Chris Kantarjiev
Previous call: KG6VYD

Some things I've discovered about learning and operating CW

This page is about my CW activities. You can find out about my other radio activities at a companion page. There's a huge amount of material to digest when it comes to learning a new language, and this is my attempt to capture some of the things that baffled and confused me in the process of learning Morse Code as used in the amateur radio world.

Learning Morse Code Again I learned Morse Code for the first time in 1971. When I finally got my ham ticket in 2004, I didn't think I'd be interested in progressing past Technician - but it happened. I wanted to do DX, which meant I needed (at least) a General license. Which meant learning code - only 5WPM, and the requirement will probably go away (the ITU has already removed it, but the FCC may not act on it until 2006). I didn't really mind, much - learning code and communicating on CW seem to be a good link to the origins of the hobby, even if I didn't expect to do it much. Little did I know.

These links were promising:
Koch Method
Koch Method, again
Morse Code Device
Improved Morse Code Device
Software Koch Method CW Trainer
Just Learn Morse Code (Koch method)
A Fully Automatic Morse Code Teaching Machine (for Linux)

I used G4FON's Koch Method trainer for about 3 weeks, then took a long hiatus due to travel. I had started out at 20/15 as recommended, but found it very frustrating - I was learning the alphabet, couldn't write fast enough, couldn't concentrate ... so I dropped back to 20/7. My reasoning was that I'd still be learning the sound of the characters at 20wpm, but had enough 'think time' to react and write. This allowed me to make reasonable progress without getting frustrated. When I resumed, I had lost about 5 characters. Then I was much more diligent, making myself practice 15 minutes/day. I found I was able to learn one or two characters per day. After I knew the entire alphabet, I started going through practice QSOs, random word lists, and the W1AW Morse practice (which are at 15/5). I took the test in December 2005, and passed with no problems! The prosigns still gave me problems, and I counted for some of the numbers, but getting on the air seemed to be the key for really learning.

Operating CW A little listening to the bands made it clear that 20/7 isn't sufficient for real operating - I couldn't copy most of what I hear! I went back to Koch practice at 20/20... it's effective, but sort of boring to keep studying. I want to make contacts! That required understanding a lot more than what was required to pass the test.

So far, the emphasis had been on receiving. I really didn't understand a lot about sending. One of the Koch text files has sample QSOs. It's targeted at passing the US 5WPM test, but is also a reasonable introduction to what a real QSO sounds like. The pattern is much the same, and the samples don't use enough abbreviations to simulate real life, but it's a place to start. Learning the abbreviations and Q codes and various other tricks takes a little time: Rod AC6V has a nice collection of operating aids.

I began hanging out on 40m, trolling the Novice bands and the QRP watering holes for contacts. Sending CQ at 5W or less, at 7WPM or so, didn't get me a lot of results, but a few. Struggling with my antenna didn't help! But listening to what was happening on the air was very important. I could find copyable traffic between 7.025 and 7.040 every night - even if I didn't immediately understand the exchanges.

I also started digging out some more articles. Even though I was not a Novice, I was certainly a novice, and wanted to learn what I could from those who had been there before me:

The ARRL devotes very little ink to CW in the printed Operating Manual, but they provide this article on the website. Worth reading as a quick overview.

Your Novice Accent is relatively ancient. It was written by Keith Williams W6DTY and appeared in the November 1956 QST. The tone is friendly but disgruntled, and some of it is rather dated (not too many people worry about heating up the filaments today, and we no longer tend to haunt a single, crystal-controlled frequency), but most of the advice here is right on the money. It's worth noting that even in this day of synthesized all-in-one transceivers, there are still crystal-controlled rigs on the air, mostly QRP homebrewers - so please do "listen around" a bit! With modern rigs, "zero beating" is easier than ever - but seems to be a lost art - one well worth learning.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with a "novice accent". It does make QSOs more cumbersome - too many words and too slow a speed - but spend some time on the air and you'll lose it. This page is aimed at that - and at helping understand the shorthands and procedures that you'll hear on the air and be confused by. At least, I found them confusing at first! So this is all about aiding the learning process.

Dan KB6NU has done some updates to "Your Novice Accent" and published them here.

