Pounding Brass

Like everything else in Amateur Radio, CW has its supporters and its detractors. Me, I am neutral. I encourage those with the dedication to pursue proficiency with this mode and to be able to copy code at blinding speeds. I think it is great that this part of our radio heritage is preserved and that there is even growing interest today. Just like Boy Scouts who use two sticks to start a fire. Do they still do that or do they prefer the magic of a butane lighter today?

There was a time when I could copy code at 20 WPM with my trusty No. 2 Dixon Ticonderoga pencil. And after I got my general in 1955, I pinky-swore that I would always use CW as my primary mode. And you know that among kids a pinky swear is the most powerful swear you can make.

NOT! After a few months, I fell under the spell of AM and spent more and more time on the phone bands. I was running phone patches and participating in the AREC (the predecessor to ARES) emergency nets. Night after night was spent roaming the 20 meter phone band, searching for a new country. Pushing the envelope to see how close I could get to the edge of the band without a pink ticket; speaking in tongues and only to fellow addicts I met on the air. It was not a pretty sight.

There is something about CW that is the essence of ham radio. Like the “purity of essence” mentioned by General Jack D. Ripper, just before he blew his brains out in the movie, Dr. Strangelove. So when I came back to the hobby in 2009 after a hiatus of forty plus years, I promised myself that I would get back to the purity of CW someday. I am afraid that I haven’t made it back there yet.

In spite of the best efforts of my friends to coax me, support me, lend me a key and a keyer, challenge me with a bet and regale me with stories of DX contacts on the low end of the bands and listening to W1AW code practice sessions. I have to confess, the magic isn’t there. Somewhere along my path, I lost the purity of essence that CW represents. I surrendered to the Dark Side of the Force (SSB).

Its pretty good over here on the Dark Side you know. I have plenty of projects that need to get done and that challenge my skill set. Improving antennas, camouflage techniques, installing mobile HF, eliminating RFI, better grounds, more automation and improving my audio. All those are wicked diversions from the purity of essence.

There are plenty of pileups for rare DX or special events and contests, on sideband and CW. Though CW purists believe they can get through when SSB can’t, that is in a perfect world. A CW operator has to deal with bad manners, QRM, splatter and guys running 2 KW against their 100 watts too.

On the other hand, SSB can be a more personal mode. While in a CW QSO, you get to know the operator by their fist, its more like texting; only faster. On SSB you actually hear the other guy’s voice, their tone and timbre. The little nuances of speech that make them human. You are face to face, mano a mano. SSB contests take on the character of an old fashioned bar fight and some rag chew nets go on and on like old radio soap operas.

But, I promise that I will get back to CW someday.

Ron Litt, K5HM, is a special contributor to AmateurRadio.com and writes from Texas, USA. Contact him at [email protected].

7 Responses to “Pounding Brass”

  • Bob - W2TAC:

    Like you Ron, I was away from ham radio for 40 years. Then, I used to operate solely CW. Now, primarily CW. Age has mellowed me regarding being a “purist” about anything. But I must say that CW still holds the magic for me. It’s the closest thing to the “magic” represented by the glow of vacuum tubes that I recall from my youth. Also, 40 years ago I didn’t think in terms of “Zen-Anything,” or the value of Simple. AM has that old time fidelity. SSB, among other things, is great for real rag chews and the friendships that nets provide. But CW slows me down and takes me to a simpler, different place. I must say, however, that — despite there being so many licensed hams — CW is not winning any popularity contests when one compares SSB to CW traffic levels. I’m hopeful that it will eventually experience a resurgence in popularity and that more hams will engage in longer CW contacts that extend beyond the standard protocols.

  • Ron, K5HM:

    Thanks for your comments Bob. Like you I wasn’t trying to take sides but only to finally state in public that the magic of CW isn’t there for me today. My secondary mode is digital PSK31 which for me is as magical as CW once was. My two most distant contacts have been around 10,000 miles with PSK31 and 30 watts. Now, that’s magic for me.

