Keys, Bugs, Paddles, and Keyers, a terminology introduction

There are lots of ways to send CW, each with its own fans and detractors. This terminology introduction is intended for someone new to CW. I won’t try and steer you too hard toward one particular device, but will just attempt to introduce the terminology, so you will have an idea of what people are talking about when you hear or read a heated discussion elsewhere. The choice of a sending device is a very personal one.

Each of these types of devices is available in a wide variety prices and of quality grades, ranging from crudely built homebrew devices constructed with paper clips and hacksaw blades all the way through beautifully crafted, finely machined, gilded, polished, functional works of art. Prices range over two or three orders of magnitude. It’s beyond the scope of this introduction to rate specific manufacturers, or to suggest what quality or price level offers the best value.

  • Straight key. This is the classic telegraph key. It goes up and down. It is essentially a big, precise, momentary contact, normally open, SPST switch. The operator is in full control of the start and stop of each element. When the key is down, the transmitter is on, and when it’s up the transmitter is off. Nothing could be simpler. There was a time when a straight key was all that was reasonably available, so there are many people today who learned on a straight key. Many still recommend learning on one, but I promised I wouldn’t try to steer you too hard. Because the operator has full control of all the timing, a straight key shows off the operator’s skill or lack thereof most clearly. It requires the most motion by the operator’s hand. It allows the operator to speed up or slow down at will, without reconfiguring anything. You can often tell when an operator is sending with a straight key, because the length of elements will vary from one letter to the next, or even within a single letter. The sending becomes personalized with the operator’s unique “fist”. You may learn to recognize specific people by their style of sending. It’s unavoidable for each straight key operator to develop something of a unique fist, but a good goal, especially when learning, is to try to minimize the uniqueness of your own fist, and try to keep the rhythm as standard and even as possible, sounding close to machine-generated code. A strongly accented fist can be difficult for others to copy (but copying and recognizing a slightly personalized fist can be one of the joys of working CW).
  • Cootie/Sideswiper. When used all day, every day, the up and down motion of a straight key caused “glass arm” or what we would now call repetitive stress injury, or carpal tunnel syndrome. Telegraphers discovered that a side-to-side motion was easier on the hand. A “cootie”, or “sideswiper” was invented as a result. It’s basically a straight key turned on its side, with contacts in both directions, so that pushing it to the left or the right turns the transmitter on, while letting it rest in the middle leaves the transmitter off. There are no electronics in the device, so, like the simple straight key, the operator still fully forms the start and end of each dit and dah. This means it has many of the same advantages and drawbacks as the straight key, including each operator’s individual “fist”. But the cootie has a unique characteristic, since each successive element of a letter is formed with a movement to the opposite side of the previous element. For example, the four dits of an “H” are likely to vary a bit, with the first and third dits from one side being a little differently timed than the second and fourth ones from the other side. You won’t find very many cooties marketed these days by modern commercial manufacturers. That may be because they’re equivalent to a single lever paddle (see below) with both sides shorted together, so anyone who wants a cootie can just buy a single lever paddle and wire it up as a cootie. In fact, the cootie was never a large commercial succcess, because it was developed at around the same time as the bug. Professional full-time operators usually preferred the bug for its greater automation. Many cooties were homemade by those who didn’t have the budget for a professionally built bug.
  • Bug. The “bug”, more formally known as the semi-automatic key, is a purely mechanical device that has a lever (sometimes two levers) that go side to side. Pushing the lever one way, usually to the left, works like a straight key, but by convention this is only used to form dahs. Pushing the other way will set up a vibrating device using weights and springs to send a string of repeating dits when it is pressed and held. Because the bug is somewhat complex mechanically, and has no automation of the dahs, it has been overtaken in popularity by paddles used with electronic keyers these days, but it still has a loyal following. If you’re curious about the workings and adjustments of a bug, here’s an extract from an Army Technical Manual describing Adjustment of and Sending with a Bug. it requires a certain amount of force to set a bug’s reed vibrating properly, users of a bug tend to develop a habit of slapping it around rather forcefully. If they later transition to paddles and electronic keyers, they often maintain the habit, even though it’s not needed with paddles.
  • Single-lever paddle. This device has one paddle, which you can push to the right or the left. The paddle by itself is just a pair of dumb switches, very much like a cootie, except that each side is connected to a separate switch. But the paddle is not normally used to control a transmitter directly; instead it is connected to an electronic keyer, and the keyer switches the transmitter on and off. One side of the paddle tells the keyer to automatically make a string of dits, and the other side tells the keyer to make a string of dahs.
  • Dual-lever paddles. This is two independent paddles, set next to each other. One makes dits, the other makes dahs. Like the single-lever paddle, the paddle itself is a pair of dumb switches that is used with an electronic keyer in order to automatically generate the strings of dits and dahs. You can use the dual lever paddles by pushing one at a time, more-or-less like a single-lever paddle. But there’s another possibility — you can squeeze both paddles at once. That leads us to a discussion of keyers, below. Note that the entire mechanism may be called a “dual lever paddle” (singular), or it may be called a “set of paddles” (plural), because there are two of them in the unit. Sometimes, the word “paddle” is used to refer just to the flat fingertip pieces at the tips of the levers, and sometimes it’s used to refer to the entire unit. I’m afraid there’s little consistency. Context should make the usage clear.
  • Keyer. This is an electronic device used together with paddles. Terminology note: The thing you touch when sending is called the key or paddle. The keyer is an electronic device that is either built in to your transmitter or sits between your paddle and your transmitter. A keyer converts the on-off switching action of paddles (either dual-lever or single-lever), into on-off switching of the transmitter in the dit and dah rhythm. Modern HF rigs usually have a keyer built in, but you can buy or make standalone keyers, as well. Most keyers will have an audio oscillator and speaker built-in, called “sidetone”, which allows you to hear the dits and dahs as the keyer makes them. If it’s not provided by the keyer itself, this function should be provided by the transmitter that the keyer is connected to. One way or another, you need to be able to hear the dits and dahs as they’re sent, so that you know when to press and release the paddles as the letters are being formed. The sidetone audio can also be used for sending practice if the keyer is not connected to a transmitter. Some keyers may have memories so you can store frequently-sent messages to send at the touch of a button. Keyers will all have some sort of speed adjustment, maybe in the form of a knob or maybe in some sort of configuration menu. Many keyers will have some finer timing adjustments for the ratios of dah to dit time, and dit to space. When you use a keyer, the keyer controls the length of the dit and dah, and it controls the minimum space between the elements within a letter. But the operator is in control of the space between letters, and the space between words.

