Navy Radioman School – 50 Years Ago

It’s hard to believe, but a half-century has gone by since I graduated from Navy Radioman School. The Navy decided that the 18-year-old kid was ready to do this radio stuff for real. 

U.S. Navy Radioman Patch

Following three months of boot camp, the Navy transferred me to the U.S. Navy Training Center in Bainbridge, Maryland. USNTC Bainbridge was not the most glamorous place. The barracks were run-down, World War II-vintage wooden structures with a cockroach problem. 

I still remember my first day in Radioman school. The instructor gave us a sheet of paper and told us to memorize it. It was the Morse alphabet with the sound of each character. (A = DID-DAH, B = DAH-DI-DI-DIT, and so on). I also took a typing test. Fortunately, I had a typing course in high school and was able to test out of the typing training. The non-typers had to attend an after-hours crash course in touch typing.

Early on, our training focused on CW. As I recall, the requirement back then was 10 WPM, sending and receiving. The CW training also covered messaging handling, logging, and net procedures. Looking back, I think focusing on CW 8 hours a day for a few weeks was a great way to learn it. Plus, I was getting paid to do it!

We did all of our CW copying on a mill. A mill was a manual typewriter will all caps. After I got out of the Navy, I had to re-train myself to copy with a pencil since I had never done that before.

Over time, we moved on to a variety of other topics. We learned about the radio equipment we would likely be using. Radio-teletype was the primary communications mode for the fleet back then, so we also had to learn that equipment.

My diploma from Navy Radioman A School in March of 1971.
My diploma from Navy Radioman A School in March of 1971.

We spent the last week of school standing radio watches in a simulated shipboard radio room. This part of the course was called the PRAC-DECK. We set up radio circuits and sent and received message traffic. To make things interesting, the instructor would inject some equipment issues for us to troubleshoot. 

On my first mid-watch (night shift), the instructor said I had to learn the most important skill I would need out in the fleet. That skill turned out to be making coffee in one in one of those 25-cup percolators. I ran into that instructor a few years later. He laughed when I reminded him about that lesson. I told him he was right about a pot of coffee being necessary for communications. 

All in all, it was an interesting four months. Fifty years later, I’m still using the CW I learned back then. 

73, Craig WB3GCK

If It’s Metal, Load It Up!

On one of the several ham radio mailing lists I subscribe to, there was some recent discussion about unusual antennas. You know—bed springs, light bulbs, and the like. It brought to mind a memorable QSO I had 27 years ago.

In the July 1993 issue of QSTRod Newkirk W9BRD (later VA3ZBB, now SK) wrote an article about building small, multi-turn loop antennas[1]. If his name doesn’t ring a bell for you, Rod wrote the “How’s DX?” column in QST from 1947 to 1978 and coined the term, “Elmer.” 

Although I never actually built one of Rod’s loops, I found the article fascinating. At the end of the article, Rod noted that he conducted his loop antenna experiments in the partially-underground cellar of his Chicago home. Remarkable!

Fast-forward to September 1993. I went downstairs to my basement shack one evening and fired up my old MFJ-9030 on 30M CW. I had three QSOs that night; one of them was with—you guessed it—W9BRD. 

During our QSO, Rod mentioned that he was using one of his experimental mini-loops indoors in his shack. When I told him I was running 5 watts into my rainspout, he sent back, “Hey, if it’s metal, load it up.” According to my log, we chatted for about 12 minutes before signing.

Needless to say, that contact put a smile on my face. It was the kind of QSO I really enjoy—one with a station using an unusual set-up or operating in a unique location. I guess you could say this QSO checked both of those boxes. Not to mention that I had just worked a very well-known figure in Amateur Radio.

QSL card from W9BRD documenting our unusual QSO in 1993.
QSL card from W9BRD documenting our unusual QSO in 1993.

I fired off a QSL card to Rod to acknowledge our QSO and to let him know that I enjoyed his loop article. Before too long, I received a card back from Rod. His typewritten note on the back of the card continued the theme of our QSO. It read, in part: “Hey, if your XYL uses gold or silver thread for that needlepoint, let’s try loading it up, Craig.” He also wrote about his experiences with rainspout antennas, including his attempt to feed a particularly stubborn one.

Rear of W9BRD's QSL card: DR OB Craig -- Hey, if your XYL uses god or silver thread for that needlepoint, let's try loading it up, Craig. Thanks for your gratifying "Shrinker" comments. Rainspouts have been kind to me, too. All except one which was a 40-meter halfwave grounded at one end. Totally anti-resonant on 40 and 20. NO WAY could I get power into it. Not bad on 80, though, shunt fed. Take cre -- CUL -- VY 73 . . . . Rod
Rear of W9BRD’s QSL card

From articles I have read, it’s clear that Rod had a penchant for assembling and experimenting with unusual antennas. His daughter, Amanda, once wrote: “He especially loved discovering how much of a signal he could achieve with his various objects: the coffee cans, cookie tins, piles of wire and boxes and tidbits—out of which he wrung quite magical things.”[2]

When it comes to unusual antennas, Rod was a man after my own heart. Over the past 27 years, his words from our QSO have been my mantra: “If it’s metal, load it up!”

Thanks for the inspiration, Rod.

73, Craig WB3GCK

[1] Newkirk (W9BRD), Rod. “Honey, I Shrunk the Antenna.” QST, July 1993, pp. 34-35, 39.
[2] Newkirk (WN9PMC), Amanda. “On Being W9BRD’s Daughter.” K9YA Telegraph, Vol 11, Issue 9, September 2014, pp. 2-3. (K9YA Telegraph website)

USNTC Bainbridge Fire

I came across a news item posted in one of the U.S. Navy Facebook groups I follow. There was a fire at what is left of one of my duty stations from back in the early 1970s. It was where I went through Navy Radioman School and learned the Morse Code.

