul bernie [AR] ZS4TX de ZS6EZ [SK] CL
ZS6EZ de ZS4TX OK Chris = Yes 3 el lot of fun = Wrk W6 on LP all the time = Condx rotten hr too but wrked FO stn on SP at sunset = OK 73 tnx QSO es QSL via buro = ZS6EZ de ZS4TX [SK]
Notice how the term "BK" was used to quickly pass the transmission back to the other station.
Example 2 (a directional CQ):
CQ Oc de ZS6EZ CQ Oc de ZS6EZ ZS6EZ Oc [KN]
CQ Oc de ZS6EZ CQ Oc de ZS6EZ ZS6EZ Oc [KN]
IK1XYZ pse qrt ur not in Oc = CQ Oc de ZS6EZ CQ Oc de ZS6EZ ZS6EZ Oc [KN]
Example 3 (a complete contest-style QSO):
CQ ZS4TX ZS4TX TEST
TU ZS4TX TEST
In contests, ending signals, the "DE" and other niceties are generally dispensed with. Notice how the example QSO includes no ending signals, and no instances of the "DE" signal.
Example 4 (planning for your first QSO):
For your first few QSOs, write down everything you are going to send, in advance. When the other stations sends, just write down what he/she is sending. Keep the abbreviation list handy. Don't get too adventurous initially; just stick to the standard script until you find your feet. Here is a suggested first QSO:
CQ de ZS6XYZ ZS6XYZ K
ZS--- de ZS6XYZ GM = Name Bill QTH Pretoria = RST 599 = Hr vy nervous cuz my 1st QSO on CW HI = ZS--- de ZS6XYZ [KN]
ZS--- de ZS6XYZ OK --- = Cpied all OK = Hr dipole es 100 W = 73 tu QSO es pse QSL via buro = ZS--- de ZS6XYZ [SK]
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