Morse Code

My Personal Morse Code Story

I was not always enamored with Morse Code like I am now.  This is a personal story that began when I was about 16 years old or so.  When I was in high school, I wanted to become a Ham.  I had the fortune of having an electronics teacher, Mr. Benson, who was already a licensed Ham.  We had a club station at school; and from demonstrations of the radios, I knew I wanted to get "in" on this great hobby.  Mr. Benson tried to teach a bunch of us the Morse Code; but I wasn't getting it.  In addition to the standard printed out sheet, I went to our local Lafayette Electronics store and purchased an Ameco Code Phonograph Album (remember those?).  No matter how much I practiced, it was no use.  It was all mumbo-jumbo; and unfortunately for me, I gave up after a relatively small amount of frustration.

Fast forward four years.  I had graduated college; had a full time, but not-so-great paying job; and had some free time on my hands, now that homework days were pretty much gone forever.  The local newspaper was advertising an Amateur Radio course that was to be given by a neighboring town's Adult Continuing Education Program.  The spark had reignited and was now a bonafide blaze.  I vowed to myself that this time I would actually do it.

Eight weeks later, as a result of hard work, study and perseverance, I had passed my Novice test.  The teacher had faked us out by promising to give us a "pre-test" so we would feel more comfortable taking the actual code test.  Little did we know that the "pre-test" would negate the need for us to take the "actual test".  We all passed with flying colors!  Approximately six weeks later, I received an envelope through the mail from the FCC with the much coveted "ticket".  I was a "gen-you-ine" Ham radio operator, licensed as KA2DOH.

Still with big dreams in my head, I worked towards my General license.  Visions of sitting behind a desk, with my legs on top, leaning back in a chair, all the while clutching the magic microphone working all the juiciest DX,  filled my brain.  Code was for Novices!  I was to leave it all behind !!!  The next few months saw my code speed rise to the magic 13 WPM mark.  My General Class license study guide was my constant companion.  Six months after receiving my Novice license, I took the test before an FCC examiner and was awarded my General!  I had done it - my hand was firmly grasping the Holy Grail !!  Look out DX, here I come !!!

I rushed home to my "new" used Kenwood Twins, the T599D and R599D.  These were my gift to myself for passing the General exam.  I fired the rig(s) up and got on 20 Meters (the Big Boys band, the promised land - Heaven!).  I took that ol' Astatic D-104 in hand and listened intently for a clear frequency and began to send my voice through the aether as I called CQ.  Meanwhile, unbeknownst to me, I was playing weird LSD style dream games with the TV downstairs.  The picture was a mess, the speaker sounded like a rabid and psycho Donald Duck was trapped inside.  Welcome to RFI, Mr. KA2DOH - welcome to stark reality.  This never happened in the six months of pounding the straight key !!!  The TV never so much as whimpered while I was pounding the brass.

The next few weeks were spent trying to overcome the RFI problem.  Various solutions were tried with varying success.  But it never went away entirely.  If I was to operate during "prime time" it was going to have to be Morse Code or be relegated to family imposed "quiet hours".  It soon became apparent to me that good old CW was to be my salvation.  And you know what ?  I came to love it !!  Once I stopped railing against it; I found that I enjoyed it immensely.  I came to love the sounds, the rhythms, the "song" that Morse Code is.  Today, I operate using CW 100 percent of the time.  If you want to find W2LJ, he'll be in the CW portion of the band, pounding brass and loving every second of it.

Learning the Code

Before I go into this .... if any of you out there want an "On-The-Air" tutor, I will do my utmost to get on the air with you for live CW practice, if you want!  Just drop me an e-mail and I'll try to meet you on the air, at a speed you're comfortable with - propagation permitting, of course!  Again, my e-mail is

There are probably as many different methods for learning Morse Code as there are students trying to learn it!  From the old Boy Scout method, where you would see the letters on a chart and then learn the characters to such "newer" methods as listening to letters delivered as jazzy, upbeat techno-tunes as in the popular CD, "The Rhythm of the Code". 

