02 June, 2013

The advantage of the single-lever paddle

My single-lever PCB keyer.
It may seem like a bad idea to downgrade from a dual-lever paddle and iambic keyer to a single-lever paddle. It must be inefficient since each individual dash and dot has to be generated by a right or left movement of the paddle. Despite this, many of the champions in the High Speed Telegraphy competitions use single-lever paddles, often home-made ones. How can that be?

K7QO, Chuck Adams, wrote "Using an Iambic Paddle" and compared the dual-lever paddle with the single-lever with respect to number of movements. If all 26 letters of the English alphabet and the numbers from 0 to 9 are sent, the single-lever paddle requires 73 strokes while a dual-lever and an iambic keyer requires 65. This is 11% less.

But when N1FN, Marshall G. Emm, wrote "Iambic Keying - Debunking the Myth" he analyzed the 7 letters that are faster to send with an iambic keyer - C, F, K, L, Y, Q, and R - and found that only one of them, the L, is among the 12 most frequent ones in English reducing the gain in efficiency to only 5%. He illustrated it this way:

Guess what't wrong with this figure? He didn't see the R and forgot that it is also among the most frequent letters.

So two of the faster letters are among the most frequent ones, not just one. I guess that N1FN's estimate of only a 5% increase in efficiency when letter frequencies are taken into account is a bit too small then. In addition comes the fact that CQ, and all Q-codes use letters that are more efficient with the iambic keyer, so in radio amateur use the efficiency advantage of the iambic keyer is probably even more than the 11% obtained without weigthing for letter frequency.

Either way, this goes against the fact that many of the high speed champions do so well on single-lever paddles. My experience is based on learning to send Morse code at the age of 47. Somehow I feel that this was 20-30 years too late in order to master all the finer movements involved in iambic keying.

The issue must be tolerance to errors, not just efficiency. It is easier to send error-free characters with a single-lever paddle as it is not so sensitive to errors in micro-timing. The high-speed champions value that and increasingly the producers of morse paddles are including single-lever paddles in their assortment.

A single-lever paddle is also easy to make yourself, much easier than a dual-lever paddle. I made one from printed circuit board based on the paddles of KI6SN. That design was a modified version of the miniature single-lever paddle of NB6M. I made it just to try the concept before I move on and eventually buy one. But the homemade one was surprisingly good to use, so I might stay with it for a while. The nice thing is that the single-lever couldn't care less if your keyer is set up for iambic A og B. Neither if the keyer does the ultimatic mode which I promoted recently (Is the ultimatic Morse keyer really that efficient?)

I am promoting freedom in choice of paddle, so everyone should find what suits best regardless of what is the current fashion or what it is that is considered to be 'best'. So whether you are a newcomer who struggle with learning to send properly with an iambic keyer, or an oldtimer who keep using the dual-lever as if it is a single-lever paddle, feel free to change to a single-lever paddle. I am sure you will notice a reduced error rate.

The question for me is what "real" single-lever key I should upgrade to, they all look attractive: Begali, BencherBushwhackerHi-MoundKent, K8RAN3ZNScheunemann, UR5CDXVibroplex,  ...


  1. I like your take on single lever paddles. I had a Begali HST and it was fabulous. I'm also thinking of getting a Bushwhacker as it has great reviews and is very inexpensive compared to the higher priced spread. I found that I make a lot more mistakes using an iambic key and thus don't have one in my shack now. The single lever key also makes a great sideswiper which provides some interesting diversion from using a traditional paddle.

  2. That's interesting and confirms what I wrote about making less errors, so thanks for your input.

  3. I think the mistake many make is equating efficiency with overall ease of use. The assumption that the easiest key to use is the one that requires the fewest movements is just that, an assumption.

    1. Efficiency is easy to measure (= count movements), while ease of use is not. So perhaps that is why it is so easy to equate the two?