Here’s a link to the article: Historic Naval Training Center Burns Down on Susquehanna River

The fire at the former Bainbridge U.S. Naval Training Center in Port Deposit, Maryland. I don't recognize the building in this picture. (Photo: Maryland State Fire Marshal/ Facebook)
The fire at the former Bainbridge U.S. Naval Training Center in Port Deposit, Maryland. I don’t recognize the building in this picture. (Photo: Maryland State Fire Marshal/ Facebook)

I was stationed at the U.S. Naval Training Center, Bainbridge, in Port Deposit, Maryland, from November of 1970 through April of 1971. The base was very old then, but there was some history to it. Bainbridge first served as a Navy training center for new recruits (aka boot camp) during World War II. After that, it was home to a variety of Navy schools, including the Radioman School that I attended.

The old wooden barracks were pretty decrepit, by the time I got there. While the accommodations at Bainbridge weren’t the best, I still have some good memories of the short time I spent there.

The Navy deactivated the base in 1976, and the expansive property has been mostly vacant and over-grown since then. Fortunately, the Bainbridge Museum is just down the road in Port Deposit, Maryland. They have captured a lot of old photographs and items from the old base. I paid a visit to the museum back in 2009. It was a walk down Memory Lane for sure.

The Bainbridge Museum in Port Deposit, Maryland
The Bainbridge Museum in Port Deposit, Maryland

So, thanks to Bainbridge Naval Training Center for getting me formally trained in radio and CW. Almost 50 years later, I’m still using much of what I learned there.

73, Craig WB3GCK

Morse Code Day 2020

It’s that time of year again. Today is Morse Code Day. Celebrated each year on April 27th, Morse Code Day coincides with the birth of Samual F.B. Morse (1791-1872).

Samuel F.B. Morse circa 1840 (Open-source image)
Samuel F.B. Morse (circa 1840)

Morse contributed to the development of the single-wire telegraph and developed the encoding method, which bears his name. But, of course, you probably already knew that.

I’m always amazed that I still use a means of communication that was first used in 1844. CW has been my favorite mode since I learned the code in Navy Radioman school nearly 50 years ago.

So, have a happy Morse Code Day. I hope to hear you on the air today!

73, Craig WB3GCK

Westclox Canadian Military Key

While puttering around the shack this morning, I came across an old key I had all but forgotten. It’s a Westclox Canadian military key that I acquired back when I was first licensed. It has been tucked away in the back of my desk drawer for most of the past 44 years. I can’t remember ever using it on the air, so I figured it’s time to give it a fresh look.

Westclox Canadian military key. According to the original box, it was manufactured in May 1949.
Westclox Canadian military key. According to the original box, it was manufactured in May 1949.

It seems like I’ve had this Westclox key forever. I remember buying it from a mail-order military surplus house around 1975. It was in excellent condition and appeared to be unused. The label on the box reads: Z1 ZA/CAN 0977. The box also shows a manufacturing date of May 1949. An identical key is shown on the W1TP website. The PA3EGH website also shows some similar keys.

Original box for the Westclox Canadian military key. The label reads Z-1 ZA/CAN 0977 and shows a date of May 1949.
Original box for the Westclox Canadian military key.

I don’t remember what I paid for it, but it wasn’t very expensive. I took a quick look at eBay this morning and I saw these keys listed anywhere from $80 to an outrageous $750.

One of the reasons it hasn’t seen much use is its “feel.” Unlike the J-38 style keys I used in the Navy, the contacts on the Westclox key are behind the fulcrum. This results in a “feel” that was a bit unusual to my taste.

The other issue with this key is that it’s somewhat loud. At one time I considered using it for portable operating while camping. However, I don’t think it would be a good choice for early morning operating when others are still sleeping.

Having said all that, there’s still something about this key that fascinates me. I spent some time re-adjusting it and it now feels better than I remembered. I also mounted it on a wooden base for some additional stability.

Frankly, I don’t think I gave this key a fair shake back when I bought it. So, I think I’m going to put this 70-year-old key on the air this week. If it really was new/unused when I bought it, this will be the first operational use in its 70-year existence.

73, Craig WB3GCK

175 Years of Morse Code

No, not me personally! But, today is actually the 175th anniversary of the first telegraph transmission from Baltimore to Washington, D.C. on May 24, 1844. Here’s an excellent article on the history of the Morse Code:

Simply elegant, Morse code marks 175 years and counting

It’s remarkable that Morse Code is still being used today. Bravo, Mr. Morse! It’s been a part of my life ever since I went through Navy Radioman School in 1970. It’s still my favorite ham radio mode and I’m proud to help keep the tradition alive.

My trusty J-38 straight key -
My trusty J-38 straight key –

So, get on the air today and make a CW contact or two.

73, Craig WB3GCK

U.S. Navy Morse Code Training

The material below is from a training manual used by U.S. Navy enlisted personnel studying for advancement to the rates of Radioman 3rd Class and Radioman 2nd Class (E4 and E5, respectively). This edition, dated 1967, was still around in the early 1970s when I used it. While it may provide a nostalgic look back for former Navy radio operators, much of the material on technique may still be useful for today’s beginning amateur radio operators. Enjoy! — WB3GCK

Source:  Radioman 3 & 2, Chapter 4, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Navy Training Course NAVPERS 10228-E, 5th Edition, 1967

Cover page. Radioman 3 & 2, Chapter 4, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Navy Training Course NAVPERS 10228-E, 5th Edition, 1967

Chapter 4
International Morse Code

The international Morse code is a telegraphic alphabet, with letters and numbers represented by sound patterns.

