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Techniques for head copying CW QSOs

When I worked for a well known radio manufacturer with an active radio club, we had a technician who was ex diplomatic wireless service, though not licensed - excellent assistance for contests. He could copy Russian and Japanese morse, as well as regular morse, written down in the correct symbols, at speeds in excess of 25 wpm.

Needless to say he hadn’t a clue what the messages meant

The Royal Navy had a sub-branch of Radio Operators, (S) all recruited from the radio branch, who chose to specialise in either Arabic, Chinese, or Russian. They also spent around 6 months at, I think, RAF Tangemere learning their chosen language.

Obviously they had to learn the appropriate morse code, and in the case of Russian, they had to be able to copy it at around 35wpm as that was the sort of speed the Russians communicated at…

They rarely, wore uniform. They had new passports issued, and spent their time on both merchant ships, warships and various places abroad, all the time monitoring communications of their chosen specialism,. When they went onto either naval or commercial shipping they took their own communications/recording equipment with them and kept themselves to themselves. Any correspondence was addressed to Mr. XXX and a civilian address if working at a military outpost.

A good friend of mine went off and did Russian. His spoken Russian was good enough that when he was on one ship which needed to communicate with one of the following ‘Elints’ (Russian intellegence ships) nearby he was able to translate for the captain.


It is good to practise head copy using app, computer or any kind of device. But, there is better way. Go on the band and make cw qso s. Different speed, different confitions.


Hi Damir, I do both. I have CW QSOs most days and have for the last 25 years but - as explained in my original post - hard copying to paper. After doing a mental task one way regularly for 25 years, it takes some re-training to do it a different way.

When I created this topic, I had just started learning to head copy. My speed has increased slowly each week from 5wpm to about 17wpm currently. I still struggle with those long multi-syllable words trying to hold the spelling in my head [but apparently this problem is common]. My target speed is about 20-21wpm for my SOTA activating.

The advantage of apps [and I use several] is that they allow me to have an intensive session [without tuning the bands sitting in my outside shack] at a speed on the current limits of my capability whilst doing chores, gardening or walking the dog. Actually, practising head copying whilst outdoors is very useful because it simulates those real-world distractions you get whilst activiating at the summit.

73 Andy

I’ve been watching this thread. It’s something I’m interested in, something I’m working on.

I thought I would share an experience I had a few months back. Fred’s post above (@KT5X) reminded me of it.

I was activating a summit. I had everything set up, tuned up, ready to go. I pulled out my clip board and discovered I had no paper. Nothing to write on whatsoever.

There was momentary panic: What will I do? How will I log?

I wasn’t super worried. I’m fairly good at head copying. Also, I had recently chatted with Steve @WG0AT about logging on a summit. He sent me a link to this video: https://youtu.be/cDClILUcWgI He doesn’t use paper at all. He records it all on audio and then transcribes later when back in the shack. I decided to give that a try. (After all, I didn’t have much of a choice. This seemed my best option.)

To my surprise, head copying wasn’t my problem. I discovered that I’ve become reliant on the paper for sending call signs. I’ve developed the habit of needing to read the call off the paper as I send it. I don’t keep it in my head.

Case in point, Fred @KT5X chased me. I was embarrassed that I had to have him repeat multiple times. It wasn’t that I couldn’t copy his call… I just couldn’t keep it in my head long enough to send it back to him. I shook my head. I thought to myself that Fred must think I’m pretty bad at CW. :man_facepalming: I sent some apology about not having any paper and having a bad memory.

I’m still interested in logging without paper. But, I need to practice head sending a bit more before trying it again.


That’s was an interesting video - many thanks for posting the link. The idea of sound recording sent me to the manual for my new Icom 705 and after a quick read I had it recording the audio onto it’s SD card. By default it only records incoming signals and splits the files into short time slots but with a bit of button pressing I go it to record continuously and also to record transmissions.

That sounds awesome! (Hmmm… Do I want an IC-705?)

Steve records the audio using an app on his smart phone. I did the same. It worked just fine. (I was surprised how well it worked actually!)

I’m also interested in trying the digital logging built into my KX2. That should already be transcribed for me. There should be less typing.

(I still need to work on sending from my head first though. :grin:)

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This step wasn’t covered in the video - so I’m guessing … If it involves a Morse decoder [converting to text] my experience [with the one built into the KX2] is that they are more error prone than humans especially with poorly-formed straight-key sending and with radio-path noise, distortion and fading. If it involves the operator listening to the recording and manually transcribing the callsigns and other log related info, I would find that tedious especially if - as I often do - activate for an hour or more.

It was never my intention to go from 100% hard copying incoming Morse to 100% head copying but [as per my original post] to write down only the info I need for the log. I would always prefer to do that at the summit thereby minimizing the back-home effort in getting my log into the SOTA database.

Many SOTA activators go one step further of course and enter the info ‘live’ into a logging program. I admire that, but like many others, I prefer a pencil and my rite-in-the-rain notepad.

I’m pretty sure @WG0AT uses his own ears back in the shack as he’s transcribing his log, not any morse decoder or anything. He’s very good at head copying. (And head sending :grin:.)