A Basic CW Operating Manual and A Beginner's Guide to Making CW Contacts are particularly nice introductions and summaries of what you need to know to make successful QSOs - aside from decent band conditions. I had thoughts of writing an update to the "Novice Accent" article until I found these two - now I see that it's been done, and better than I would have.

You'll notice that there are slight differences in the procedures described in these articles - do you end your answer to a CQ with AR or K? do you send the answer R before or after the call signs? why bother even sending the call signs at the beginning of every round? - and that's part of the joy of CW: it really is a language, with accents and conventions and idioms, some of which change over time. But it can be frustrating at first, too. My advice? Don't fret about it too much, get on the air, and make some Qs. You'll figure it out.

Abbreviations CW is about being efficient, so abbreviations abound, and they probably become a separate language for many. They are well-covered in many places on the web, but I'll just point out a few that are more ore less "standard":
ES And
MSG Message
UR Your
HR Here
NR Number
TNX Thanks
PSE Please
FB Fine Business
AGN Again

A few more are like those used by kids on cell phones: FB, for example, is a sure indicator of a 50's or 60's Novice (or someone who was elmer'd by one :-). CUL, BCNU and BTU occasionally show up. It is common for hams to make them up on the fly:

Leave out one of more (or all) vowels. HERE becomes HR, NOW leaves NW, etc. It tends to work best for words not exceeding 5 or so letters.
Any need for any form involving YOU becomes U. Thus YOUR = UR.
The hard "CH" becomes K.
Sometimes you can leave of the trailing syllables or letters as in SKED.
"Thanks" is a bit interesting. In the 40's and 50's, "Thanks" was abbreviated TKS. That faded somewhat and seems to have been replaced by TNX. That too has seen less use more recently and TU has taken over - one less letter.

Another common abbreviation scheme is cut numbers. The Morse numbers are the longest symbols, so naturally we hams have figured a way to make them shorter (it was probably the telegraphers, but who knows?). Common ones are

N = 9
T = 0
A = 1
U = 2
and the rest are
V = 3
E = 5
B = 7
D = 8
"599" is probably part of a novice accent - "5NN" is much more common. There are others - the letter O is sometimes used for zero, and some folks use "B" for "6" ... not necessarily a good practice!

Rod AC6V has a very complete collection of abbreviations here.

Now, a few words about procedural signals or prosigns. They are formed by running together two characters into one (without the intercharacter space) to make an abbreviation. They are typically written with a bar over them, but I will put them in [] brackets: [AR].
[AR] Strictly speaking, [AR] means "end of message, more to follow". In rag chewing, it is sometimes used just before handing the QSO back to the other guy. More often than not, though, people will either just send the call signs and K, or end with HW? There is also a subtle distinction between using [AR] and K during the initial call to a station, but no one seems to use it on the air.
[SK] Again, in commercial practice, [SK] means "end of transmission, nothing to follow and no reply needed," or loosely, "that was my last message." Ham practice is to use it when signing off with someone, and it used to indicate that you were going to continue operating. That led to...
[SK] [CL] for "end of transmission nothing to follow and I'm closing station." and it appears that the subleties of this are completely arcane today, as is the decision about whether to put this before or after the call signs.
DE "From" or "This is", typically used between the called callsign and the caller's callsign. Nowadays, it is often left out, particularly in contest exchanges.
K Not really a formal prosign, it means "Over" or "go ahead" and is often used where might be more strictly correct.
[AS] "Just a moment" Voice ops have the prowords "wait" (a short wait, a minute max, keep monitoring) and "wait out" (a longer wait, I'll initiate a new call). [AS] is the equivalent of "wait"; there is no common CW prosign for "wait out".
[IMI] Repeat last, or "I will repeat last". More often, you will hear "AGN?" or sometimes just "?".
[BT] Commercially, it separated the address of a message from the text and the text from the signature. It still does in ARRL radiogram format. Hams use it as a double dash, or period, or a paragraph marker, or a sign that he's not dead, just thinking of what to say next. When sent with a bug or straight key, the dashes tend to get veryelongated.
[BK] Officially, "break - reply to my last and then I will continue." Hams often use it to indicate a turnaround in the QSO without a callsign signature. Sometimes misused in contest exchanges. Sometimes not run together as a single sign.