If you are a graduate of a Class A Radioman School, you were taught the Morse code, consequently much of this chapter may be of little interest to you. But, if this is your first acquaintance with the code – if you are striking for Radioman from the deck force, or changing to Radioman from another rating – you have many hours of hard work ahead. Do not be discouraged on this account. Many fine Radiomen learn the code for themselves.

The letters in Morse code are represented by dots and dashes; radio operators, however, substitute the expressions “dits” and “dahs,” which closely resemble the sounds of the telegraphic hand key. The groups of dits and dahs representing each letter must be made as one unit, with a clear break between each dit and each dah, and a much more distinct break between the letters. A dit is one-third the length of a dah.

You must never try to count the dits and dahs. Do not let yourself get in the habit of doing so. It is a temptation at first, but you won’t be able to count fast enough when the code speed picks up. Learn sound patterns instead. To understand what a sound pattern is, rap out the pattern beginning “Shave and a haircut.” You recognize this from its characteristic rhythm, not because it has a certain number of beats in it. You must learn the code the same way. There are 36 Morse sound patterns for the letters and numbers, plus a few others representing prosigns and punctuation marks. With study and drill you can learn to recognize each pattern as fast as you now recognize “Shave and a haircut.” The accent always falls on dahs, and you should pronounce each rhythmical combination with that emphasis in mind.

Go through the alphabet several times to get the sound “feel” of the dit and dah combinations.


In the pronunciation guide for sounds of letters that follows, sounds are written as phonetically as possible. In the middle of a group, the short sound “dit” actually takes on the sound “di.” The phonetic alphabet is included in parentheses after the letters. Acquire the habit of referring to the letters phonetically.

      Letter               Pronunciation
      A (ALFA)    -------- di-DAH
      B (BRAVO)    ------- DAH-di-di-dit
      C (CHARLIE)    ----- DAH-di-DAH-dit
      D (DELTA)    ------- Dah-di-dit
      E (ECHO)    -------- dit
      F (FOXTROT)     ---- di-di-DAH-dit
      G (GOLF)    -------- DAH-DAH-dit
      H (HOTEL)    ------- di-di-di-dit
      I (INDIA)   -------- di- dit
      J (JULIETT)    ----- di-DAH-DAH-DAH
      K (KILO)   --------- DAH-di-DAH
      L (LIMA)    -------- di-DAH-di-dit
      M (MIKE)    -------- DAH-DAH
      N (NOVEMBER)     --- DAH-dit
      0 (OSCAR)    ------- DAH-DAH-DAH
      P (PAPA)    -------- di-DAH-DAH-dit
      Q (QUEBEC)     ----- DAH-DAH-di-DAH
      R (ROMEO)     ------ di-DAH-dit
      S (SIERRA)    ------ di-di-dit
      T (TANGO)    ------- DAH
      U (UNIFORM)    ----- di-di-DAH
      V (VICTOR)    ------ di-di-di-DAH
      W (WHISKEY)    ----- di-DAH-DAH
      X (XRAY)    -------- DAH-di-di-DAH
      Y (YANKEE)     ----- DAH-di-DAH-DAH
      Z (ZULU)    -------- DAH-DAH-di-dit

      Number             Pronunciation
      1----------------  di-DAH-DAH-DAH-DAH
      2----------------  di-di-DAH-DAH-DAH
      3----------------  di-di-di-DAH-DAH
      4----------------  di-di-di-di-DAH
      5----------------  di-di-di-di-dit
      6----------------  DAH-di-di-di-dit
      7----------------  DAH-DAH-di-di-dit
      8----------------  DAH-DAH-DAH-di-dit
      9----------------  DAH-DAH-DAH-DAH-dit
      0----------------  DAH-DAH-DAH-DAH-DAH
      Punctuation Mark    Pronunciation
      Hyphen (dash)  ---- DAH-di-di-di-di-DAH
      Parenthesis  L ---- DAH-di-DAH-DAH-di-DAH
                   R ---- DAH-di-DAH-DAH-dit
      Point   ----------- di-DAH-di-DAH-di-DAH
      Slant  ------------ DAH-di-di-DAH-dit
      Apostrophe  ------- di-DAH-DAH-DAH-DAH-dit
      Colon  ------------ DAH-DAH-DAH-di-di-dit
      Comma   ----------  DAH-DAH-di-di-DAH-DAH
      Question mark  ---- di-di-DAH-DAH-di-dit


If you have any trouble learning Morse code, the following method may be helpful. Go through the three groupings of short, medium and long sounds with their accompanying practice words. Make up words of your own if you wish to give yourself further practice. Speak the practice words in code. Say “tee: DAH dit dit;” “mine: DAH-DAH di-dit DAH-dit dit.”

If you can speak words in code rapidly and distinctly, you will have an easier time when you learn to receive code on the receiver. The sounds are very similar.

You probably have noticed by now how numerals slow your speech in oral transmission. That is understandable – they also slow the speed of radio transmission. Headings containing procedure signs, calls, and numerals are transmitted at a slower rate of speed than straight alphabetical characters.