    All modern keyers support iambic mode when you use them with dual-lever paddles. If you squeeze both paddles simultaneously, an iambic keyer will generate a string of alternating dit-dah-dit-dah-dit-dah for as long as you squeeze both paddles. The term “iambic” comes from poetry, and describes an alternating unstressed/stressed rhythm.  The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain. Di dah di dah di dah di dah di dah

    For the sake of completeness, I’ll mention that there’s another mode of squeeze keying besides iambic. When you squeeze the paddles connected to an ultimatic keyer, it will generate a string of elements from whichever paddle was touched last. This makes some letters use more presses than iambic, and makes other letters use fewer, but for some operators, it is more intuitive. 23 of the 26 letters are produced the same way in either iambic or ultimatic mode, but P, X, and C, as well as several punctuation marks and prosigns, have differences. To produce “P” (.–.) in iambic mode, you make the first dit by pressing the dit paddle, then release it and press the dah paddle to make the two dahs, then release dah and press the dit again to make the final dit. That’s three total presses. But in ultimatic mode, you can press and hold the dit paddle, then press and hold the dah paddle to make the two dahs, release the dah paddle, and the final dit will be made by your still-pressed dit paddle. Ultimatic has the advantage here, requiring only two presses. The “C” character (-.-.) with its alternating dit-dah pattern, is tailor made for iambic keying, and requires only two presses with iambic, versus three with ultimatic, so the advantage goes to iambic there. Counting presses, the two methods come pretty close, but the real advantage to ultimatic is that the dit paddle always produces dits, while the dah paddle always produces dahs, which may feel more intuitive than the alternating dit-dah sequence produced by iambic keyers.