Lastly, a few words on the ubiquitous Q-Signals. You certainly know QTH and QSO. You want to know QRS. You should know QSY. You can find "More than you ever wanted to know about Q-Signals" here. They are, for the most part, an ITU standard (!) and it is important to understand that each Q-signal is a question/answer pair. In most cases, the answer form is an affirmative answer to the question, or a request. For example, "QRS?" means "Shall I send more slowly?" and the answer form means "Send more slowly (... wpm)".

We've also adjusted the meanings in some cases. We'll send "QRX 1" meaning "wait a minute, I'll be right back" (instead of [AS]), when QRX really has parameters and formally means "I will call you again at {UTC} on {freq}". The question form means "When will you call me again?"

And we've verbified, adjectified and nounified Q signals. People will sometimes ask "What's his QSX?" meaning "What frequency is he listening to?" QRP has become synonymous with low-power operation and has a nounified form, "I like QRP" and is also used as an adjective in "The KX1 is a QRP rig".

DX contacts tend to be a lot more abbreviated:
hk1fdx qrz? Arguably, HK1FDX is calling QRZ? because someone else called him, so you shouldn't answer this unless you were the one that called. If you weren't the one who called him, it's generally polite etiquette to NOT call until you give the original calling station a chance to try to get through.

That's the textbook situation, of course. But he might just be announcing his presence. If you call and he misses part of your callsign, he'll likely send "AGN" rather than "QRZ?" or some portion of your call with "?". (His goal at this point is to weed out some of the pileup.)

k6dbg Once is enough. Even if the other station can't copy completely, send your call once and let him tell you if he needs a repeat.
k6dbg de hk1fdx ur rst is 599 bk In fact, his likely reply would be just "K6DBG 5NN" especially if he is rare (Colombia isn't that rare) or an expedition.
r de k6dbg ur rst is 599 tu Or, just, "R 5NN TU".
If you have no reason to think that the other station has any difficulty copying your CW (he said 599, after all), you probably don't need to send your info more than once. He'll ask if he needs a repeat, and that will also give you an idea of how well he really can copy you (or your fist).
hk1fdx tu qrz? Or, just, "TU".
. . .and often, that's enough right there, especially if the DX has some kind of pileup going. At this point, bedlam would ensue on his QSX (which you wouldn't hear if working split).

Some DX operators like to collect names and QTHs, though, and if you're paying attention, you can volunteer yours, which is usually appreciated on the other end. The DX often gives the name and QTH himself, which is a rather strong clue, if you're listening to the previous QSO, which is pretty normal for all but the most common of DX:

hk1fdx qrz?
k6dbg
k6dbg de hk1fdx ur rst is 599 [bk]
r rst is 599 qth CA op chris de k6dbg tu
r name is bob qth is cartahena cartahena tu hk1fdx cq cq de hk1fdx k
Note that he sent his QTH twice, courteously, since it is an unusual spelling for us Nortenos...

Occasionally, a DX QSO will go something like this:

HS1FJ
K6DBG
K6DBG 5NN SKIP IN KORAT HW?
DE K6DBG HI SKIP 5NN CHRIS NR SAN FRANCISCO K
HI CHRIS WX SUNNY 36C TNX QSO 73
R HR SUNNY 21C TNX QSO GL ES 73 K6DBG
First off, it's considered good form not to repeat his call every transmission, at least with a DX station. It wastes time, and attracts QRM! FCC rules state that you sign your call at the end of a QSO and at 10 minute intervals if the QSO lasts longer than 10 minutes. You don't ever have to send the call of the station you are working to remain legal, nor do you have to send your call on every transmission although we all tend to do so. (Well ... Leigh WA5ZNU points out that "never" is too strong - it's "almost never". The rule in question is 97.115(c).)

It is rare to have a long rag chew with a DX station.

Contest exchanges are even more abbreviated

cq cq test de hk1fdx k
k6dbg
k6dbg 599 k
tu 599 tu
tu
cq cq test de hk1fdx k

except that there will be a "pileup" in response to the original CQ, where 15 ops send their calls at the same time! The game is to listen for your call coming back - at that point, send in a brief signal report (which seems to always be 599 in contests) followed by "thank you". When the OM sends TU, he's fair game again - there may be another pileup of calls or he may call CQ.