I shouldn’t try to speak for him (maybe he will chime in), but I think he prefers to not be distracted by logging at all while he’s on a summit. Then the QSOs just flow, like a natural conversation. There is the added bonus of fewer items in the pack. (Less to forget!) He has to transcribe to computer anyway. He’s just skipping the put-it-on-paper step.

As to the KX2 logging feature…

I haven’t tried it yet, so I’m not completely sure, but I think what it records is the sent text, decoded from the internal keyer, along with a timestamp. That’s a much easier decode task than received audio. (Though it might also take a stab at the decoded received data as well. Maybe there is a configuration option.) I’ve got to give this a try… see if it’s useful!

What do you do if the recording device - such as a separate phone, runs out of power?


If the recoding wasn’t good enough and you couldn’t make out a call sign due to QRM or QRN?

These are good questions.

I’m once again speaking for @WG0AT without permission. Hopefully I’m representing his views accurately.

He did tell me that his phone is an indispensable piece of equipment on an activation. He wouldn’t think of doing an activation without it. It’s the same for me. I long ago began carrying an extra battery for my phone, just in case it runs low. (Totally worth the extra weight and space in my pack!) Using the phone for this audio logging technique is just making good use of a fundamental tool that he’s going to be bringing on an activation anyway for other important purposes.

As to the recording not being good enough, I too was worried. I had worked a couple very weak stations that were difficult copy. I wondered if I would be able to dig them out in the recording.

To my distinct surprise, those weak stations were easy copy listening to the audio recording. (This doesn’t make sense to me technically. Perhaps it’s due to some kind of psychological phenomenon. E.g. perhaps under pressure, in the moment on the summit it is psychologically harder for me to copy CW. Sort of a stage fright type of thing.) However, even if the receive audio wasn’t good, the recording of my TX side tone was easy copy.

(I note that I was careful to do a couple sample recordings there on the summit, before starting the activation, to make sure the recording levels were good, etc.)

I caution again that I’ve only done this once (because I had to… to rescue what was an almost failed activation). I’ll need a few more successes before I completely embrace it. That said, it does sound attractive to feel comfortable and confident that I can leave my clipboard, paper and pencils out of the pack like Steve does!

So this is my main interest in head copying (and sending :grin:) CW QSOs.


After reading all this about the use of a phone to record the activation instead of a pencil and a piece of paper, I couldn’t help thinking on this I got a few days ago:

The woman sais: Switching ON is not needed. You just have to open the lid… instead of pushing the FWD button you just have to pass the pages and since it doesn’t use any batteries, it never switches OFF!
It’s great!

It’s called “BOOK”.

In the case the boy were a SOTA activator, the woman would surely say it’s called “PENCIL AND PAPER”




Good one!

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Humans speak (on average) at 125 words per minute.
Infants do not start to write until they are usually about 6 years old.
So you should get over speed and writing.
Copying (decoding CW) is nothing different than hearing sound and converting it to
meaningful concepts. That takes determination. Takes knowledge that you can do it.
I learned Morse in 1951 at the age of 13. I had a goal of 5 WPM. I finally got to the point where I could copy Morse at a speed faster than my current age. I reached 50 years old and gave up that goal.

To copy in your head requires that you copy complete words, You certainly can do that, As an EXAMPLE: “A” or other short bursts. You avoid a letter at a time. That sounds like something you can do. Imagine speaking a letter at a time. You would bore the other person and yourself.

Time is a key. Butting short QSOs with a friend where the longest word is 5 letters or less. Put away the pencil.

Good Luck



I thought I would post an update.

I tried out the KX2 logging feature on my activation last Saturday. Here’s what I learned:

  • It doesn’t attempt to log any decoded received data.
  • It only logs what is sent using the internal keyer.
  • If you use a straight key to send it won’t log that.
  • Data sent from internal memories is not logged.
  • It logs a timestamp once a minute.
  • It logs the band that was used each time there is a band change.
  • The log can be downloaded to a computer using the KX2 Utility, or custom program. (I’m dreaming of writing a Python script that will connect to the KX2, download the log, parse it, then spit out a .CSV file ready to upload to www.sotadata.org.uk. But that’s a stretch goal!)
  • The log can be reviewed using just the radio controls and display if you don’t want to bother downloading it.
  • Clean sending will make the log easier to use.
  • 18 QSOs in 45 minutes used roughly 20% of the log storage.
  • I think I could log about 100 QSOs before it’s full. It depends on how verbose I am on each QSO.
  • The log is stored in non-volatile memory somewhere. It is not lost if the battery goes dead, or is removed.

I’m intrigued. This could be a useful feature.

There is a lot more to be said about this. I’ll start a new thread when I know more.

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When I first got my KX2 I played with the logging feature as a potential backup to my paper log [e.g. to verify I got some suspect callsign correct] but quickly decided not to bother for some of the limitations you mentioned, Bruce.

However, the showstopper for me is, if you don’t have the RTC module or don’t use an internal battery [and I don’t], you have to set up the time-of-day manually at the summit, a fiddly procedure that I ain’t gonna do especially in cold winter.

73 Andy

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