    While all modern keyers support iambic keying, support for ultimatic mode is much less common, especially among those keyers that are built in to most of today’s rigs. If you want to use ultimatic keying, you’ll probably have to use an external keyer instead of the keyer built in to your radio.

    By the way, any keyer will support any paddle, whether single lever or dual lever. Either type of paddle consists of two switches. From the keyer’s perspective, the only difference is that, with a dual lever paddle, the two switches might sometimes be squeezed to be pressed simultaneously, but with a single lever paddle, the mechanical design of the paddle prevents that from happening. Some operators use dual lever paddles but never squeeze them — from the keyer’s perspective, a dual-lever paddle which the operator never squeezes is indistinguishable from a single lever paddle.

    A final bit of trivia: Some keyers support a “bug mode”, where the dit paddle produces an automatic string of dits, but the dah paddle behaves like a straight key. Or if you prefer, the dah paddle works like the dah paddle on a bug.

  • Keyboard. Combinations of software and hardware are available to let you use a computer keyboard to send Morse. For a touch typist, this is the fastest way to send code. It’s also the least “personal”, with the computer in control of all the timing and spacing. The extra hardware required may be too big and power hungry for some types of portable operations.

A quick note about changing speed. Obviously, someone using a straight key or cootie can slow down at will. On the other hand, adjusting the speed of a bug’s dits is a rather complicated procedure, and not something that the operator is likely to do during the middle of a QSO. The bug’s range of speed is limited, and most have a lower speed limit that is somewhat high, maybe 15-18wpm. But the bug operator may use the “dah” to make dashes as long as desired, and of course may leave as much space between letters as desired. Electronic keyers and morse keyboards vary in the ease of adjusting speed. Many have a knob that can be twisted. Some have a computer menu of some sort, which may not be so easily accessible. So if you send “QRS PSE”, meaning, “please slow down”, the other operator might take a while to make an adjustment before coming back. As you shop for a keyer, whether built in to a rig or external, you may want to consider how easy it is to quickly adjust speed. It may seem hard to believe, but one day, you will be the one slowing down for a newcomer.

Some operators put a straight key in parallel with a bug or keyer, so that they can quickly have the flexibility of a straight key if circumstances call for an unusual timing. Some manufacturers have even produced double or triple keys, combining a straight key with paddles or a bug, or even all three, side-by-side on a single large and heavy base. But that’s the exception. Most people stick to one device at a time, and many never learn to send, or at least never become really comfortable, on a second style of device.

You have some choices to make. In addition to the obvious choice of which of the above sending devices to use, some more decisions are:

