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CW Procedure
by John Shannon, K3WWP

I get questions about proper procedures for working CW. I also see comments about this aspect of ham radio in magazines, newsletters, and on the Internet. Because of that, I offer this page as a tutorial on the subject based on my 60+ years of learning the best way to make CW QSOs. I've made over 100,000 of them. Within the past few years I've been using a panadapter which gives a visual display of the signals on a ham band. That has modified my procedures a bit as noted here and there in the following text.

Let me take you through a typical operating session or two.

We start off by listening to the band for a few minutes to get a feel of what is going on. The Elecraft PX3 panadapter shortens the time considerably by letting us see quickly what a band looks like. In doing so, we hear or see a few very strong signals so we know the band is open. As we continue to tune and listen, or by checking the peaks on the PX3, we find W5XYZ calling CQ and decide to answer him. In order for him to hear us, we must be transmitting as close to his frequency as possible so we do a procedure called zero-beating. This is accomplished in different ways with different rigs, so the best thing to do is to learn the procedure for your particular rig.

If you use a separate receiver and transmitter, you simply turn on the VFO portion of your transmitter with what is called a "spotting" switch, and tune it until the tone from your VFO matches the tone of the station you are calling. If you don't have a spotting switch on your transmitter, then do your zero beating with your transmitter feeding a dummy load. Never, never do this with the transmitter output feeding your antenna. I'm sure we've all heard signals swishing across a ham band as someone tries to zero beat while transmitting, and know how bad it sounds.

If you're using a transceiver, make sure the RIT, XIT, or SPLIT function of the xcvr is turned off, then simply tune in the station you are going to call until the audio beat note matches whatever offset frequency your xcvr uses. Mine is 650 Hz, but it varies from rig to rig or personal preference. Once again remember various xcvrs may have different ways of zero beating a station, so learn the procedure from your manual. Here is a simple device to aid in zero-beating a signal with just about any rig.

With my KX3/PX3 setup it is easy to zero beat a couple ways. A button on the KX3 zero beats a signal with a single push. I don't use that very often. I prefer looking at the screen on the PX3 and tuning the KX3 until the signal of interest is right on the PX3 cursor.

However we do it and are now tuned to the exact frequency of the station calling CQ, we wait for him to end his CQ with a K. As soon as we hear that K we send the following assuming it is W5XYZ we are answering:

W5XYZ DE K3WWP K3WWP AR    (The AR is sent as one character, i.e. didahdidahdit)

This is known as a 1 X 2 call, sending the other station's call once and yours twice. I have found this to be the best way to answer someone. He knows his call so you don't have to send it more than once, and sending your call twice lets the other station hear it once, then confirm he has it right.

If the station hears you, he will come back to you and the QSO is on. We'll continue with that after some words about what to do when you call CQ yourself.

If no one is calling CQ, but the band is in good shape and you want to work someone, find a clear frequency via tuning around or seeing a clear area on the PX3. Either way then listen for several seconds to be sure it is clear. When you think it is clear, make sure by sending QRL? Tune up and down slightly from your transmitting frequency using the RIT and listening for any responses. Or check any peaks that suddenly appear near your frequency on the PX3 screen. If someone responds with C, YES, QRL, or something similar, simply move on to another frequency. Don't say OK, SRI, TNX, or anything else in response. You've already (unintentionally) interrupted a QSO. Don't make it any worse.

If you get no response to your QRL?, do it again after a few seconds. Some stations take time to respond, don't hear the first QRL?, etc. When you get no response to this second QRL? after a few seconds, start calling your CQ. Don't wait too long, or someone else may come along and grab the frequency, or someone may have heard your QRL? and is now waiting for your CQ so they can give you a call.

Call CQ using the following 3 X 2 format:


Listen or watch the PX3 screen for about 4 or 5 seconds. If listening, tune up and down a kHz or 2 in case someone didn't zero beat your sigs correctly. You can easily spot such an off frequency call on the PX3 screen.

If no one answers, repeat the above sequence until you get an answer or get tired trying.

DON'T: Call endless CQ's. Short calls with pauses to listen for answers are best. We've all heard hams call CQ 10, 15, even 20 times before signing their call. There is no need to do this, and it just turns people away as they get tired waiting to see who you are, and move on.

DON'T: End your CQ with anything but a K. If you end with AR, it simply means you are ending your transmission, and not inviting anyone to answer you. If you end with KN, technically you are inviting only the station you are working to answer you, but since you aren't working anyone yet, it really means you don't want anyone to answer your CQ. Perhaps an exception is when you're calling CQ to a certain area, as in CQ Pacific, etc. Then a KN at the end can mean you only want responses from that area.

Now you've either answered someone's CQ or had someone answer yours, and you're ready to begin the QSO.

