Sunday, January 1, 2017

In the Navy... You can sail the seven seas...

Navy Flame Proof 26003A key

In my journey with amateur radio using CW and mostly low powered operations (QRP) I've slowly been accumulating and learning to use different kinds of Morse Code keys.

Navy Flame Proof (front adjustment screw is from my Nye Viking key)

But first...

Before I talk about the Navy Flame Proof let me go backwards a bit and discuss CW keys in general and why there are so many types of keys.

Broadly defined, I think most Hams lump CW keys into two categories... paddles and mechanical keys. Paddles are used with an electronic keyer that produces the actual DIT-DAH Morse Code elements where the operator is only responsible for initiating a Morse element, not controlling the duration.  Conversely, mechanical keys rely upon the operator to correctly time the length of the elements.  In the case of a "Bug" style key, the mechanical key automatically times the duration of DITS but the operator is responsible for the timing of the DAHs.

I would venture to guess that nearly all contesters use paddles because paddles (either dual or single) require less effort and are less fatiguing to use than a mechanical key.  It also seems that the majority of QRQ operators use paddles, likely for the same reason.  

But for whatever reason I'm a bit anachronistic and I usually prefer to use mechanical keys.

I started with a cheap, Philco plastic straight key hooked up to a MFJ practice oscillator.  It worked, and I made CW contacts using that key (not the practice oscillator).  I'm sure a lot of code has been sent over the years by amateurs  with such a key but no one would call a Philco a precision instrument.  I knew I wanted another straight key besides the Philco.  But unless you can visit a ham with a large CW key collection you're at a bit of disadvantage deciding what kind of key you'd like.  

CW keys are devices you have to interact with before you know if you'll enjoy them

You can read descriptions and watch videos, but using a CW key is a totally hands-on sorta thing. You might like the looks of a key but if it doesn't feel good eventually you'll set it on the shelf.  I find it fascinating how different simple mechanical switches can feel under my hand.  We are created in all shapes and sizes and with different preferences. No one is going to determine the "best key" for someone else when it comes to a device that is physically touched and manipulated tens of thousands of times over the course of its use.

OK... let me get back on topic

Alrighty then, so based on that segue it seems that reading a review and watching a video about a CW key is nearly useless. But I'm all about fruitless activity so here goes...

The Navy Flame Proof key was originally manufactured by several suppliers, the Navy 26003A Flame Proof key was manufactured to meet the Table of Equipment needs for ships and planes. During the last three decades of production (ending in 1988), J.H. Bunnell & Co. was the sole source of the Flame Proof key. Bunnell Flame Proofs have "CJB-26003A" stamped on them. Other letters indicate different manufacturers.  The "Flame Proof" designation is because the contacts are sealed inside the key where any potential sparking is confined.

There have been different types of Flame Proof keys manufactured through the years but the 26003A specification was the last design of the series.  My key was manufactured by J.H. Bunnell & Co. but I don't know the vintage.  It seems to have been in service with the Navy because it has a very worn ship stamp on the bottom of the key and the knob itself has seen quite a bit of handling.  There are a lot of NOS (new old stock) keys out there that were never in service are are basically "new".  I haven't had the chance to use one of those so my review is based on this used service key.

Navy Knob grip

The first thing you may note is the "grip" on the key (see the above photo).  This key has what is referred to as a "Navy knob".  That means it has a tall-rounded knob where you grip it.  This makes it distinct from J-38 style keys that are low to the desk.  You can mount this key directly to your desk to reduce the height but it is still going to present a taller grip than a typical American style key.  My preference is for tall keys because I operate "European Style" where my arm is not resting on the table.  I find it less fatiguing. This article at Morse Express has a good description of the differences in European and American style keys and operation.

Kent Hand (left)  Navy Flame Proof 26003A (right)

You can also see my Kent Hand Key in photo above next to the 26003A.  It has a different shape to the knob and the disc underneath is different as well.  The difference in the two knob shapes results in a markedly different feel to gripping the key.  My first interaction with the 26003A was uncomfortable.  I was gripping it as I would the Kent and it hurt my thumb, but within an hour of use I'd adjusted my grip and the key became quite comfortable.

You'll note that my key has a non-stock gap adjustment screw in the front and no plastic cover for the terminals (partly why I got it so cheaply).  When it arrived it had a standard slotted 8-32 screw in that position but I wanted to be able to easily adjust it so I borrowed a knurled 8-32 screw and nut from my Nye Viking key (which I've never grown fond of) and put it in service.   J.H. Bunnell & Co. still has parts and I plan to order the matching screw and nut if I keep this key on the desk.

The Kent is a rather traditional straight key (albeit Euro style) with the contact in front of the bearings, whereas the Navy Flame Proof has the contacts behind the bearings.  Both the difference in leverage and travel to the contact gives it a different feel than the Kent.


So, the difference in grip, knob height and gap from my Kent combines to make the 26003A feel like a very different key.  Without trying I naturally send about 2 wpm faster on this key than my Kent.  When I try to go fast with my Kent things go awry but I can comfortably operate this key at 19 wpm.  A 3rd class radioman in the Navy passed a 20 wpm test so I'm confident that this key can be used faster than I'm operating it.

Ready - Set - Action !

In use, the Navy Flame Proof is quiet.  The contacts are inside the metal body and the only real noise is the arm striking the gap setting front screw.  Some folks seem to find that noisy and offer various recommendations for quieting that gap screw.  I've mounted my key to an inexpensive award plaque (under $3) and it's resting on thin shelf lining.  Compared to my Kent Hand Key which sounds like a woodpecker in action this key is downright silent.

The following video was made during last night's ARRL straight key night event and you can see how I use the key during a QSO.


So should you get one?  Absolutely! There's a strong market on e$ay for these keys so if you don't like it you can easily find it a new home.  These keys tend to auction from as little as $36 up to $150.  The average auction price at present seems to be in the $90 range.  I kept bidding low on different auctions and eventually picked this one up one for $41 including shipping, so if you're patient you can give it a try for about the cost of a J-38.

If you've not gripped a "Navy knob" previously give your hand some time to find a comfortable hold, you may also want to experiment with different base heights.  I've had mine on a couple different scrap wood bases to try different heights and presently I like this 1/2" base but I might find a piece of steel to attach it to get it down low.

So get a bit of salt air in your shack with a Navy Flame Proof key.


That's all for now

So lower your power and raise your expectations

Richard AA4OO

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