Mastering The Morse Code

Morse Code, nobody really still uses that stuff. . . do they? These days everybody uses teletype and TV or they just talk on the radio… don’t they? Nope! Morse communication remains both popular and useful.

In fact, Morse remains the simplest, most efficient, and most dependable form of communications yet invented. In radio parlance, Morse communications is referred to as CW (short for Continuous Wave). For the survivalist individual and particularly for the survivalist group, knowledge of CW could prove vital.

Transmitters for Morse Code

Transmitters and receivers for CW are dramatically simpler than for newer, more sophisticated modes of communication such as Single Side Band (SSB) voice, teletype, television… etc. They can be built much smaller, which means that they are more portable and more hideable, if necessary.

A simple CW transmitter can be made out of only one or two transistors, which could be an important factor if radio supplies and technical help become scarce.

Dyi Morse Code Machine

I have used a simple low powered CW transceiver to communicate effectively with other stations on the other side of the world using only one or two watts of power. Imagine what a two-watt light bulb would shine like, and you get some idea of just how efficient use of power that is!

Low power means that small batteries and even solar power on a small scale are effective. Because CW is simply a signal being turned on and off in a series of Morse code characters, the receiving operator needs only to know that a signal is either present or absent.

This is a tremendous advantage if the signals are weak or if there is an interference of some kind. If you’ve ever tuned to a radio station that was too weak to understand or a distant TV station who’s picture was too snowy to identify what’s being shown you’ve seen and heard two situations in which a CW signal would have been perfectly copiable at a tiny fraction of the power that the broadcast stations were using.

CW can be copied reliably in situations of high static, interference from other stations, and atmospheric fading that, nothing; I repeat nothing else could get through.

Static interference and Morse code

Studies indicate that static levels would he extremely high following the detonation of the many nuclear bombs that would occur in a major war. Even under ordinary conditions, static, interference, and fading can be fierce, and much military and maritime communication is still conducted in Morse.

Listening in on this incidentally is not a bad way to follow what is going on. I’ve found that a lot of CW traffic is in the clear, which is not encrypted.

Perhaps you’ve noticed in the movies about spies in World War II that their radio sets were invariably CW rigs. This is for the reasons I’ve outlined: small size, ease of maintenance, long-range for low power, portability, and relative immunity to jamming and interference.

They did have voice and radioteletype in those days folks, but under those circumstances, they simply would not have gotten through with anything but code. Someday we too may find ourselves in a wartime or emergency situation where the same qualities in a radio would sure be handy.

By the way, Morse is just fine for flashlight, mirror, or flag communications, as well as radio. You’d find it pretty tough to shout across, say, the Hudson river, but a pair of ordinary flashlights would make communicating a snap.

Learning Right

Learning Morse code is not difficult. It requires very little in the way of intelligence, but rather is a reflexive skill similar in many ways to touch typing. This statement may be a relief to some of you, but many of you who share my three thumbed qualities of coordination may be groaning.

For those poor souls who have tried unsuccessfully in the past to master such skills as Morse code or typing, let me say again; learning Morse code is not difficult.

The trick, if it can be said to be a trick, is to learn it the right way, not the wrong way. Sounds silly, but you’d be astounded at the multitude of disastrously wrong ways there are to learn code. Some of them have even become enshrined as the “standard operating procedure” for such prestigious institutions as the Army Signal Corps and the Boy Scouts of America.

The importance of not learning it the wrong way is such that I’ll discuss that even before I tell you the right way.

Learning Morse code the wrong way

Morse Code Visual Aid

I guess the simplest way of learning the code wrong is the one I picked for myself when I was 10 or 12 years old. This is the written method, in which you write down the letters and put little written dots and dashes next to them. Do this long enough, and you will learn the code, in a way… a totally useless way.

It is unlikely that anyone will write you a letter with little dots and dashes on it, but if they do, you’re all set.

The point is that this method gives you an extra mental step to accomplish. First, hear the sound (of the incoming CW signal), then translate that into a visual image of dots and dashes writ-ten on a page, then write down the correct letter.

No matter how practised you are, this extra step takes a great deal of unnecessary time and will interfere with your ability to copy the next letter. Learning it this way also invariably causes you to memorize the code logically, which is counting the dots and dashes.

In my opinion, this, and any means of learning the code visually, will prove a handicap to completely mastering it. I taught it to myself the wrong way, and it took me the better part of 10 years to work out the right way and get really good at it.

I recommend that you learn the code aurally (by ear) only. If you have a need to use flashing lights or flags later, you’ll have no problem. Perhaps it’s the characteristically slower speed of visually sent code, but if you learn by ear, copying by eye is easy, but it just doesn’t work the other way.