We've come a long way from learning the Code from LP records (Ameco Code Course), cassette tapes, and even machines designed specifically for learning the Code, such as the old Instructograph.  Today there are a plethora of freeware, and shareware computer programs which will aid in your learning process.  Before we go into them, a few words first about learning the Code.

Learn each letter as a "sound".  Do not learn the letters at such a slow speed that you can count each dit and dah.  If you do it that way, then you will hit the dreaded "plateau"!  This is what we all faced in the olden days when we learned code the old fashioned way.  We learned code characters that were sent to us at a 5 WPM rate.  (For example, the letter C was learned as dah        di        dah        dit).  Then, as Novices, when we tried to increase our speed up to 13 WPM for the General license test; we found the going got rough at about 10 WPM.  It's at that point that Code is coming at you at a rate where you can no longer count the individual dits and dahs.  At this speed you have to unlearn everything you had learned to that point; and you had to learn the sound of each letter as a whole.  It's much easier if you learn it that way to begin with; and this is called the Farnsworth Method.  Play the letters as if they are being sent at a 10 -15 WPM rate (Example - learn C as dahdidahdit) ; but increase the spacing between each letter to achieve the effect of 5 WPM.  If you go this route you will not be tempted to pull your hair out later!

All that having been said, use the program you choose wisely.  This is not an endorsement of one program over another; but one of the nice things about the G4FON program is that you can click and choose the letters you want to concentrate on.  Once you have the basic letters, numerals and punctuation down; but find yourself having trouble with the "sound alikes"; you now have a remedy.  With the G4FON program, you can click just "H" and "5"; or "B" and "6"; or "L" and "F" or "L" and "R" or whatever you might be having a problem with.  (From my examples, you can see where I had problems. Hi!)  This way you can gain the confidence you need to go further.  Please remember that learning Morse Code is not a one shot deal! Once you've learned the 5 WPM rate to pass the license requirement, it doesn't end there.  Getting on the air, you will find that conversational CW begins somewhere around 13 to 15 WPM.  At slower speeds it's kind of like two people talking at each other instead of with each other.

Practice, practice and practice!  And then practise some more.  Listen to Code whether it's software generated or on the air from W1AW or from real time QSOs.  The more you listen, the better; but you want to limit your "concentrated" learning sessions to no longer than about 15 to 20 minutes.  After that you kind of go into "sensory overload" and it becomes counter productive.  A good thing to do is to set up one of the Code practise programs to generate a sound file that you can burn to a CD so you can listen in your car while driving; or even while doing other chores around the house.  It is amazing how much you can pick up when you're just in "listening mode" with the code playing in the background.

Another little "thing" that you can do to help yourself learn code is to "tongue" it.  I know, it sounds obscene; but all this is, is sounding out dits and dahs to yourself using your mouth.  While you're driving back and forth to work, code out some of the signs you see on the road.  Training yourself to translate normal words into Morse Code is good reinforcement. (Oh boy, it's a good thing I didn't miss that ditditdit dah dadadah didadahdit sign!)  You get the idea!

The most important thing - relax, relax and relax some more.  Frustration is your worst enemy and causes more people to give up than any other reason.  You will finally "get it", just don't put too much pressure on yourself!  Learning the Morse Code and using it is one of the most enjoyable aspects of this hobby as far as I'm concerned.  Don't make it out to be such an ordeal.  If you approach the whole process with a positive outlook; you will be amazed at what you can accomplish

There are plenty of good ways to learn the Morse Code.  Here are just a few:

Koch Trainer - This may be the best Code learning program out there!  And best of all, it's free!  You can download it from >  Using this program you can tailor your sessions to your own comfort level.  You can have the program generate random code groups or common words.  The program will even allow you to turn a practise session to a sound file, so you can burn it to a CD for portable Code practice!  I wish I had this program when I was learning the Morse Code - all we had were cassette tapes which sooner or later, you ended up memorizing.

