Why learn CW?

Learning morse code is regrettably no longer required for radio amateurs to gain access to the High Frequency radio spectrum, at least in most of Europe. As morse's detractors are quick to point out, in wealthy countries it is also no longer used by professional radio operators, although in parts of Eastern Europe and the developing world, it remains extensively used. However, for the average radio amateur interested in working DX and in contests, CW remains an essential skill - not least as an antidote to extreme boredom during the solar minimum. While CW is an effective DX mode for all shapes and sizes of station, for the 'typical' European station with a barefoot transceiver and the sort of constrained urban location permitting only wire antennas or verticals, CW is an order of magnitude more effective than even RF clipped SSB. For stations even more constrained in power - for example UK Foundation Licensees limited to 10 Watts output, the difference is even more stark. In a solar minimum it is, bluntly, the difference between working shed loads of DX on 30 and 40 metres and struggling even to make inter-European contacts in the Dante-esque piece of spectrum that is 40 metres after dark.

I found a wonderful list of reasons why CW is special while browsing the internet recently. I'm not sure who the author is, but here it is:

Although it has been argued that PSK is more effective overall, and undoubtedly is in many circumstances, in casual operation morse operators are generally friendlier and more community-focused. How many PSK31 contacts have you had recently where you did much more than press the first three function keys on your computer? On 40 metres during the day, and 80 at night, ragchewing is the norm rather than exception on CW.

For many non-English speaking amateurs, moreover, it is much easier to learn how to handle a basic CW QSO than it is to learn how to pronounce English correctly!

I know what you're saying now - "Gerry, I couldn't possibly learn The Scary Morse Code (TM). It's too dificult!" Fair enough - is does take time and effort to learn morse - but then again doesn't anything worthwhile in life! You will not switch your rig on at the end of two weeks learning CW and feel happy making QSOs. However, most people greatly over-estimate the amount of effort required to learn morse.

To give you an example - when I was studying for my radio exams, I started memorising the alphabet in June in a very casual way. In early November, I had my first 'under-supervision' QSO at about 5 words a minute, and it was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life! However, the operator at the other end knew exactly how I felt and was patient with me (thanks to IK2GGP!!!). From then on, I was addicted. I made a significant number of CW QSOs in the ARRL 10 Metres DX Contest in December. By early March, I made over 800 QSOs in the ARRL DX CW contest and was running pile-ups with my club station's special prefix (the only GN6 prefix in the world!!!) And I was working more DX, and having more fun, than I'd ever had on SSB.

In the past, morse used to be taught to ensure people passed the 12 wpm exam to get access to HF. This was rather a pity - morse should be taught to help people use it on the air. As most of you reading this will already have access to HF without morse, that's exactly how you should use it. Instead of these bloody awful computer programmes which send random letters and help no-one, use morse on the air. Before you're ready to actually stick out a CQ call, find places where you can copy CW repeatedly. Beacons are a good place to start, as are those funny little beeps on your local repeater. You will hear the same things over and over again. Find stations calling CW - they will repeat their callsigns over and over again! Find slower stations on the bands and copy what you can - don't worry if you don't copy 100%. They will repeat their names and locations at least once.

...you might see a pattern here!

There's nothing like listening to CW to wet your appetite to use it. The first time you hear that LU station on 20 metres long after the band has closed when all you can hear on SSB are scratchy sounds, you'll know what I mean!

Find an experienced morse operator who would be happy to help you - most of us are delighted to help people learn morse, and you can always give me an e-mail to arrange a sked if you want. Once you're copying rubber stamp QSOs on the bands, find a sympathetic amateur and go on and get your first CW QSO in the log. After a few of those you'll be calling CQ, working the DX and having a ball.

Finally, I find there are a number of questions which come up repeatedly when people enquire about learning CW. I'll try my best to answer them here.

How long does it take to learn the Scary Morse Code Code (TM)?
Well, after 14 years, I'm still learning morse! But if you want to know how long it takes to know it well enough to use on the bands - if you practise intensely maybe twice a week, with a few revision sessions and listen to CW actually being used on the bands for fun, I reckon somewhere between 3 and 6 months, maybe 9 at the outside, to be able to have a 'rubber stamp' QSO on the bands. Remember, you can have fun learning CW on the bands - in listening around you will unearth lots of DX and other interesting stuff (Russian naval stations, North Korean spy stations and all those strange beacons on 7.038).

If, after about 3 months, you aren't making progress at all, there are two possibilities.

Firstly, your learning method might not suit you - try abandoning the little computer programme which sends you random letters! More seriously, seek advice from experienced morse operators, and if someone is helping you, see if they know someone with a different style of teaching and using morse, who might be more attuned to how you learn. We do all learn differently.

Secondly, you might simply lack confidence - this is common! If you are copying basic QSOs but don't feel your morse is up to scratch - you are almost certainly wrong!!! Get your ass on the bands and have a QSO or two - it's a bit like jumping into the sea - once you get in the water is lovely.

But I still make a lot of mistakes?
So??? I still make a lot of mistakes too. Don't worry - morse ops understand what it's like at the beginning. We've all been there. And we all still make mistakes. Don't worry. Have a wee whisky and stick out that CQ call!

How fast to I need to be to get on the bands?
5 words per minute is fine to start with. If the other guy is too fast for you, simply ask him to "QRS QRS PSE NEW CW OP HR" and 95% of operators will slow down to your speed. The other 5% are lids anyway. You don't need to worry about them.

Particularly if you have a former VHF only callsign - say a G7 or G8 in England, an ED in Spain or a DB or DG in Germany, most operators will expect you to be new to CW, and the same applies to Novice Prefixes like the M3 prefixes in England. If you have a former VHF only prefix and operate CW, you will also be very popular with prefix chasers.

Believe it or not, once you are on the air your speed will improve dramatically and without any special effort. If you are making QSOs at 5 wpm, most people find their speed improves just by being on the air and having fun until they hit another plateau around the 18-25 wpm mark. Really. I'm not making this up.

Another odd thing is that contesting is good for your speed once you get started. I wouldn't make my first ever ontact in a contest, but after a few weeks dive in and make some QSOs. Contest exchanges are predictable and stations will be repeating their callsigns a lot. You'll also work some choice DX.

Should I use a paddle or a straight key?
Start with a straight key. Using a paddle is a skill in its own right, and while you'll probably want to learn it sometime - especially if you do a lot of ragchewing or a lot of contesting, it's best to leave it until you're comfortable with the mode.

Does CW make that much difference to what you can work?
Yes. Do you want to compare my logbook on 40 metres (100 Watts, Dipole) with yours? Remember, we're in a solar minimum so 40 and 30 are the bands to be on! 30 is CW/Digital only and 40 SSB is hell.

Any final words of wisdom?
Yes, the great high one of morse says chill out, relax, get listening and don't fear the first QSO. Once you make it, the path to serious ham radio fun is wide open!

Oh, yes, and if you want a slow morse sked or would like me to send practice stuff on the air, e-mail me at . And good luck. See you on the bands.


Click here to go back. Last updated 3 January 2005.