      Short sounds              Practice words 
      E dit                     TEE ATE EAT TEA MEAT
      T dah                     MEET MINE TIME MAINE
      A di-DAH                  TEAM AIM NITE TAME TEA
      I di-dit                  MATE TAME NAME MITE
      M DAH-DAH                 MIAMI MAMA MEAN MAN MAT
      N DAH-dit                 EMIT MINT MANE TAN ITEM TINT
      Medium length sounds      Practice words
      D DAH-di-dit              MUST SAME MAMA SUIT AUTO
      G DAH- DAH- dit           MUSS OUST MUSE MUTE ATOM
      K DAH-di-DAH              TAUT MAST MASS SUET SAM
      0 DAH-DAH-DAH             WIND SEA TUM SAW OAT
      R di-DAH-dit              SUE SAT WED SUM MUD IOU
      S di-di-dit               USE SEAM WOOD DARK
      U di-di-DAH               GEORGE DOWN KIND SORT
      W di-DAH-DAH              DOOR MASK WORK GROW
                                WOMAN EDGE GAGE
                                WIGS WORM WAGER
                                WAKE KEG
      Long sounds              Practice words
      B DAH-di-di-dit          VAT VET VIM HAM SIX
      C DAH-di-DAH-dit         SAY
      F di-di-DAH-dit          HAS HAT EVE CUT
      H di-di-di-dit           CAM VEST
      J di-DAH-DAH-DAH         HEAT HAVE MUCH
      L di-DAH-di-dit          THAT EACH
      P di-DAH-DAH-dit         COAT ACHE SAVE HUSH
      Q DAH-DAH-di-DAH         ACME
      V di-di-di-DAH           CUTE BAKER CHARLIE
      X DAH-di-di-DAH          FIVE
      Y DAH-di-DAH-DAH         HOW JIMMY LIKE
      Z DAH-DAH-di-dit         PAPA QUICK QUILL
                               VICTORY XRAY YOUNG
                               ZERO BUZZ GARGLE
                               FIZZLE LYNX OXYGEN
                               WAX QUAY JERKY WHIP
      Figure sounds
      1. di-DAH-DAH-DAH-DAH
      2. di-di-DAH-DAH-DAH
      3. di-di-di-DAH-DAH
      4. di-di-di-di-DAH
      5. di-di-di-di-dit
      6. DAH-di-di-di-dit
      7. DAH-DAH-di-di-dit
      8. DAH-DAH-DAH-di-dit
      9. DAH-DAH-DAH-DAH-dit


If you have carried out the recommendations made up to this point, you are ready to receive code transmitted to you on an oscillator. The ship or station to which you are attached is almost certain to have practice oscillators for your use.

An experienced Radioman will key code groups to you for your training. The sound produced by an oscillator closely resembles the sound of code from the radio receiver. The operator keying to you for practice should transmit each individual character at the standard rate of 20 words per minute. He should maintain a fairly long interval between characters. As you progress, you gain speed by shortening spaces between characters.

The standard character speed is shown in figure 4-1. Note that the characters themselves may be keyed at 20 words per minute, but that the longer intervals between characters and words materially decrease the beginner’s overall speed. Note also that the code, compared against time in the 20-words-per-minute transmission, is in the proper form of having the dit as a unit. There is one unit between each element of a character, three units between each character, and seven units between each group or word.

Figure 4-1. Correct keying of Morse characters.

After learning the sound of each character at this rate of speed, it is not difficult to reduce the time between characters and to copy code at a much faster speed.

As you advance in rating, you will be required to increase your transmission and reception speed. If you learn the fundamentals well, it will be fairly easy for you to increase your speed. When copying code, if you miss a character, don’t stop to worry about it; get the next character and let the one missed go by. Be a competent operator. Make every transmission and every reception accurately. Do not place speed before accuracy.


Learn to print clearly and rapidly. The messages you handle are important, and someone must read what you have written without puzzling over it. Examine figure 4-2 and compare the printed letters with your own. Notice that the sequence of strokes for some letters may be different from the way you customarily form them. As an aid to rapid printing, the more of the letter you can form with a single stroke, the better. Use this illustration as a guide to avoid confusions between printed letters and printed numerals. Especially watch the letter Z and the numeral 2. If you wish, write Z with a line through the stem (-Z). Even more important is the distinction between the capital letter O and the figure zero. In communication work, zero is always written with a slant through it (Ø). Exercise care to avoid confusion between letter I and figure 1, and also letter S and figure 5.

Figure 4-2. How to form printed characters.

As your code speed increases, you will find it impossible to print rapidly enough to keep up; therefore, typewriting is a skill also required of all Radiomen. Use of a good commercial text can help you master touch-typing. A typing course for beginners also is offered by USAFI.


Your ability to send well depends mainly upon two capabilities. First, you must know the correct sound of the character you are attempting to transmit. Second, you must know the proper method for keying with perfect control. Practicing the code aloud, as well as receiving it by oscillator, has given you a good knowledge of code sound. The proper method for keying is your next concern.


The first key you will use is the hand key. The hand key is widely used on radiotelegraph circuits and with practice oscillators. It must be adjusted properly before you can send clearcut characters. Figure 4-3 shows a hand key, with parts labeled.

Figure 4-3. Hand key.


The spring tension screw, behind the key button, controls the amount of upward tension on the key. The tension desired varies with operators. Too much tension forces the key button up before the dahs are completely formed; spacing between characters is irregular, and dits are not clearly defined. If the spring tension is very weak, characters run together and the space between characters is too short.

The gap between the contacts, regulated by the space adjusting screw at the back of the key, should be set at one-sixteenth inch for beginners. This measurement does not apply to every key and operator; it is a matter of personal preference. Some operators like a closed key, others an open key. “Closed” and “open” are terms for a short and a long gap. As the student progresses, further gap adjustment may be made to suit his sending speed. Contacts that are too close have an effect similar to weak spring tension. Contacts that are spaced too far have the same effect as too much spring tension.

