To Key, or Not to Key? …that is the question.
Written by [code name] Popeye
(My apologies to Wm. Shakespeare)
How and WHY You Should Select a Straight Key:
One of the most common questions we get about learning Morse code is whether to begin with a straight key or a keyer and paddles. First, let me explain a bit about my experience and why I absolutely prefer that ‘communicators’ start with and regularly use a Straight Key.
AmRRON is an emergency communications service organization, this is not about ‘RadioSport’.
For over four decades, I’ve been communicating from places in the world that most people cannot even pronounce. Most of that time, I was using Morse code. Why? Because it works. When high-tech solutions froze (literally) I sent my ‘stuff’ in Morse. When satlinks were not available, I sent and received it in Morse. Even as a civilian, when I was living out of a rucksack in the Frank Church Wilderness or the Mojave desert for a few weeks, I kept family and friends of the team and our bush pilot in contact using a home-made radio, using Morse. I’ve sent from scorching deserts in blowing sand, frozen mountains in deep blowing snow, from the cockpit of a small boat using water-tight portable gear and yes, out of apartments in odd places in the world. When computers stopped working because of low temps (one message terminal locked-up at -22F ) I was able to continue in Morse. So, I know a bit about how this all works when the chips are down. Please listen to my advice; these lessons have already been paid for so that you can receive them for free.
Back to this question of ‘Which key do I start with’? I’ll show you examples of straight keys and Paddle/keyers.
Straight Keys come in many shapes and sizes, but the one thing that they all have in common is that they are a simple switch; press it down and it conducts electricity, let it up and it stops conducting electricity. It’s really as simple as that. Almost anything is reliable while sitting on a desk in an air conditioned house. However, a Straight Key is very reliable under tough field conditions!
Paddles and Keyers are a different animal and must be used together. The keyer is an electronic gadget that takes input from the paddle and converts it into DITs and DAHs. The paddle is made of two switches laid side-by-side operated by pressing side-to-side on little ‘paddles’ connected to each switch – hence the name. Press the left paddle/switch and the keyer circuit send DITS ; press the other paddle/switch and the keyer circuit send DAHS. Speed is adjusted electronically, usually with a knob. Let me repeat myself: To be able to use paddles, the radio MUST have an internal ‘keyer’ or else you must drag around an external electronic keyer. Paddles MUST be used with a “keyer.” Without a keyer, these expensive, delicate, heavy paddles become a very poor straight key.
Can you USE a keyer and paddles in the field? Yes – I’ve done it myself and it’s done all the time in ‘sport’ hobby hamming, usually by hams who have been using Morse code for decades and know how to trouble-shoot their equipment in the field. However, the foundation of Morse, the one that you can always fall back on, is the Straight Key.
‘But, I want to send FAST! and some guy on the ham forum said a paddle is faster, ‘
“Faster than what?” I ask. The straight key is commonly used to just over 20 words per minute. (you might want to read that again). So, unless you and those you communicate with are already Morse magicians, sending and receiving very accurately at well over twenty words per minute, you will not be held BACK by a straight key ! In fact, you will probably be so much more accurate with a Straight Key that you pass your messages faster because, 14 – 18 words per minute is an ideal speed range to send a Morse message to a moderately trained operator and have it be correct on the first try, saving time and confusion. Send it once, and you won’t have to resend the message to fill-in the blanks. Even when I would pass my traffic to and from a maritime shore station, I’d drop speed a bit to ensure a one-send-pass of radio traffic. These were good shore operators, but we all knew that sending while bouncing and rolling in a small boat in waves is tough, and hand-sent Morse at slower speeds is easier to copy onto paper accurately. I can ONLY write so fast… so the straight key is plenty.
That brings-up another point: who is copying this Morse message that you’re sending? The reason that I ask is that High Speed Morse operators always copied code on a ‘mill’ – a special telegrapher’s typewriter. YOUR recipient will likely be using a pencil and paper. The best message handling in Morse is by matching the speed of your sending to the speed that the other station can copy with a pencil. That golden 14-20 word per minute range, with nice wide word spacing is excellent pencil and paper speed. It’s always faster to pass the message ONCE accurately at moderate speed than to repeat it INACCURATELY two, three, or four times at ‘high speed’.
The operator using a straight key is far less likely to fall into the trap of sending faster than they can think; a common problem with keyer and paddles. A paddle and keyer is like beginning to learn how to shoot using a machine gun: lots of sound and fire – very few hits. A straight key is more like a scoped hunting rifle, yes a lower cyclic rate, but very very accurate in even moderately well trained hands and MOST likely to hit the target one the first shot. Which is more feared in the battle field: the guy doing ‘spray and pray‘ or a sniper? Learn to use the straight key and you’ll produce fewer stray DITs and more hits.
My ‘SuperPower’ is sending faster than the speed of thought !
Adjusting, servicing and using a straight key is simple and a Straight Key works on any radio made for Morse.