K5LAD - 50+ Years of Ham Radio Memories

Volume XLV

A Capsule Course in Working DX on CW

You just thought you couldn’t do it

By Jim Pickett – K5LAD

Almost every organized DXpedition will offer, as part of their operation, a station or three operating on the CW bands.  To look at the statistics of a completed DX operation you will see that a large portion of their final totals will be made up of CW contacts.  You’ll notice the same thing among a club or group’s ARRL Field Day totals.  If you want to have a high score, you’ll certainly be sure to operate a CW station.


The fact is that knowledge of CW, both sending and receiving, was required for many decades, just to be allowed the chance to sit for the written part of a license exam.  No code… no test… No test… no license.

In truth, this requirement kept many folks out of the hobby, as they were unable to learn that “dot and dash stuff.”  There were numerous reasons that CW was such a barrier but it was a true barrier for many.

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The introduction of the “no-code Technician” license in 1991, and the later total elimination of the code requirement, opened the hobby for many who had previously been unable to join the amateur ranks.

Currently, if you happen to listen to a typical CW DXpedition pileup, you hear the DX station sending at a very fast speed.  On a regular (non-DXpedition) contact with a CW station, if your receiving speed is not too fast, your option should be to send to the other station at the speed you are able to copy comfortably.  With few exceptions, a person is usually able to send code at a much faster rate than they are able to decode it.  A good CW operator will send to you at the speed you send to them.  That’s why it is never a good idea to try to show off your impressive sending ability.  You go fast, they’ll come back fast; you come at them slower, they should match your speed.  However, that does not apply to a DXpedition and all bets are off.   They’re there to make as many contacts as they can.  After all, they’ve invested a considerable amount of their time, their money, and their life to be involved in this DXpedition and that means the faster they go, the more QSOs can be made.   If you want to work DX on CW, it’s up to you to run faster to catch their train; it’s not going to slow down just for you to catch up.  That, however, is not a big problem because this article will show you how to work DX on CW when they’re going blazingly fast and you are only able to copy frighteningly slow.  There are, of course, both software and hardware options that are able to decode code at varying speeds but the method listed here uses nothing more than the software and hardware items given to all hams at birth and should be always available to them.  This article seeks to show anyone that they can work DX on CW and not even know, in its entirety, all of the Morse alphabet characters.

It should also be noted that the DXpedition station will also be sending their call in CW, very fast, and needs to be decoded and confirmed; but it is assumed that to have found the DX station on your receiver, you used some other method than just by chance, tuning across their signal.  Using a good computerized logging program like the free Logger32 www.logger32.net, it will have built-in links to numerous DX Cluster sites and will be listing the station’s call, the frequency on which they were spotted, the time of the spot and even the call of the spotting station so you know the areas that are currently hearing and probably working that DX station.  This means you don’t really even need to copy the call of the desired station, just follow the trail left by others.

Oddly enough, after the CW component was removed from the licensing requirements for many countries, including the United States, CW did not disappear from the scene but instead it has grown to be more popular.  I suspect it is partially rooted in the internal feelings some children had concerning doing a task that involved some effort on their part.  Anyone who has [endured – participated – survived| choose your favorite descriptive word] the joys of parenthood often learned that rather than push their young offspring into a particular deed they draw back their “excessive encouraging” and Little Johnny or Little Suzie will often decided on their own to complete the task.  I offer this only now as one who can look back on my earlier parenting years and still (finally) smile.

Besides the disadvantages of having to spend time learning first the code elements and then learn to mentally convert them into some form of understandable language, there are quite a few advantages to using CW for ham communications, even more than being able to rack up a larger total on your number of contacts.  Communications with CW takes less transmitter power to make a contact at a similar distance.  If you’re not blessed with a super station and/or tower and antenna setup, you can still make some really impressive local and long-range QSOs, thanks to CW mode.

It might come as a surprise to the newcomer or veteran, looking at CW for the first time, that you don’t even need to be proficient in Morse code for you to see success.  In fact, to work a DXpedition and make a legitimate contact, there are only a few Morse characters you need to know.  First, and most important, you need to recognize your own call in code.  Old timers learned that, many years back and that part is critical.  This is learned by sending your call, and sending it, and sending it again --- often.  We used to have code practice oscillators that were used for sending practice for ourselves and for receiving practice when you could get someone else to do the keying.  Many modern-day transceivers, and even some of the older ‘boat anchors’ can be set up to generate keyable tones while not placing an interfering signal on the air.  A search of the Internet should provide numerous simple circuits for building an oscillator for code practice use.  I believe the simplest one I ever saw involved a small amplifier a fellow owned, which had a place for a microphone input.  He used a cheap microphone and placed it on the table directly in front of the speaker and turned it on.  