The final adjustment of the key is the sidewise alignment of the contact points. This alignment is controlled by the trunnion screws at either side of the key. If they are too tight, the key lever binds. If they are too loose, the contacts have sidewise play. Usually, when the sidewise alignment is correct, no further adjustment is required.


Learn from the beginning the correct way to grasp the key. Do not hold the key tightly, but let your fingers rest lightly on the key knob. Your thumb rests against the side, your forefinger rests on top of the key, your other fingers are bent slightly in a relaxed position. Check figures 4-4 and 4-5 for the correct method of keying. To ensure correct movement of your wrist and forearm, your arm should lie on the operating desk. The muscle of your forearm – not your elbow – should support the weight of your arm. Your elbow should not extend over the edge of the table, because the pressure of the underside of your forearm will partly block circulation and tire you. Sit upright, with your arm in line with the key.

Figure 4-4. Grasping the key. Figure 4-5. Your thumb rests against the side.

Your ability to transmit depends to a great extent on acquiring the proper movements of your wrist and hand while operating the key. To close the key, your wrist moves upward and your hand rocks downward toward your fingertips. To open the key, these two movements are reversed- your wrist comes down and your hand rocks back.

Make your wrist flexible. Limber it up. Correct wrist action may be developed by moving your wrist up and down like a hinge. Another exercise is rotating your hand in clockwise circles, with your wrist held in a stationary position. These exercises will relieve any undue tension you may experience when first beginning to transmit.


The semiautomatic key, also known as the bug or speed key, is used chiefly when operators are required to send for relatively long periods of time. It is designed to make sending easy instead of fast. Hence, perfect control of the key is far more important than speed.


In sending with the bug, the thumb presses the dit paddle (fig. 4-6) to the right, and the index finger forms dahs by pressing the knob to the left. The key sends successive dits when the paddle is held to the right. One dit or a series may be sent, depending on how long the thumb pressure is maintained against the paddle. One dah is formed every time the knob is pressed to the left. Dahs must be sent individually. While sending, the hand pivots at the wrist; the hand and arm motion is horizontal.

Figure 4-6. Semiautomatic key.


Best operation of the semiautomatic key is obtained when it is adjusted to send dits and spaces of equal length. Adjust the key as follows, locating the parts in figure 4-6 when adjusting the key:

  1. Adjust the back stop screw until the reed lightly touches the deadener. Tighten the locknut.
  2. Adjust the front stop screw until the separation between the end of the screw and the reed is approximately .015 inch. Tighten the locknut.
  3. Operate the dit paddle to the right. Hold the lever in this position and stop the vibration of the reed. Adjust the dit contact adjusting screw until the dit contacts barely touch. Tighten the locknut. This adjustment determines whether the dits will be too heavy, too light, or perfect. The adjustment must be made without flexing the contact spring.
  4. If the dits are too fast, move the weights, located on the reed, in the direction of the deadener. If the dits are too slow, move the same weights in the opposite direction.
  5. Adjust the dah contact adjusting screw to a clearance of approximately .030 inch.
  6. Adjust the dit refractive and dah tension springs for the most comfortable, operation.

If the adjustment instructions are followed carefully, the bug makes 25 or more dits before stopping. The first 12 to 15 dits will be practically perfect, with the dits and spaces equal.


Good operators have sending rhythm, and you can acquire it in just one way: by practice.

It may be difficult for you to key correctly at first, because your wrist is unfamiliar with the type of movement required for sending telegraphic code. Your wrist will be stiff, and you’ll have to get rid of that stiffness by a lot of practice. Don’t favor the stiffness of your wrist. If you do, your sending will be choppy.

The following exercises have been prepared carefully. Use them as an instruction guide.

  • Character E: The dit characters require a “goodfist.” They must be transmitted quickly and rhythmically. Make a series of Es (dits). They are made with a pronounced movement of your wrist upward, returning to the normal position after each dit. At first, maintain a fairly long interval between dits. To assist you in limbering your wrist, exaggerate the movement upward. To prevent tenseness and tiredness of your wrist, remove your hand from the key periodically and flex your wrist. After practicing Es for 15 or 20 minutes, decrease the interval between dits until you are making them rather rapidly. Each sound should continue to be a definite dit, however. Keep at it until you can control each dit.
  • Character I: When you feel that your wrist is limbering up, make the character I (di-dit). Start with your wrist in the normal relaxed position, raise it for the first dit, lower it quickly halfway back, and make the second dit with another quick movement of your wrist upward. Your transmission, made slowly, produces the sound di-dit. As you practice and develop more rhythm, this character acquires the sound of di-dit.
  • Character T: Send a series of Ts (DAH) with a good interval between them. Instead of a quick movement of your wrist upward, make aslower, more definite movement of your wrist and exert more pressure on the key. Send dahs for a few minutes, gradually shortening the interval between characters.
  • Character M: Now try sending strings of Ms (DAH-DAH). As with the character 1, you don’t return your wrist to the beginning position at the end of the first dah, but bring it to the halfway point and then make the last dah. With practice, you’ll soon change the hesitant DAH DAH sound to the snappy DAH-DAH. Don’t forget the correct wrist movements. If you find that your sending requires exertion of forearm muscles or that your shoulder is moving, stop and recheck your wrist motions.

Try these practice groups several times, backward and forward. Make them clearly and distinctly, spending more time on characters that cause you any trouble.