We'll assume someone answered you. For the other situation simply reverse the roles below. Here is your first transmission:


Let's break this down with some explanations:
W5XYX - Send his call once to let him know he is the one you are answering
DE - means 'from'
K3WWP - identify yourself by sending your call
GM (GA, GE) - Good Morning (Good Afternoon, Good Evening)
TNX CALL - thanks for the call
UR 579 579 - your RST is 579 (see the RST link in this section for more info)
IN KITTANNING, PA KITTANNING, PA - you're located in Kittanning, PA
NAME JOHN JOHN - of course, means your name is John
HW? - CW shorthand for "How are you copying?"
AR - the end of your transmission
W5XYZ DE K3WWP - identifies both stations to anyone who may be listening
K (KN) - you are now inviting W5XYZ to transmit or inviting anyone else to join in the QSO; if you only want W5XYZ to respond, send KN which means go ahead, specific station.

What we've done in this first transmission is given the station we're working 3 important pieces of information, RST, QTH, and NAME. I like to send each item twice because it gives the station a chance to hear it, then confirm it. Also it gives him a chance to do his logkeeping while I'm sending it. He can write in the frequency, time, etc. while also logging the RST, QTH, and NAME.

Now the other station sends his info back to me.


The R means he copied everything I sent. If he didn't, he should not send R. Saying R, BUT I MISSED YOUR NAME is totally inaccurate.

Now you get into the meat of the QSO, exchanging info about your station, the weather, your job, age, whatever you want to talk about.

W5XYZ DE K3WWP R blah, blah, blah, more blah HW? AR W5XYZ DE K3WWP K

Generally I prefer the format where I give a couple minutes of info, then turn it over to the other station who does the same. Each exchange begins and ends with W5XYZ DE K3WWP. This allows anyone who tunes across our QSO to know who we are.

It's not necessary to do this, however. You can simply turn it over to the other station with a BK without identifying either station. If you do this, be sure to legally identify your station at least once every 10 minutes.

When completing a QSO, I use something like the following:


TNX NICE QSO (NICE CHAT, etc.) - is obvious
HPE CUL (CUAGN) - hope to see you later (again)
VY 73 - very best wishes (NEVER NEVER USE 73S which means best wisheses, 73 is already plural and the added S is redundant and sounds silly)
GM - good morning
SK - that's all I have, my part of this QSO is finished. This should only be used at the very end of the QSO, not in the middle.
K - Joe still has to say his final xmsn, and I'm inviting him to do so now.

When Joe finishes he says SK K3WWP DE W5XYZ CL dit dit

I then send a single dit and another QSO is finished.

The CL that Joe sent means he is closing his station now and won't listen for any calls. The dit dit and my single dit are throwbacks to the old days of Morse. There are many stories about this ending and the 'shave and a haircut' 'two bits' CW endings. I'm not going to go into that here. I'll just say of all the 'cute' little CW endings (including the crowing rooster), I prefer the simple dit dit - dit one.

I know that all of this sounds very complicated to someone who has never made a CW QSO, but it will become second nature to you after just a few QSO's. Perhaps for the first few QSO's, you should copy down the info on paper or index cards and refer to them as you make the QSO, like using cue cards in the TV industry. Remember that everything you did for the first time was a bit (maybe very) complicated, but now you do it without even thinking. That will happen with making CW QSO's also.

Advanced Topics

It was pointed out to me that there are a couple more situations that perhaps should be included - roundtables and tailending. Let's do tailending first.

After you are on the CW bands for a while, you may hear a station engaged in a contact whom you would like to work for one reason or other. The proper way to do this is to wait till the QSO is entirely over and then immediately after the last bit of info in the QSO, send the call of the station you want to work once, DE, and your call once or twice and AR. NEVER call a station if he sent CL since that means he is closing down and doesn't want (or have time) to work anyone else. If the station you call hears you, he will then start a QSO with you or ask you to QSY with him since the station he had been working initiated use of the frequency.

Now let's discuss roundtables or QSO's that involve more than two hams. When you're walking down the street and see two people engaged in a conversation, you don't break in unless you know both of them very well or it is imperative for one reason or other that you talk to one or both of them. It's the same way on the ham bands. You don't break into a QSO without a very good reason. If you must break in, there is really no proper procedure to do so, but the following method is perhaps the best way to go about it. Wait till one of the stations finishes his turn, then immediately after the K send BK. DON'T break in if the station sends KN since he is not interested in talking to anyone else at that time. If the station about to transmit hears you, he will acknowledge the break and ask for your call, then let you join in the QSO. Then you follow his lead and wait for your turn to transmit. Perhaps the other station will be the one to hear you and you'll have to wait for his turn to transmit to be acknowledged. You're a guest in the QSO so again follow the other stations' lead as to when it's your turn to transmit.