Hey, Skipper, wouldn’t that cause audio feed-back?” “It sure would, Little Buddy,” and it did.  He, then, placed his key in series with one speaker lead and keyed it that way.  Pretty awkward but it worked and, once again proved the old saying, “Necessity is the mother of invention.”


Once you’ve learned the letters in your call, you practice that over and over again.  Even a ham who was dragged to the licensing process, kicking and screaming but still learned the code, can recognize their own call and usually at an fairly amazing speed.  When working DX on CW, it is critical that you are able to recognize your own call coming back; otherwise you cannot know if the station has acknowledged your signal.  Let’s see. how many characters are in your call, 5?…..6?…… that’s not too many to learn.

There are just a few others to recognize so that the contact can be successfully completed.  Every DXpedition operator will give you the same signal report (599 or 5NN) and you will give them the same report.  Even if they are weak and noisy, you’re going to give them that same report.  If you would happen to give them something different, they would probably consider you some kind of a goofy person.  So there, you’ve captured another part of the DX station’s contact info with your station and you only had to learn two more characters; and on top of that, you can use those same two characters to give them their return report …………. pretty neat, huh?

There are a few more characters to know but they’re easy ones:   P, T, and U.   You need to be able to listen for the letters T (dah) and U (di-di-dah) sent together, i.e., TU.  That means “Thank You” and the DX station is acknowledging that he got your report (of course he already knew what you were going to send) and he is thanking you and moving on to another call.  Don’t expect him to stay and chat with you about the hula girls or the palm trees on the island because he’s trying to work as many stations as possible.

OK, let’s recap……………. You only needed to learn the few characters in your call, the characters for the report (a 5 and a 9 or an N) and the two letters T and U.  Hey, there’s a bunch of letters of the alphabet that you didn’t even need to learn and you might have just been able to work DX on CW with a minimum station and antenna.  Even if the DX station is sending very fast, and they are often going 30-40 WPM, since you are only looking for a very few characters you can get those few from them even at high speed.  Once you have learned those characters and you know what to anticipate from the DX station, you can recognize and copy those few characters that are going by very fast.

Yes, there’s one more letter mentioned above that has yet to be identified. the letter P.  Many, if not most, DXpeditions will operate “split” frequency operation.  This is to say, they will transmit on a particular frequency which is often advertised on their Internet website and they will listen up the band from where they are transmitting.  They will often send the word UP (di-di-dah  di-dah-dah-dit).   Sometimes they will tell the waiting horde how far up but often it’s from 2-10 kHz up the band.  The UP is to tell you where they are listening but if you tune around up the frequency from when you hear their station, you can hear [several – gobs – hundreds – jillions] (again, choose your favorite descriptive word) of stations calling him.  Depending on how rare the DXpedition station is, the more people who will be calling him.  Ah, ha, but now YOU know the secrets to working him.

One last thing, there is one more use of a couple of the Morse characters that are mentioned above.  Almost any time there is a DXpedition, you’ll find a group called “The UP Police.”  These are self-appointed stations that have taken upon themselves, the private task of telling some operators that they are operating incorrectly.  When a DX station is operating split, you should not transmit on his frequency, actually for several reasons:  first, it covers up the DX station so others cannot hear him; but second, and more important, the DX station is not listening on his own frequency but is listening up the band as he had announced.  “The UP Police” are most akin to the ‘Hall Monitor’ you remember from elementary school who thought the entire world rested on their ability of carrying out the critical and unwelcomed task of calling you down for an infraction.  Those who do transmit on a DX station’s frequency have usually done so accidentally and would gladly press the right button or rotate the correct knob to set up their station correctly for split, particularly if it was told to them in a kind way.  After all, the reason they’re there is to work the DXpedition station.

These UP Police on CW send “UP UP UP UP” to chastise the offender.  These same individuals are the ones who, on SSB scream, “UP UP you idiot” or “split, split   are you stupid?”  These Masters of Rudeness instead must shout or key in their vile words of hatred since they obviously think they are without sin.  One wonders if they won’t be shoveling pine knots in a fire someday.  The UP Police are unchosen, unwelcome, unruly clods and should return to live with their friend under the bridge, the Troll.   Pardon me but I may have accidentally let my opinion slip and display my feelings about this group of “enforcers” in this piece and I certainly did not mean for that to happen.

Good luck in your efforts to work some DX by using CW.  It’s out there, just waiting for you.

 Published TARC Newsletter October, 2012


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