  • Character A: The character A (di-DAH) gives you practice in making a dit and a dah together. Sending motions, in their proper order, are (1) slight pressure of your fingers alongside the key, (2) a quick surge upward of your wrist, (3) a slight relaxing of your wrist to the halfway point, and (4) a final definite upward movement of your wrist. This technique produces the sound dit DAH when you begin to practice it. But keep at it-you’ll soon have the proper di-DAH sound. Avoid tenseness; relax your forearm muscles when sending.
  • Character U: You’re now ready for the character U (di-di-DAH). Start slowly, sending dit dit DAH. Practice it until you get a di-di- DAH sound.
  • Character N: The character N (DAH-dit) requires only slight pressure on the sides of the key, a strong wrist movement upward, a half return, and a quick, short, upward motion for the dit. Practice for several minutes until you are able to send DAH-dit easily and with com- plete relaxation.
  • Character D, Try the letter D (DAH-di-dit). At first, with the correct wrist movement it will be DAH dit dit. But the sound you want to hear is DAH-di-dit-with a swing. Send Ds until you can transmit them with perfect control. Check yourself on the following groups. You should have less difficulty than you did with the first groups.


  • Character S: Go back to the dits for S (di-di-dit). Get a good position on the key and put your wrist to work. See how quickly you can change the dit dit dit sound to di-di-dit. Relax your forearm.
  • Character V: The letter V is di-di-di-DAH, so you’d better learn how to send it that way. Relax. If your wrist is tied up in a knot, you’ll be sending dit dit dit DAH. Move your wrist up and down easily until you are sending di-di-di-DAH with perfect control. Practice this letter carefully. It is used in every radio test.
  • Character 0: Correctly sent, characters is DAH-DAH-DAH. Keep at it until it stops sounding like three Ts. Test your skill with these words:


  • Character H. Character His di-di-di-dit. Send one. If it sounds similar to four Es, your wrist is too stiff. Develop the di-di-di-dit sound.
  • Character B: Send DAH-di-di-dit. It is the Morse code equivalent of B. Practice for perfect control, then try these groups:


  • Character K: At this point you should be prepared to tackle the other characters. They are mostly combinations of the letters you have practiced. Each one has a distinct overall sound. For instance, K should not have the sound DAH-dit-DAH. It should be DAH-di-DAH. Think of the tune “Over There.” You will realize that DAH-di-DAH has the same rhythm as OH-ver THERE-DAH-di-DAH.
  • Character Q: The letter Q (DAH-DAH-di-DAH) has the same rhythm as the words “Payday today.” Say in a monotone “payday today,” then say DAH-DAH-di-DAH. When transmitted, the same swing is given these combinations as when speaking or chanting them.
  • Remaining letters and numerals: The preceding l5 characters have taught you proper wrist movement. You know the remaining 11 letters and 10 figures. Following are 14 practice exercises. Use these exercises for self-drill.


Practice the remaining letters of the alphabet and the numerals. When you think you’re ready for it, practice the code exercises that follow.

      1. E E E T T T A A A N N N I I I S S S H H H
         M M M O O O E E E T T T A A A N N
         I I I S S S H H H M M M O 0 0 E E E T T T
         I I I M M M A A A N N N S S S O 0 0 H H H
         E E E T T T E E E T T T I I I M M M I I I
         M M M A A A N N N A A A N N N S S S
         O O O S S S
      2. U U U V V V D D D B B B K K K C C C
         W W W J J J P P P U U U V V V D D D
         B B B K K K C C C W W W J J J P P P
         W W W J J J P P P U U U V V V K K K
         C C C B B B D D D U U U D D D V V V
         B B B P P P J J J C C C K K K W W W
         D D D B B B V V V U U U W W W J J J
      3. R R R L L L F F F G G G Z Z Z X X X
         Y Y Y Q Q Q R R R L L L F F F G G G
         Z Z Z X X X Y Y Y Q Q Q G G G Z Z Z
         F F F L L L R R R Y Y Y Q Q Q R R R
         X X X Z Z Z R R R F F F L L L Q Q Q
         Y Y Y G G G Q Q Q Y Y Y R R R
      4. 1 1 1 2 2 2 3 3 3 4 4 4 5 5 5 6 6 6 7 7 7 8 8 8
         9 9 9 Ø Ø Ø 1 1 1 2 2 2 3 3 3 4 4 4 5 5 5 6 6 6
         7 7 7 8 8 8 9 9 9 Ø Ø Ø 1 1 1 2 2 3 3 4 4 5 5
         6 6 7 7 8 8 9 9 Ø Ø 1 1 2 2 3 3 4 4 5 5 6 6 7 7
         8 8 9 9 Ø Ø 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Ø 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
         8 9 1 2 3 4 5 6
      5. V U I Y Q Z C X G R S L K J P Q X Z R I
         F C V B W F K D S H Q Z A L K F B V R
         S T U O T M E G Y Z X V E G N I W S L H
         M U A E V U A E W Q G H V C I X Z L N
         R Y U K V U
      6. E 8 Y 7 B 6 X 1 W Ø Z 2 A 3 C 5 S 4 1 2 F
         U 1 F 5 D 8 Q 4 T 6 U 9 Q 2 E Ø S 5 U l Y
         G 2 J 4 S 3 E 5 T 7 Z 8 K 6 M 9 R l A 2 R
         S 7 W B E 9 R 2 A 3 Z 3 X 6 U 8 B 7 C 6 T
         NL TY CE DO PS
      8. EF TS 16 29 83 ZJ 45 Ø7 WR ND KW IC UX
         91 Ø2 1B LO FG 84 63 XW AC TM SU 5Ø 72
         XR RJ ZM 43 65 VH 97 LM 12 46 7Ø FC FE
         EY 34 56 27 FT FY JU IT 98 76 75 52 DE
         WE QT 13 36 57 KF RI YT 19 93 35 41 FK
         YU 96 Ø1 MC AR TH 19 25 3Ø UR BO UL
         32 Ø5 21
     11. JICOY TXSTY 38Ø95 RDIHA
         89706 CUSPI RNBRJ 65289 ZONIG
         8784Ø BVGAN WKOQT SRQMT
         UJVWN 45872 YXBCX AFKOZ
         OGLCT NIHGP 12349 ATUSK
     13. ZMJXI URYNC 9347Ø PQAZM
         DEGVM NCBVG HUGHY 13267
         PHRAN QUECC 1289Ø MCNDH
         72439 OYTRW PIQAW CNJWO
         BCDV CGFH 5781 JGVX HGJD


