Exploring CW

G4ZPY Paddle and Kent Straight Key

What is ‘CW’

In Amateur radio, the phrase ‘CW’ is used to mean Morse code over radio.  Technically, ‘CW’ is an acronym for ‘Carrier Wave’ or ‘Continuous Wave’ .  For communication over radio, you send messages by making the ‘on’ time of the ‘carrier wave’ either short or long in patterns – dits and dahs (note NOT dots and dashes) – defined in the international Morse code alphabet.

CW is the original mode for all radio communications, but even today, it is very popular on account of its simplicity. You can often get a message (QSO) through when other modes prove difficult.


Plain language is more common in long conversational communications, but more typically, common words are represented by letter groups like those used in mobile SMS text messages. There’s also a whole family of three letter groups which can mean an entire phrase or question. In Amateur Radio, these are the ubiquitous ‘Q’ Codes which for some strange reason are used in speech modes too. This is possible the jargon of Amateur radio. Military and Aviation applications use variants others. In addition there are the RST codes and other common number or letter sequences that communicate several words or gestures.

The combination of Q Codes and common abbreviations in QSOs allows the CW mode to be multi-lingual. Interestingly, and sometimes annoyingly,  phone mode operators use the Q codes, even though they were really mean’t for wireless telegraphy. Perhaps the most irritating is those who say ‘HI’ when something apparently humorous is said. A bad comedian laughs at his own jokes.

For decades, the Morse Test was a mandatory part of the Radio Amateur’s Examination if one wanted to use HF. This was removed in 2003 here in the UK and several other countries have removed the morse exam. Many hams regarded the test a questionable obstacle for those wanting to operate on HF using phone, RTTY or data modes. And for some, the challenge of learning morse was a major put-off and some operators never went beyond the ‘G8’ or novice stage. Although it was possible to get a station running on 2m without actually passing the morse test, as you can imagine, the scope of the hobby in the pre-satellite era, was fairly limited. Many amateurs who went through the Morse test exam have never touched a key since. For me, I actually quite like CW but from experience I’ve found that you either love it or hate it.

Of course, Morse is not used commercially and whilst there are application for beacons, it hasn’t been used for over a decade here in the UK. Data modes have long since replaced it in most military applications too. Oddly, you might find it crop up in electronic equipment. Even my old Nokia phone uses the Morse for S-M-S when a text message is received. Some mobiles use M-M. The wierdest application I saw just the other week was in a bar-code scanner at a local supermarket. As a CW op,I instantly recognized letters chirping out of the thing. Different letters were heard for different types of item. People also say they have heard Morse on other equipment too. It does make you wonder if the designer is a hardened CW nut.

CW is still very much alive in the Ham radio world and there has been some revival recently. As a young teenage SWL I hated CW actually, but part of me wanted to learn it in order not to miss far off DX stations. One day I will learn this, I thought. Thirty years later, I have.


  • You can still have a QSO when band conditions are poor
  • Basic and cheap QRP circuits will get you results.
  • Reasonably tolerant of interference though filters will help
  • Amateur Radio Q Codes and common word abbreviations overcome language barriers.
  • For contests, you can really get the score climbing !

Learning CW (from personal experience)

Bluntly, I think you love it or hate it, and it depends on what you want out of the hobby. For me it’s getting to be more relaxing and has become my Sudoku or times crossword – exercising the brain. It also has an air of nostalgia too,  from a time when phone modes couldn’t be used. This makes CW a world apart from the hi-tech world of today. Of course you don’t have to learn it, but it’s a mode that is pretty robust and in a sense, the first digital radio mode.

The goal is to get your brain to subconsciously make an instant translation from hearing a sound pattern into a meaningful letter, word or code group. Reading Morse is totally auditory and you should only work with sounds, NOT conversion charts or look-up lists. If possible, use a computer program to generate the sounds, but you can always use a CD. Better still, join a morse training session.

Some Tips ( I can’t take credit for all of these, but these work for me)

  • Remember. learning morse is about sound pattern recognition,  you shouldn’t refer to paper charts
  • Learn one letter at a time (Koch method) at the speed you plan to work, not  the speed you think you want to start. I found 16 to 20 wpm was a good start.
  • If you use a computer program, don’t let the program rule your training. G4FON is a good one.
  • Don’t send before you can read morse; it will come automatically. Sending is a different process within the brain and by itself, sending doesn’t help your reading speed.
  • Practice little and often, say for around 30 minutes a day.
  • If you are practicing alot, pause for a few days or even a week.
  • If you listen or even try to work a station on air, don’t cheat with a morse reader. These struggle in bad conditions and turn the ‘hearing’ processing into a reading process.
  • Try the Farnsworth technique, where you learn each character at a high(ish) WPM, but spaced out, initially. I’m not entirely convinced about this one personally.


Many morse operators trained on a straight key. And I think you can operate at up to about 25 wpm on a key, although a Merchant Navy Radio Telegraphist once told me worked at 35 wpm on a key.  For short messages I guess you could,  but for rag chews, expect RSI or as Victorian telegraphists call it, glass arm !  If you want to use a key, go for a good one which has a long lever and is fully adjustable. The military keys from WW2 and more recent commercial keys used in the coastal stations always impress me,  personally. They appear form time to time on eBay.

Get used to a paddle as soon as you can,  but set it up properly. I found myself going back to the straight key when my co-ordination went with the paddle.  I now find that I’m getting quite comfortable with the paddle and sending is becoming more natural and instinctive. I wish I had started with the paddle as  it seems to make the QSO very enjoyable and less fatiguing.

Send properly, with correct character spacing. Record yourself occasionally and compare yourself to others. I’ve heard some ops in their late 80s sending beautiful CW on a straight key at 25 wpm. But I also hear mis-set computer programs and bad paddle key operators where the character spacing is wrong and where the words or character groups are all joined up. Guess which one I would prefer to work?

If you become proficient with reading Morse, and fancy a go at a CW contest, hook your rig up to a computer. You can use a paddle for contests but I think it will hold you back and the computer offers a host of other benefits.

Check your transmissions for chirp. It is quite rare to hear chirp these days, but once I had a home-brew CW transmitter with a faulty power regulator chip that used to cause the VFO to shift slightly on key down. It was copy-able but irritating. Also watch out for unwanted modulation of the carrier due to inadequate power supplies.  I’ve heard a CW stations that sound like spark transmitters.

.. so what are you waiting for !