Operating High Speed CW
by Robert Underwood - KØRU (aka-K0RU)
FISTS # 7436 - FOG # 6

"The first step in learning the code is to memorize the dot and dash combinations representing the letters. They must not be visualized as dots and dashes, however, but rather should be "auralized" as sounds. There is no such word as auralized, but if there were it would express the correct method of grasping the code. The sound dit-dah (meaning a dot followed by a dash) in the head telephones must impress your mind directly as being the letter A , for instance, without causing black dots and dashes to float before your eyes for an instant ... This is a point that always troubles beginners, but if you learn from the first to recognize the sounds as letters immediately without reverting to dots and dashes, you will make much better progress..."

More succinctly: "Don't try to teach the Ears through the Eyes."
(Wireless Press 1922)

"The second mistake, even in learning by hearing, is in hearing the characters sent so slowly that the learner tends to analyze each one into dits and dahs, and even counts them mentally. (It is wise indeed for the beginner never to hear code characters sent at speeds below about 13 wpm.) These two errors largely account for getting stuck at higher speeds also -- they mean we have not really learned the characters. " - N0HFF, William G. Pierpont

Before you begin, lets define what High Speed CW is within the context of this website.   High Speed CW is the ability of an individual to copy CW in their HEAD at speeds greater then 40 wpm.  The speed window varies from person to person, but generally speaking the ability to copy CW (Morse Code) mentally without the aid of computers, paper, pens, or any other device except your mental ability to hear, interrupt and comprehend the communication aspects of operating CW at high speeds.

I've chosen 40 wpm as the starting point, because usually once you've reached this speed it becomes very difficult to write, print, or type the code as it is being heard.   This is often referred to as the Brick Wall, or Barrier.  Every high speed cw operator will tell you it was 40, 50 or even 60 wpm before they slammed into the brick wall.   The speed is really irrelevant other then the fact you feel you have come to what you believe is the highest potential you can obtain.   This is not so.

Myself... I started learning CW at a very young age.  I learned CW in Cub Scouts at the age of 8.  I played with it with my brothers, and family, and my dad who was also a ham radio operator.  When I turned 10 years old I took my General Test at the FCC District office in Detroit, Michigan and passed.  At the time I didn't realize it, but I was now on a life long dream of adventure and discovery of the wonderful world of Ham Radio more specific (Morse Code).

Currently I operate primarily CW, rarely will I get on HF Phone.  I occasionally get on 2 meters on the local repeaters and work my friends.  But for the most part I'm on CW just about ever day somewhere usually around 40 meters.  Did you notice I said I operate Every Day...  That is the key, its called practice, and practice.   You'll get the idea later from others that have done the same thing.

I operate mobile CW, and yes I do operate while I'm driving.  While driving and operating I can operate upwards 50 wpm, anything above that speed and my fingers get all twisted up with the key.  I use a bencher iambic key, the key is not the secret.   I can operate high speed with any key that is functioning properly and adjusted to my comfort.  I use many different keys including bugs to operate high speed CW I find it challenging to be able to operate using many different types of keys.

When in the comfort of my shack, I can operate at speeds of 70 wpm or better.  Its an emotional thing depending upon how I'm feeling at the time.  However, my typical ragchewing speed is around 40 to 50 wpm.  I'm a member of FOG (Fast Operators Group) typically you will hear us on 7.032 running high speed CW.  When operating on that net, we typically DO NOT - QRS below 50 wpm.  You will hear mobiles running slower, or faster but for the most part everyone runs upwards of 50 wpm or better while in the QSO's.  It's not that we don't want to talk to you, its because our mind is in a different world when were running at those speeds and I'll explain shortly.  Most High Speed operators love to teach CW, and they love to get the attention of a good operator (even at 2 wpm) and teach them the techniques of obtaining high speed CW once they have mastered the basics.

The first step into mastering CW, is first and foremost learning to send and receive it correctly.  You've probably heard this over and over again.  But it is simply TRUE.  One thing you must remember about CW is its NOT A MODE, it truly is a language, just as any other language like Spanish, French, German, or English.  When you went to school in kindergarten, or first grade you learned the letters of the alphabet by seeing, printing, writing and reading them.  Remember the flash cards (C)at, (B)oy, (L)yon.  Well CW is no different.  Before you can even imagine running high speed cw, you must learn the language and learn it correctly. If your on the air long enough your going to work an operator that sends like this


The machine gun man.
Poor timing, and spacing.  Like music the silence is just as important as the note.

Impatient, wants to say everything all at once.

Poor timing with a bug, take your time, nobody is in a race, its better to say it once, then have to repeat yourself.

After you have listened to the samples you get the idea, its kind of like trying to understand what someone is saying when they speak to you very quickly and it all sounds like gibberish. These operators don't realize it yet, but they could all be excellent high speed operators if they would just take the time to SLOW down and master the timing of their sending.  Once you've mastered the TIMING, then begin to increase your speed.