Continue sending to yourself with the practice key and oscillator. If you can operate with another striker, so much the better. Sit down at an unused operating position and tune in some slow code. It is not hard to find, especially on amateur frequencies. Copy as best you can. Don’t worry too much about missing letters. Get what you can, no matter how little it is. As your speed picks up, tune in faster code. If you find you are copying a certain speed solidly, the code is too slow. Keep it faster than you can copy comfortably.

You will need lots of practice. Class A Radioman Schools ashore run a full day, and for months a man copies code several hours daily. Make the transition from pencil copying to the typewriter as soon as possible.

As you gain skill, try copying the 18-wpm to 20-wpm fleet broadcasts. Devote as much time as possible-15 or 20 hours per week-not just an hour now and then. Do not be afraid to use some of your off-duty time. Simultaneously, begin to learn how to hold down a circuit. One of the best ways to do this is to spend several watches logging circuits that other operators are manning. At the end of every watch, compare your log with that of the regular operator, and question him about anything you do not understand. That way you see procedure in use and gain practice in copying many fists.

Learn to copy behind. If you are recording B as D, S as I, J as W, and so on, you are copying too close. The farther behind the better. At first, listen to one character while setting down the previous one. Try to fall back one letter more. Listen for the character while carrying one in your head and setting down the one before that. Once you have the knack, you will find copying behind is easier, faster, and more accurate. The faster the code, the farther, you must stay behind. Watch an oldtimer copy press at 35 or 40 wpm. You will find he is carrying anywhere from 5 words to a sentence in his head.

One further word of advice: It is common for a student learning code to hit a plateau. The regular progress to higher speeds stops, and for a time the student finds himself unable to copy faster than a certain speed. If this happens to you, just stay with it until your speed picks up. Never lose confidence in the knowledge that any man of ordinary ability can learn the code if he puts in the necessary time and work

25 Years of QRP-Portable

My (far) better half was going through some old pictures recently and came across some pictures of me operating while tent camping on a family vacation back in August 1993. After I studied the picture for a bit, it dawned on me that the old photograph had captured my first time operating QRP-portable.

Back in the early ’90s, I was just getting back on the air again after a long period of inactivity. I had a station at the house but what I really wanted was a portable QRP rig. I eventually purchased an MFJ-9030 QRP rig for 30M so I could take my hobby on the road.

Right around that time, we were getting ready to take a week-long vacation of tent camping on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Wanting to take my new rig along, I hurriedly went about assembling a portable station. I bought a gel cell battery from a local hobby shop and threw together a 30M dipole. I wasn’t sure how much coax I would need so I used 50-feet of RG-8x, which, in hindsight, was overkill. Together with my old Radio Shack straight key, I packed everything in a small, waterproof container and placed it with the rest of the camping gear.

Being the detailed planner and organizer that she is, it took my wife no time at all to spot my container of radio gear. This prompted a stern reminder that this was a family vacation and no way was I going to spend all day on the radio and leave her to deal with the kids. Despite my assurances that I wouldn’t do that, she remained skeptical.

The day after we arrived and got our camp set up, I went about putting up my dipole. Because of the dense pine trees, my dipole only ended up about 15 feet up. I had to coil up the majority of my 50-foot coax at the base of a tree. Yep, my fifty feet of coax was definitely too long. (It was replaced with 30 feet of RG-174 when I got home.)

WB3GCK operating QRP-portable for the first time back in August 1993 at a campground on the Eastern Shore of Virginia
WB3GCK operating QRP-portable for the first time back in August 1993 at a campground on the Eastern Shore of Virginia

My log shows that I made my first-ever QRP-portable contact on August 15th with K3EEL (SK) up in northern Pennsylvania. I made 3 more QSOs before calling it a day. I only operated for about an hour but I was hooked!

I’m an early riser. The rest of my family… not so much. So, for the rest of the week, I fell into a routine of getting on the radio early in the morning, while the coffee was brewing on the camp stove. I usually got on again later in the afternoon while the kids were relaxing before dinner. My better half soon realized that my ham radio habit could peacefully coexist with the rest of the family’s activities. In fact, one lazy afternoon she said, “Why don’t you get on the radio for a while?”

I had a lot of fun that week, making 34 contacts. Since then, a QRP rig has gone along on every camping trip or vacation we have taken.

Here’s to the next 25 years of QRP-portable operating!

72, Craig WB3GCK

Of Blind Squirrels and QRP Contests

There’s an old saying that goes: “Even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while.” I think that was the case for me 23 years ago.

As I was submitting my meager entry for last week’s QRP to the Field (QTTF) Contest, it made me think back to the very first QTTF contest in April of 1995. I’ve never considered myself a serious contester; not by a long stretch. Somehow, though, I actually placed 1st overall in the NorCal QRP Club’s inaugural QTTF.  I actually did it with a most unlikely setup, too.