Note: I get to hear him send my call once. That's my chance to correct it. He never gets to hear me send his call at all in this style of exchange. Some contests ( NAQP, for example) would look more like
NA K6DBG NA
K6DGW
K6DGW CHRIS CA
K6DBG R TU FRED CA
R TU K6DBG NA
Here, we each get a chance to correct a busted call once. Most contests assess a greater penalty for a busted call than a busted exchange, so it's important to both sides to get it right. Naturally, variants on this abound, including exchanges which include no call signs at all from the caller. In that case, you never know if he got your call right.

I find this one particularly friendly from a station who is "running" - he's sitting on a frequency and taking all comers
K3PH
K6DBG
K6DBG 559 PA BOB K6BDG K
559 CA CHRIS TU
K3PH
This is one fewer turnarounds, but I get to hear my call twice just to make sure he got it right. Very efficient. (Hmm, must be a QRP contest, note the 559 signal report!)

Never send the data more than once - he'll ask if he needs a fill. In a contest, use TU as an acknowledgement of your receipt of his info and (at the same time) a note of thanks. Send TU once he's sent his info to you, then send your info. If you've already sent him your info and now he sends his back to you, use TU to complete the QSO and then either call CQ again, or move (if it's his frequency). "R R R" is not required and any more than a single "R" is superfluous regardless.

Contests are really good practice. The code goes by very fast (25WPM or more), but the exchange is very formalized and I've found that it provides good ear training. Stations will sit on a frequency and collect calls for a while, so you can take the time to pick out the call one letter at a time... and then dive in. Most ops will slow down when they hear your slow call, but even if they don't, you can likely recognize your own call at high speed...

Every contest has its own stylized exchange format. Some require you to send an ever-increasing serial number; this is made easier with automated contest software, but you can just keep track on your notepad. It breaks everyone's rhythm if you don't understand the exchange; that's more annoying to someone who's "on the run" on a frequency than is slowing down for you. Listen carefully, or find the contest's web page for the details.

If you want to get your feet wet in contest exchanges without risking it on the air, give the Morse Runner contest simulator a try. Rufz is another great training tool that uses call signs and varying speed to help with memry copying (especially of callsigns).

One comment of note regarding contests and DX: it is often the case that the station is running "split", listening on a different frequency than sending. This is in an attempt to "bust through" the pileups. (This is an art in itself, and there are entire books devoted to "being the DX".)

He will indicate this by
cq cq test up 1 de hk1fdx k
indicating that he is listening 1kHz higher than sending. You will have to figure out how to use your receiver's SPLIT, RIT or XIT feature to make a successful contact ... just one more little thing that makes this game fun! Whatever you do, please do not transmit your call back on his sending frequency in this case.

Sending My first rig was an Elecraft KX-1 with the KXPD1 paddles, so my first sending experience was using paddles and a keyer. Some might say that this is backwards - that novices should start with a straight key and work their way up to fancier devices - but I found that the paddles helped me develop a sense of timing in my sending that would have been much more difficult with a straight key. Using the paddles and keyer, I very quickly got a sense of what the characters should sound like as I sent them. This seems to me to reinforce the ideas behind the Koch method, that you are learning the sounds, not the dits and dahs.

There are lots of tricks that you can do with an iambic keyer: Iambic Sending; and some controversy as to whether or not they're worth it: Iambic Keying - Debunking the Myth. Personally, I'm not going to worry about it until my speed is considerably faster. I have to do far too much thinking at this point as it is. I find that paddles and a keyer make my sending much more readable, even if it lacks some of the "personality" of an individual fist. My brain and hand aren't yet fully connected in this regard - I will occasionally find myself surprised by what I hear in the sidetone while sending - my fingers did the right thing but my ears expected something else!

Continuing education Many hams were generous enough to respond to my slow, weak signal. I've had many pleasant QSOs - some longer rag chews which are great practice, some very short contest exchanges that are challenging in a different way. A number of contacts have suggested getting involved in FISTS, the International Morse Preservation Society. I joined, and have signed up for the Code Buddy program, but have not yet found a code buddy to practice with regularly. I have found a few brave souls who are willing to set up regular "skeds" with me, but scheduling and band conditions fail to materialize QSOs more often than not!

Chuck K7QO offers his Word-a-Day Code Course via FISTS. This provides a different way to improve code skills - I'm finding that it's great to have many different approaches to the problem. (I host a copy of the ISO here.)