You will often hear CW operator refer to the RHYTHM, or the MUSIC of the code.   Let me provide you with an example you might be able to relate to when their speaking of this.  Say for example you have a Piano, maybe you had played one in church, school or another location at one time.  Using the simple song of "Mary had a little lamb" you may have even tried to play it.  But as you played it, you know it just didn't sound right, but it was fun and you made music..  Well, that is what CW is like, you might be able to Send it, but you know it just doesn't sound right, but you are talking and you feel good about it.  Now there is Slow Musical Rhythm's and Fast Musical Rhythm's.  (a Waltz for example would be a sample of Slow, and Rock-N-Roll a sample of Fast) each is very pleasing to the ear when heard by a professional singer playing a piano.  Just as music, CW is about the same to a high speed operator, it comes across as MUSIC, it doesn't matter if its FAST or SLOW only that is makes beautiful melodies to the ear and mind.

If you have been learning CW for some time, you know your SWEET spot, you know that SPEED that just makes you feel good.  Well, once you master high speed CW, you learn that it isn't the SPEED, its the Quality, and Mental ability to comprehend and enjoy Beautiful Music.

Does that mean you must be a musician to send high speed CW or copy high speed CW...   Of course not, I would say that most of the operators probably couldn't play "Mary had a little lamb" even on a flute, let alone any other type of instrument for that matter.  But what they have mastered is the ability to truly Speak and Comprehend a different language.

Here are a couple examples of what most high speed operators refer to as Beautiful Music, as you listen to them don't try and copy the letters or message, just simply listen for the rhythm of the music within the code itself you'll know when you hear it, it will make you feel comfortable and relaxed... Sorry for the poor audio quality, I made them all 8-bit mono to reduce the download size for dialup users.

Samples: These were done using my bencher iambic key up to 50 WPM.

15 WPM           20 WPM           30 WPM           40 WPM           50 WPM

50 wpm is my top speed for using a key without making so many mistakes.  Anything over 50 wpm I use a keyboard for, the following are speeds above 50 wpm.


60 WPM           70 WPM

70 to 75 wpm is my maximum copy speed.  Sustaining any speeds greater then 75 wpm is very hard for me, like a fine tuned race car I can run speeds above 75, but only for very short burst of time like during a contest or something.  I'm not able to sustain those speeds above 75 for a conversation or ragchew.

The following is the way I learned to copy high speed CW, it maybe different for each person you run into but usually when you talk to a high speed operator in person they will typically explain it in the same fashion, just using different wording.

When I started coping high speed CW I would probably say was purely by mistake, and I mean that literally because I don't know exactly when it happened, it just did.  One day I noticed that I was only writing down the gentlemen's Call, Name, maybe city, state, or even radio, but I noticed I was no longer writing down everything.  Here is what I mean.

Actual message sent,


What I wrote down,

Hmmm, how did that happen.  Well the mind seen the words, not letters and realized it was a part of the conversation but it was (chit chat) just like if you were talking VERBALLY with someone you don't pay attention to the words of "IS, THE, FB, SUR," etc.  You pay attention to the MEAT of the conversation.  Wow, I'm no longer writing down every letter, of every word I heard.  I had been coping like this for sometime, but never really noticed it, until one day the light bulb came on.

As time went on, now I typically only write down the call and name.  Even when driving, sometimes if the call is a short one, I don't bother writing that down.  If its someone I've work many, many times I don't writing anything down.  Just like when you walk up to your High School buddy you've know for years, you recognize them, you know them inside and out, and you don't need to constantly remind yourself his name, and what he looks like.


I don't know how many times I've been asked, how in the world do you copy CW that fast.   Its no big secret, its simply practice, and practice.  Earlier I stated I'm on the air about every day.  This is true, speak to my friends and they will all tell you, oh he's on 40 CW probably. 

Typically I get on around 7 pm CST, and operate until about 10 PM when I go to bed.  Oh did I mention, you better have a very good relationship with your WIFE, GIRLFRIEND, because before you attempt operating like most high speed CW ops, you better have things worked out with the XYL about your playing times.

Amateur Radio is not a hobby for me, it has become a life long challenge and pleasure.   I've constantly heard newcomers, and old farts talk about the hobby as going down hill, or needs updating.

Typically what I've discovered is they themselves have become burnt out, or just can't find the challenge of the experience anymore and maybe need a break from the same old routine.  It always amazes me when I work another fellow High Speed Operator, they always have the same story.  "Yup Rob, I'm like you I used to operate Fone all the time, I got tired of the same old Signal Check, Qth, Name, Rig, Audio Check QSO and discovered my love for CW"  Why is that?   Because they found themselves challenged by the ability to accomplish something very few operators get to experience.  I've know old timers that swore once they got their General ticket, they would NEVER touch a Code Key again.  Only after years of playing with Phone, they realized what they've been missing over the years and that was the challenge and excitement of operating CW.


Below you will find opinions of other High Speed CW operators and hopefully find some helpful information.

N0HFF - William G. Pierpont, Considered to be the Master of High Speed CW Operations and Teachings


The Art and Skill of Radio-Telegraph (PDF format)


W3NJZ - Fred Ryan



FISTS # 10202, FOG # 5, SOB # 5