My 1st place certificate from the first-ever running of the QRP to the Field Contest in 1995
My 1st place certificate from the first-ever running of the QRP to the Field Contest in 1995

A local ham, Rolf N3LA (SK), graciously allowed me to operate my modest QRP station from his rural property. I operated from my truck with my antenna supported by one of Rolf’s trees.

My antenna was simply a 40M inverted vee that I made from #22 stranded hook-up wire. I fed it with about 30-feet of RG-174 coax. The center of the antenna was only about 12 to 15 feet high. One end was tied off to a bush about 4 feet off the ground. The other end ran into a fenced-in area that was home to a ram with a bad attitude.  I had to wait until the ram was otherwise pre-occupied to tie-off that end of the antenna. That end was only a foot or two off the ground.

My rig was a Small Wonder Labs SW-40 running 950mW. This was from the first batch of kits offered by Dave Benson’s (K3SWL) former company. I was also using a keyer built from an old NorCal kit, which used the classic Curtis keyer chip. I used a set of paddles that I had cobbled together from stuff in my junk box. The whole station was powered by a 7 A-H gel cell battery that was almost as big as the rest of the equipment combined.

Some of the equipment I used for the QTTF Contest in 1995. The SW-40 and NorCal Keyer are packaged in LMB enclosures. My "Junkbox Paddles" are on the right. I made a lot of QSOs with this setup in years past.
Some of the equipment I used for the QTTF Contest in 1995. The SW-40 and NorCal Keyer are packaged in LMB enclosures. My “Junkbox Paddles” are on the right. I made a lot of QSOs with this setup in years past.

Over the course the afternoon, I worked a steady stream of QRPers. I was in QRP heaven. Even Rolf, who was monitoring from inside his house, was amazed at the number of contacts I was producing with less than a watt.

QRP to the Field 1995 - WB3GCK (950mW)
40M CW
1615 K4XY VA
1641 WA9MTO MD
1646 KG8FL OH
1653 KI2L MA
1659 W2RPH NJ 1W
1701 K2SJB NY
1706 VY2MP PEI
1710 N1OZL MA
1723 WQ1T NH
1740 KC1FB CT
1743 W3TS PA 1W
1745 AC4WC VA 4W
1749 K1PUG CT 1W
1807 WK8S MI
1810 WA8IBT OH
1827 N7ANT VA
1836 W3EEK PA
1840 W2TFL NY
1844 KB8GAE OH
1848 AA3GN PA
1851 K2MV NJ
1855 WA0JTL MI
1858 WB8EEL MA
1903 N4JEO VA
1905 NO1E NH
1913 AA2PF NY
1915 K4XY VA (DUPE)
1917 N2CX NJ
1929 AA2NL NJ
1930 AA4YZ/8 OH
2038 W2QUV NY 5W
2048 KD4PUP VA
2050 KT3A PA <1W
2054 KA4GVA VA
2056 W03B MD 250mW
2101 W8MVN OH 4W
2117 AA2WJ NY
2129 KZ4D VA 2W
2137 WA8LCZ MI
2139 AA1EX NH
2141 WQ1F VT 4W
2144 KC1FB CT (DUPE)
2146 K2JT NJ
2204 K0JPL MO
2209 KA3WTF PA 5W

I specifically remember a couple of the contacts.  I worked Joe N2CX, who was testing a new antenna over in New Jersey.  Joe later mentioned that QSO in an article about his antenna in QRP Quarterly. I also remember working Ernie W8MVN (SK) in Ohio. Back in the day, Ernie ran a pair of phased, full-wave 40M delta loops on top of a 60-foot tower. He called me with an ear-splitting QRP signal that had me scrambling for the RF gain control on my rig. I think my ears are still ringing from his incredibly loud signal.

Even though I only operated on one band with my 950mW rig, I managed to log 46 contacts (plus a few dupes) that day. With my QRPp multiplier, I ended up in first place out of a field of 50 stations.

I haven’t done that well in a QRP field contest since.  (I did, however, place 2nd in the New England QRP Club’s QRP Afield contest using the same equipment later that year.) Rather than skill or prowess as a contester, I have always attributed my win to a combination of great propagation and lots of plain old dumb luck.

If your callsign is in the log above, thank you for helping this blind squirrel find a nut!

72, Craig WB3GCK

Ron Polityka WB3AAL (SK)

I heard the sad news this morning that Ron Polityka WB3AAL passed away on March 30th. Ron was an avid QRPer who was well-known throughout the QRP community. Ron was known for his portable operations, particularly from the Appalachian Trail.

Ron and I go back about 25 years or so. Back in the early 90s, I was contacted by Ron, who was starting up the Eastern Pennsylvania QRP Club. My first meeting with Ron was at a local hamfest and I became an active EPA-QRP member after that.

Ron WB3AAL operating CW at the EPA-QRP Field Day in 2006
Ron WB3AAL operating CW at the EPA-QRP Field Day in 2006

Over the years, I participated in many EPA-QRP Field Days with Ron. I also camped out with Ron a few times for various QRP field contests. I spent an interesting weekend with Ron aboard the Lightship Chesapeake (LV-116) in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor in 2003. We activated the Chesapeake for a Lighthouse/Lightship Week event.

WB3AAL aboard the Lightship Chesapeake (LV-116) in 2003
WB3AAL aboard the Lightship Chesapeake (LV-116) in 2003

Ron was one of the founding members of the Polar Bear QRP Club. I was fortunate enough to take part in one of the very early Polar Bear Moonlight Madness Events with Ron and others at Pulpit Rock on the Appalachian Trail.

In recent years, I only had occasional contact with Ron. So, I was stunned to learn of his passing at the young age of 58. Ron touched the lives of many in the QRP Community and his presence will be missed.

RIP and 72, Ron.