Despite the fact that there is no longer a Morse Code (CW) proficiency test to get an amateur radio license, many hams learn and use this mode daily. CW really does get through when phone can’t, and even more, it’s a skill that you can be proud of having.
When a new ham decides to learn Morse Code and start operating CW, the first thing he or she must do is choose a key. There are many different types of keys available, and choosing one can be kind of confusing. With that in mind, let’s look at the different keys that are available and discuss the pros and cons of each.
The straight key is the most basic type of key. It has a single set of contacts, and the operator makes dits and dahs by holding down the key for different lengths of time. Because the design is so simple, this is usually the least expensive type of key you can purchase.
While many hams prefer using straight keys, I’m not a big fan of them myself. It takes practice to make dits and dahs that are the same length over and over, and I guess that I just don’t have the concentration necessary to do that.
Also, my arm tires very easily when using a straight key. I can’t send very long before I begin to feel it in my wrist and forearm. Hams experienced with straight keys tell me that this is because I don’t have the key adjusted properly or that I’m not holding my arm correctly. Whatever the reason, I can’t really operate for more than 30 – 45 minutes with a straight key.
Paddles are keys that you use with an electronic keyer. They have two sets of contacts, one for the dits and one for the dahs. It doesn’t matter how long that you hold down the key. Once a set of contacts is closed, the electronic keyer will make the dit or the dah. The nice thing about this arrangement is that the electronic keyer makes each dit and each dah the same length every time.
Another thing I like about the paddle is that it’s very easy on the wrist and arm. Unlike the straight key, which you pump up and down, to operate a paddle, you rest your arm on the desk or table and simply actuate the paddle by moving your fingers or rotating your wrist. This is a lot less stressful, and I find that I can operate for hours using a paddle.
There are two main varieties of paddle: single-lever and dual-lever. The dual-lever paddle is sometimes called an iambic paddle. Bot the single-lever and the dual-lever paddles have two sets of contacts, but in a single-lever paddle, the lever is common to both and only one set of contacts can be closed at a time. The dual-lever paddle has two completely-independent sets of contacts, and both can be closed simultaneously. When both are closed, most electronic keyers will send alternating dits and dahs.
Semi-automatic keys, or “bugs”
Like the straight key, semi-automatic keys, or “bugs,” are purely mechanical. The difference between a straight key and a bug, though, is that the bug has a mechanism that makes dits automatically. Dahs are still made manually, though.
Using one of these keys properly takes a lot of practice, and is generally not a good choice for a beginner. I have one myself, and although I only use it occasionally, I still haven’t gotten the hang of using it after several years.
If you do become a CW enthusiast, you’ll find that you tend to collect keys and use them all from time to time. In my collection, I have:
- three straight keys, including the key I used as a Novice and a World War II-vintage J37 key with a leg clamp;
- four paddles, including three dual-lever and one single-lever paddle; and
- one bug
My advice is to try them all and see which you like the best.