Morse Academy - Can be found by clicking here

Super Morse - This is the program I used to get my code speed up to 20 WPM; back in the day when you had to pass a 20 WPM test to get your Extra Class license.  This is a really good program that will generate random words in addition to letter groups, number groups and mixed groups.  I used to make code practise tapes by putting a cassette recorder near my PC's speakers!  Download it here.

Nu-Morse - This maybe the Cadillac of Windows based Morse Code instruction programs; but it's not freeware.  You can click here to get the details.

For those of you who already are licensed and know the code; but want to get better at it and raise your code speed, I recommend the following:

Morse Runner - This is a great free program!  Imagine your computer is transformed into a rig on contest weekend! Your job is to decipher the myriad of calls coming at you amidst the QRM, QSB, QRN.  This program is simply amazing - maybe the best I've seen!  Click here to download it.

RUFZ - This is the program used at all the international CW proficiency contests.  It is the standard by which Code copying ability is measured.  Click here.

PED Contest Simulator - And that's just exactly what it is - go here to get it.

Using Prosigns 

There always seems to be confusion about the prosigns and their use.  The following table goes through the most commonly used ones.

Prosign Meaning How to use
CQ An general invitation
to any Amateur for a QSO
R Received ..... perfectly! Do NOT
use "R" unless you have copied 100%
R FB BOB .....
BT A pause or a seperator NAME HR IS LARRY
BT QTH IS .....
AR Used at end of transmission when you
are sending it back to the other station.
Also used at the end when you
answer a CQ.


SK Pretty much the same as AR; but to be
used only at the END of your last
transmission of a QSO.
BK Used as a break in a transmission, when
you expect the other station to reply
quickly without going through
station ID.
(W3BBO sends)
(W2LJ replies)
K Go ahead .... over.  Use this when you are
turning it over to another station. You also use
this at the of a CQ.  Do NOT use at the
end when you answer a CQ; because
you're not sure the CQing station will
be coming back to you.
KN Almost the same as K; but used only when you
want a specific station AND NO ONE
ELSE to come back to you. This can be useful
when your in a multi-op roundtable QSO.
CL Use this only when you intend this to be
your last QSO and you will be turning off
your equipment.  A good way to let other
ops know that you will not respond to
any further calls.

How to adjust a bug

Note: My original set of instructions have been augmented and improved by Benny Owens K5KV. In the summer of 2016 he purchased the "bug" estate of K5PRT. He spent a lot of time adjusting over 100 bugs, so I think he has a lot to offer over my paltry expertise. His comments will appear in red text. Thank you so much, Benny!

Using a bug is a real fun part of using Morse Code.  Adjusting one properly so that it works right for you and doesn't frustrate the heck out of you is easy; if you take your time and work methodically. Refer to the photo below for reference.

Many folks talk about adjusting a bug but forget about alignment of the contacts and securing the frame to the base along with all the connections.   The first step to getting a bug working is to tighten all the screws on the bug.  No not the knurled adjustment screws but the ones on the bottom with a slot or phillips head.  Tighten the frame, damper, contact post and terminal screws.   These screws are loose on most used bugs.  Do not tighten the lower trunnion screw at this time.  This is a delicate adjustment on a deluxe bug with the “jeweled” bearings.   This screw is a small slotted screw inside the base under the mainframe.  On many bugs the dah contact must be removed to access one of the mainframe screws but this is a must.  The frame to base connection is part of the key circuit path.