The ARRL provides code practice and qualifying runs on W1AW. The Code Practice files are also available online. My Morse Code mentor, Glen NN6T suggests downloading a bunch of them, and trying to copy from the highest speed (40 WPM!) downward, to "train" the brain to pick out the letter groups...

Howard AC4FS has taken on the task of converting the Edgar Rice Burroughs John Carter of Mars books to CW. These are all out of copyright, and have been scanned in and edited by Project Gutenberg. You can find a teaser from the first book, A Princess of Mars, here.

Simon AA9PW provides a Morse Code Practice Page that converts newsfeeds from a variety of online news sources into Morse Code at various speeds - never boring!

I took AA9PW's idea one step further and provide a set of streaming feeds that play recent headlines (and other goodies) at varying speeds. This allows me to have a slowly-changing set of files playing in the background whenever I'm working at the computer; the intent is that I should slowly learn to do head-copy of Morse just as I do unconscious head-copy of English conversations that are near me. (If you'd like to replicate what I did, you can grab most of the relevant files here. My setup is running on an OpenBSD machine - you'll need to have a reasonable amount of Unix experience to get it going.)

Bill NN9U wrote a great article for the January 2009 QST entitled "Morse Code: Efficient of Over the Hill?". He included several tables of common words and sequences of characters that can be used to learn to recognize groups of letters, rather than concentrating on single letters. One of the streaming feeds plays those tables at different speeds.

The RadioTelegraphy Net has a large collection of CW-oriented links. Some are mentioned on this page, but many more are not - hours of fun.

Morse Runner is a great (windows) program for practicing higher speed reception - especially if you want to participate in contests. Operation may be a little baffling to a newbie, since there is no real documentation of what a contest exchange is like, but see the section above for some clues...

Making Qs It seems that much of the CW activity on the air takes place between 15 and 25 WPM - folks will slow down for the occasional QSO with me, but many of my calls go unanswered (some of that is certainly QRP, some is the understandable lack of desire to take 5 minutes to send your name :-). So I went looking for slow-code watering holes of one sort or another.

The 3905 Century Club is an on-the-air club oriented towards earning WAS. They sponsor two slow-speed CW nets on the weekend (on 40m and 80m) as well as a number of faster ones throughout the week. I've found them extremely pleasant and a good way to get practice.

The Straight Key Century Club is more about straight keys (and bugs) than slow code, but the interested parties are mostly interested in making contacts! So there's a good opportunity for practice, much of it slow, on the SKCC frequencies. The associated Yahoo! group has frequent (and sometimes heated) discussions about operating procedures...

FISTS sponsors some slow speed nets, but I never manage to hear them in W6 land. The FISTS calling frequencies are often "guarded" by FISTS members looking for contacts, so it's a good place to call CQ...

Sending Devices I've been "collecting" keys - not to collect, per se, but to try out and understand the differences. My first experience was the KXPD1 paddles on the Elecraft KX1, so they seemed normal to me. When I got my K2, I needed a set of paddles, and bought the Palm Mini Paddles. The Palm paddles are very nice, though I never came up with a mounting that made me happy - I mostly held them in place with my left hand.
Then I went crazy and got a Nye Speed-X straight key and a 1923 Vibroplex Bug (yes, that very one, I bought it from Eric). I built a practice oscillator into an Altoids box (Eric KE6US recommended the "shaped CPO" from Jackson Harbor Press) and have the bug, the CPO and the SK on my desk at work where I can practice. The bug is hard, even with a trombone-style dot tamer from 3/16" brass tubing.
Finally, I got a really good deal on a Schurr Profi (it appears to be a Profi, not Profi 2), and have been using that as my main K2 key.
I really understand why people like the Schurr so much - the action is very crisp (even though the clicking of the contacts is a little distracting). The Palm paddles are fine, but suffer by comparison (I think that what I don't like is the flexibility in the paddle handles). And I now have trouble with the KXPD1 - they feel numb and require a more forceful touch than I've gotten used to. That said, I still find them compelling when considered with the complete KX1 package...

Thanks to Tom N0SS for his careful review of and comments on this page, and to Fred K6DGW for his perspective and coaching.

If you've read this far, you must really love CW. Consider buying yourself a mug with your callsign which will support The International Morse Preservation Society.

Last updated Mar 11 2013 by cak