    73, Ron

  • Bob - W2TAC:

    Very cool Ron! I need to summon the courage soon to try PSK31. You’ve convinced me.

  • harry k7zov:

    I got my ticket in 1963, Novice 5 wpm. I now know, and did not then, that you can learn the code the wrong way. I did. Flamed out at 9 to 10 wpm. I lived in a area that the FCC visited I think twice a year. I was in HS and no wheels. So when the end of my 1 yr as a novice was coming up I told myself I would do IT next year (IT being getting my code speed up to the magic 13 wpm) and I did not want to loose my K7 call so I went Tech. Then reality hit. In the late 60’s it was AM, some FM and very little else. No one practice CW with. I went to the dark side also. AM, SSB, FM. Very little time really, but no CW. Fast forward. Going on 65 this year. 2013 meany 50 yrs a ham (although 40+ very absent do to work and family, etc). Hearing going. But what has happened is I am getting the CW bug. I am relearning using KOCH method. I have decided 20 wpm would be nice, SO WHAT! I will be happy with stable qso’s at 9, 10, 12, 15 wpm..and be shameful at times and use the computer as a visual aid if I have too until my head stops misfiring on the sounds I am trying to figure out.

    Yes there still is something pure and magical about CW. PSK and other modes can kick CW ass when it comes to getting through. However it just is not the same. So what I am doing about it?

    Got my FT-187nd finally in a go GO-BOX. With a key and the mic un-plugged. I just paid $200 for a HB-1B. I have in the past had a K1, KX1, ATS-4 and a few K2’s. My intent was CW. The result was a many trades. This time NO! I got in trade a TenTec 559AT Eagle. It has the 300 and 600 hz roofing filter. Makes my PROII sound like a crystal set. The Eagle is nothing short of awesome when pulling out CW from the mud. Far better then my K2’s I had. So that is my future CW only rig. The PROII is my Dark side radio.

    So now armed with a KOCH learning program on my Android and one on my PC. The TenTec 4040/HB-1B….KX1 knock-off… coming to my door soon and the double CW roofing filtered Eagle. I will be doing CW before, but no later, the my 50th year in radio.

    Now enough of this and time to do my lessons for tonight.

    73 one and all

    Harry K7ZOV

  • Nolan KI5IO:

    I’ve been licensed since the early 1970s, progressed through the ticket stages and got my Extra. All during the time when FCC did require CW basics.

    I just didn’t pursue the ‘tuning’ of my CW capabilities and have been off/on the air due to all the various things we experience in our lifetime. Now that I’m “semi-retired” (not quite sure what that is??!!) I’ve been focusing more and more on CW and trying to get my gray matter to understand at a reasonable speed. Certainly does take time, but I’m up for it. Like Harry, I’m using my PC, iPad, iPhone to keep the applications in front of me to “tune up” my CW. I’m using my FT-2000 and am fortunate to have both straight and iambic keys. Plenty of tools for me to simply make good use of.


    Nolan K.

  • Garth, KF7ATL:


    While I can understand where you are coming from, I am enjoying CW a lot. Don’t get me wrong–SSB is a great mode, and I have no problem with those that spend most of their time there. I don’t have a super antenna, so CW just works better for me. But beyond that, I honestly find that CW is a fun challenge. I tried PSK31, and while it is an interesting mode, it just didn’t have the appeal for me that CW has. And by the way, you don’t have to operate at blinding speeds to have fun with the mode. I am a late comer to the hobby. I’ve been a ham for about 3 years now. My speed is slowly improving, and my goal is to operate comfortably at 20 wpm, but right now my best copy speed is about 14-15 wpm. Operating about 90% CW on 100w and a modest antenna, I have been able to work all 50 states and about 25 DX countries. I’m having the time of my life!

  • Salman:

    I had a great time operating in the Salmon Run with the N7PP centost club in 2007. We broke the all time record score held by my centosting Elmer, K7QQ. It took two stations and five operators in a rare county compared to his single operator station to do it though!

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