Next is the alignment of the arm and contacts.  The bottom trunnion screw must be released by the lock screw at the bottom of the frame.  Carefully adjust the position of the arm with the top and bottom trunnion screws. Take great care on deluxe bugs not to over-tighten the trunnion screws which will crack the “jeweled” bearings.  It is a simple adjustment on standard bugs.  Since the only adjustable trunnion screw is at the bottom of the deluxe bug, they have a screw that allows vertical adjustment of the arm on the pivot pin.  Standard bugs require both the upper and lower trunnions to be adjusted for vertical arm position.  Vertically align the arm with the fixed contacts by moving the trunnions on a standard bug and/or the screw on the pivot rod on a deluxe bug.  The top trunnion is “A” and the lower is below the base and not shown.  Once that's done you want to adjust the action of the pendulum.  Unscrew "A" - this is the pivot point for the pendulum.  Slowly tighten it.  You'll know you have it adjusted correctly when the pendulum moves from side to side freely with no binding; but, at the same time, you can move the finger pieces up and down with your fingers and feel very little or no play. At this point lock the upper and lower trunnion screws. On round bar bugs the dit contact may be rotated on the round bar so it meets the stationary dit contact with the faces parallel.   Finally adjust the vibrating dit contact to meet the fixed dit contact with the contacts parallel.

The next thing you do is to back off all the adjusting screws quite a bit.  Not all the way; but far enough out so that everything is nowhere near being set.  

The next thing you want to do is to adjust screw "B".  Allow the pendulum to hit the damper.  Screw in "B" to the point where you can either see or just perceive the pendulum has touched the damper.  Stop there and secure the screw with the knurled lock nut.  It is important not to move the pendulum too far away from the damper or else you will not be able to reliably stop your "dits".  On deluxe bugs,  this screw does not exist on the top and is only on the bottom (not shown).  

The next thing you want to do is adjust the  left screw -  D.  This will control the amount of side to side travel of the pendulum.  For smooth code this gap should be as small as possible but there must be enough energy in the vibrating arm to make the dits..  I take a piece of ordinary printer paper and fold it over to double it and adjust the spacing so that the paper will just slip between the point of the screw and the pendulum.  Benny uses a a 0.015 inch feeler gauge or a stiff business card. Some bugs may require a bit more spacing to function properly. This results in a very small amount of side to side travel.  The end result is a nice and clean transition between "dits" and "dahs".  I do the same thing for the amount of spacing for the "dah" contact at C.  I turn that screw in so that the paper (or guage or business card) just slips in the gap easily with no binding, then I lock the set screw in place to keep the setting.

The next thing you want to do is adjust the "dits" making part of your bug.  This is done by adjusting "E".  When "E" is adjusted correctly, you should be able to swing the pendulum to make "dits"; and get 10 to 15 "dits" before the pendulum dampens out and comes to a rest.

"F" comtrols the tension of the "dit" action.  I find it best to tension the spring about half way.  Hopefully, if you follow this guide and play around a little bit and experiment, you will find the "sweet spot" that will allow you to send really glassy smooth Morse Code. If you have used a fine paddle,  do not try to make a bug feel and move the same as your paddle.  The energy needed for the bug to make dits will not allow a bug to move as little motion as a paddle can operate with.  The dit spring needs more tension to move the arm and weight(s) back to the damper than a paddle does.  Simply put a bug can not feel like a paddle.

Sending with a Bug is just as much fun as sending with a keyer and paddles.  However, sending with a Bug allows you to add a little personality.  Listening to CW sent with a keyer sounds sterile compared to that sent with a Bug.

If you need to slow down the speed of your Bug to a point that's even slower than what you can get with the weight(s) positioned all the way to the end of the pendulum, then clip a clothes pin or a few alligator clips to the end of the pendulum.  This will slow down a Bug to an effective speed as low as 13 words per minute or so. Do not extend the rod beyond the bug’s base.  Add weight as required but keep it on the base.  A bug’s mainspring is easily damaged with the extra torque of an extended rod.

Personally, I know I have my bug adjusted properly when I can send the letters X, F, C, P, L and Q with no effort.

Here's a good You Tube video that shows the same: