Are contests good or bad for CW?

This afternoon, I got to make a few contacts in the ARRL DX CW contest. I was on 10m, using my new loop antenna, and propagation was pretty good to Central and South America. I worked a bunch of countries including Argentina, Barbados, Costa Rica, Colombia, Brazil, Virgin Islands, Aruba, Belize, and Surinam.

After about an hour, I got bored with that, and decided to QSY to 30m, where I heard a guy I’d worked many times calling CQ. I told that I’d been playing in the DX contest on 10m, and had gotten bored with it, so I was down here looking for a ragchew. He told me that he never works contests, to which I replied that I thought that contests might actually be good for CW in that it might get more hams to work CW on a regular basis.

That comment got him going. He noted that he’d seen an increase in operating practices that we use in contests in normal operation, and he didn’t think that was a good thing. The two examples he gave were responding to CQs only with one’s callsign and not using the K prosign to signal the other operator that it’s his turn to start sending.

To be honest, I have also noted an increase in these behaviors, especially the first. I’d never thought about contests as encouraging these poor operating practices, but I think he has a point.

I don’t know how we encourage operators to not use contest procedures during normal operation, but I think we should talk about how to do so. One idea that he had was to send QRZ? whenever an operator responds to a CQ with only his callsign. I’ve done this in the past, and think this is a good idea, but I’m not sure that it gets the point across as well as we think it does.

What do you think? Do you think these practices are bad for CW? If so, what can we do about it?


  1. I think to see whether there has been any benefit to CW in general due to contesting, we’d have to compare how many hams are on the air using CW when there isn’t a contest, and compare that over time with the number of hams participating in contests. Theoretically if CW contesting is helping to promote CW in general, I think we’d see more non-contesting operators over time. I have seen some of the bad practices you mentioned leak over into normal QSOs, and as a relative newcomer to CW it was extremely confusing to have people just sending their callsign over and over for no apparent reason.

  2. Good post Dan.

    I wonder (honestly have no idea but would be interest to know) how much of the CW operation in contests is actually done with a key and a pair of ears. If it’s keyboard-generated and computer decoded then it might as well be RTTY, and doesn’t do anything to improve CW skills.

    On the other hand, I don’t mind operators trying to be as efficient as possible by tightening up the exchanges. After all, anyone who has worked with full break-in CW has gotten used to the short-and-snappy back and forth that can be such a pleasure as long as one remembers to ID at the proper intervals.

    What I find more annoying are the DX stations who sit on one frequency and simply say they are listening “up” (or “down”). Potentially, you have several kHz occupied by people sending nothing but their callsigns in hopes of being heard by the DX station. What a waste of spectrum and a source of QRM for anyone else who might like to get on the air!

  3. I do a lot of CW operating and a lot of CW contesting. CW contesting definitely does bring more CW activity overall. In our club (Potomac Valley Radio Club) there are many who are mostly SSB ragchewers who will get on in CW contests to help the club score, otherwise they would never do CW. And some of them then do more non-contest CW.

    As far as bad habits, I think bad operating habits are spread pretty equally across contesters, rag chewers, DXers, etc. There are no laws about the form of a QSO. In a rag chew QSO I don’t always send K after my call – there is often no need to. Nor do I repeat both callsigns on every over – there is no need to do that, either. Some may prefer to but that is a preference, nothing more.

    For DXers QSOs are very similar to contest QSOs – a quick transfer of information and then in and out is the goal. Rag chew QSOs are very different – the goal is a long back and forth. But I’ve been in rag chew QSOs where the QSO would have been *more* enjoyable if it had been shorter – used more abbreviations, less repetition of the calls signs, etc.

    Anything that gets people on CW is a good thing, I think. Getting on with good operating techniques, even better, in all cases!

    73, John K3TN

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