Related reading: Signal For Help – Wilderness Survival Tips

For whatever reason it is, I recommend that you avoid any way of learning Morse that involves any visual stimulus at all.

The Boy Scouts Method

My absolute prize for wrong-headed ways of learning Morse goes to an otherwise terrific organization: the Boy Scouts. They invented a method of learning code that is not only visual in nature but depends strongly on a cognitive or thinking rather than a reflexive way of remembering the code.

They use a sort of picture memory association system in which the code characters are first thought of as dots and dashes, then associated with a pictorial image using the letter. My favorite example of their method is the letter “L.” In Morse, L is didahdidit. Try pronouncing it, that’s how it sounds.

What the Scouts do, however, is render it as . _ . . then note that a vertical line with one dot on top and two horizontally placed dots on the bottom looks kind of like a lighthouse, hence: “L.” In order to remember what a letter is, one must go through several steps, at least one of them logical, that is, cognitive.

The nearest thing I can think of as an analogy is trying to remember where the letter “P” is on a typewriter keyboard, thinking to yourself that Portland, Maine, is in the northeast so that the letter “P” is in the upper right part . . . etc. You get the idea.

Memory association is a dandy way to learn facts, names, formulae, and such, but for reflexive skills like typing, karate, fencing, or Morse code copying, it would only prove an asset on a written quiz.

In skills where stimulus responses are required, this just won’t work.

The Army Signal Corps method

I mentioned the Army Signal Corps in my cast of villains earlier. It really did effectively train thousands of highly skilled operators, as many, many veterans can attest. It did teach the code, and it used a great deal of repetitious actual copying to sharpen the skills of the men and women it trained.

There was one problem, though, that was so common among trainees that its fame is still among us. It was the so-called “plateau!’ The plateau was a phenomenon in which the student would progress steadily from the two or three words per minute, that is what you can copy upon initially memorizing, to about ten words per minute.

Morse Code Army training

At this point, the student usually found that he or she was stuck at ten words per minute copying speed, no matter how much practice they put in. Eventually, a breakthrough would occur, and they would begin progressing upward in speed again.

What was happening was that the student learned the code one way, and that way didn’t work above about ten words per minute. By the way, the standard word is five letters, so that ten words per minute copy would be hearing and writing or typing 50 letters per minute, or almost one letter every second.

When the initial method of copying began to fail, as speed increased, he had to learn it all over again by a new method, one that worked above ten words, or so, per minute.

If the code character is sent very slowly, that is each dit and dah is long and drawn out, it is almost impossible to keep from counting and ordering the dits and dahs, and thereby memorizing them cognitively as a series of sounds that must be counted and ordered in order to be understood.

In other words, if you hear “diiiit daaaaaaaaaaaaah diiiit diiiit” you would think to yourself that one dit, one dah followed by two dits, “oh, the letter L. Now this method beats the heck out of writing down dots and dashes, or memorizing lighthouses, but most people can only use this method up to the ten-word per minute mark, at which time the characters are coming too fast for the dits and dahs to be counted.

Read next: 10 Strategies For Communication Security – Don’t Betray Yourself When SHTF

The right method

At this point, a new method of copying has to be developed. It is, in short, hearing the letter being sent as one sound rather than as a number of sounds requiring ordering and counting.

Each letter and number has a different and distinct sound and rhythm. It is almost impossible to hear this rhythm unless the character is sent rather quickly, say, over ten words per minute (wpm).

The plateau in code speed progression experienced by the Signal Corps students was the period of time when they were relearning the code as a series of letter sounds instead of the series of ordered dits and dahs they had initially learned.

It is interesting to note that many people find a similar plateau at 25 to 30 wpm. The transition here is going from copying letter sounds, to copying word sounds. My own top code speed was around 35 wpm, and I am sure that this would have been impossible if I had not understood a high percentage of what was being sent by the sound of the words rather than the individual letters.

By the way, I once won a contest at a Ham convention by sending over 20 wpm with my left foot . . . no kidding! Better than twice what my runner up did . . . Won a clock, as I recall.

There are computer hardware/software accessories that will copy code. I’ve used several kinds. They are much more suitable for machine-to-machine codes like Baudot or ASCII, that is some form of teletype.

These devices will copy Morse but require almost perfect conditions to function with even minimum accuracy.


You have a built-in filter in your head that can be taught to copy code under the worst conditions of noise, interference, and fading, and it gets better and better with practice. Under fairly good conditions, I copy CW much more accurately than a computer code reader. Under really bad conditions it just won’t be able to copy at all . . . but I will.

Other Useful Resources:

Find Out What’s the Closest Nuclear Bunker to Your Home

Learn how to Safeguard your Home against Looters

Knowledge to survive any medical crisis situation during a major disaster

The vital self-sufficiency lessons our great grand-fathers left us

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