  • Which hand to use? It may seem obvious that you should use your dominant hand to key with. That is, use the same hand you use to hold a pencil. Most people do operate this way. But some people learn to key with their other hand, so that they can hold a pencil in one hand while keying with the other. This makes it quick to switch between sending and receiving, and it divides the work between the two hands.
  • Dit on left or right? The standard is to have dits on the left paddle. That is, for someone who keys with their right hand, the thumb produces dits and the index finger produces dahs. But this standard is by no means universal. Some who key with their left hand reverse the paddle so that their thumb makes the dits. But some people, both right- and left-handed, use their finger for the dits and thumb for the dahs. It’s hard to say that any particular method is more intuitive, natural, or easier, but once you learn one way, it will be hard to switch. If you have your paddles set up with dits on the right, it can become an issue when you want to operate someone else’s station. It’s easy to switch paddles and keyers to swap the dit and dah sides, either by rewiring the connection, or by changing a configuration item in the keyer. But mechanical bugs can’t be switched. They are much more common in the “standard” arrangement of dit with the thumb when operated with the right hand.
  • Dit on tip or ring? Paddles are connected to keyers via a stereo audio plug, either 1/4″ or 1/8″. The standard is for the tip to be the dit and the ring to be the dah, but most keyers will let you swap this around. This choice is totally unimportant until the day you take your key and plug it in to someone else’s rig. If you prefer to put the dit on the right paddle, you might want to wire your paddle so that the right paddle is connected to the tip. This might allow you take your own paddle to a club rig on field day, plug it in, and start operating without searching for a keyer menu choice to swap the dits and dahs.This is probably the least important choice to make, because it’s so easy to switch the hardware or software around.
  • Iambic mode A or B? This is only important if you do iambic “squeeze” keying. The difference between these two modes is in what happens when you squeeze both paddles and then let up on both simultaneously. In mode “A”, the keyer will finish the current element and then stop. In mode “B”, the keyer will finish the current element, send one more element, and then stop. Most modern keyers will happily switch from one mode to the other. Operators are usually much less happy to switch between modes. Here’s a tip: Since the only difference between the two modes is what happens when you release both paddles simultaneously, it follows that if you never release both paddles simultaneously, you’ll never notice a difference, and you’ll be able to switch back and forth between different keyers in modes A and B. To illustrate, consider the letter “K”, formed as “-.-“. If you press and hold the dah paddle, and the immediately tap and release the dit paddle while the first dah is forming, and then release the dah paddle while the final dah is starting to sound, you will always get a perfectly formed “K” regardless of whether you are in iambic mode A or B. The letter “C”, or “-.-.” can be formed similarly. Press and hold the dah paddle, the immediately press and hold the dit paddle, then release the dah paddle at the beginning of the second dah, and release the dit paddle at the beginning of the second dit. You’ll always get a perfect “C” on any iambic keyer this way. If you instead release both paddles simultaneously, the release time will have to change depending on whether you’re using iambic mode A or B.

A detailed article on how to send using dual-lever paddles with an iambic keyer is here: It explains how every letter, except X and P, can be squeezed using at most a single press and release of each paddle. (X and P both require two presses on one side and a single press on the other side, for a total of three presses). He goes through a detailed analysis of the number of strokes required to send the alphabet with a straight key, bug, single-lever paddle, and dual-lever paddles, showing how dual-lever paddles use fewer keystrokes than the other methods.

Another point of view is presented here. In this article, N1FN advocates for a single-lever paddle, claiming that the advantages of an iambic dual-lever system are small, only happening with the least-used letters, and that the squeeze keying method is difficult to master at high speed.

In the spirit of “can’t we all just get along?”, I (AG6QR) will suggest that the advantages of squeeze keying over a single lever paddle are probably real, but small.

I will point out that the argument which N1FN makes about the timing becoming more critical as the speed goes up seems to be true of all keying methods, not just iambic squeeze keying. In fact, the illustration of the “timing gate” for when you need to hit the dah paddle for the letter “F” when sending iambically is exactly the same as the timing gate when you would have to push a single-lever paddle over to the dah side to make an “F” without using iambic technique.

I’ll also point out that, when he claimed that only “ONE of the letters which can be squeezed can be found in the list of the twelve most common letters in English”, he obviously missed the letter “R”, finding only the letter “L”, despite the fact that both letters are clearly squeezable, and both are on the high frequency list.

Be that as it may, there are other arguments to be made in favor of single lever paddles. Dual lever paddles may be more prone to errors if you accidentally squeeze the side opposite the one you were wanting to hit, while a single lever paddle is always unambiguously either pushed to the right or left. Also, the single lever paddle may be manipulated by using the large muscles of the forearm to rock the entire hand back and forth, but proper use of “squeeze keying” requires that the finger and thumb move individually, which may call for more coordination, even if fewer keystrokes are required.

I’ll observe that the very highest speed operators (50+ WPM) tend to prefer a single lever paddle, but dual lever paddles are preferred by a majority of paddle users overall, which would include most moderate speed paddle users.

It’s all good. This is a hobby, and it’s supposed to be fun. Don’t let anyone dictate to you that you must do it their way, but listen to a variety of opinions from those with experience, try things out, don’t be afraid to try something new if your first choice isn’t working for you, and enjoy sending CW with the device of your choice.

This was prepared by AG6QR as part of the CW Learning Resources page.