SSB Style: Mark pairs the Elecraft KX3 and AX1 for some challenging activations

Many thanks to by Mark (W2ITG) who shares the following field report:

Elecraft KX3/AX1 Field Report

by Mark (W2ITG)

I’m an avid POTA activator and wanted to try an experiment to see if I could complete an activation using just the Elecraft KX3 & AX1 on 40 & 20m SSB. I’ve seen others do it on CW but not on SSB. My CW learning is not going well by the way.

This was at K-1635 Washington Rock State Park 02-07-2024, with a beautiful view of the NYC skyline approximately 20 miles away.

My 1st attempt was a failure because I ran into SWR issues on 20m when I picked up the microphone & RF was getting into the audio as well. This was with the antenna mounted directly on the side of the radio using a 90 degree elbow connector, the AX1B bipod & an elevated radial connected to one of the case screws of the radio, unfortunately it didn’t work.

It’s a good thing I had brought along my Tuftln EFHW and telescopic carbon fiber fishing pole as well because it saved the day which allowed me to complete the activation. When activating make sure to have a backup plan, so far I have no incomplete activations.

Fast forward to 02-27-2024 I’m making another attempt but using a clamp mount, clamped on to the side of the picnic table, 25’ of ABR Industries RG-316 with built in CMC choke, the Elecraft AXT1 tripod adapter, and an elevated counterpoise.

I was much more successful, but barely. I did get my 10 contacts, 7 on 40m and 3 on 20m. This really took me by surprise as the AX1 is more of a compromise on 40 than it is on 20m.

Radio set up at a different picnic table.
This clamp mount was taken from one of my BuddiStick setups.
Notice the electric fence post in the background to elevate the counterpoise.
The QSO map, it took me an hour and a half to get these 10 contacts.

Using the AX1 was quite the challenge to say the least. It does prove that even with a very limited antenna you can make contacts. My guess as to why it didn’t work as well on 20m, is poor band conditions. Living in the very populated northeast is what I believe allowed me to make more contacts on 40m.

Would I recommend buying this antenna? Most definitely, just as long as you know what it’s limitations are. I will try another attempt, but by trying 2 elevated counterpoise wires instead of 1. This antenna can use all the help it can get.

24 thoughts on “SSB Style: Mark pairs the Elecraft KX3 and AX1 for some challenging activations”

  1. Hi, Mark,

    First off, I’m sorry to hear your CW journey is challenging at present. I hope it’s not too discouraging and you might join one of the online communities like the Long Island CW Club for some proper support. They are amazing.

    Your activations did indeed sound challenging.

    I wonder if during that first activation when the SWR when wonky when you held the mic if somehow the counterpoise wasn’t making good contact with the chassis ground of the KX3? This has happened to me in the past. Body capacitance, in those cases, will shift the SWR.

    Also, I know a lot of ops elevate their AX1 counterpoises, but I don’t typically do this. I feel like it does a great job when simply coupled with the ground (thus, simply laying on the ground). When I have had an elevated radial (mainly when I’m activating on a spot heavy with brush and low flora), I find it’s more difficult to get a match and I haven’t yet noticed any major performance improvements.

    You’re right in that propagation can have a huge effect on compromised antennas and, of course, SSB isn’t as efficient as CW and digital modes per watt of input. One other thing you could do (if you haven’t already) is make sure you have optimal TX EQ and gain settings. This can have a dramatic affect on your interpretable signal. Just mentioning this as a tip, but you may have already done this.

    Your field report shows that SSB and compromised antennas does work with a little patience and adjusted expectations! You’re also encouraging me to give some SSB AX1 work a go!

    Thank you so much for the field report!

    1. Thank You Mark for sharing. This is helpful.
      Also Thomas W: Thank You for Your input as well, especially on radials.

      i have been looking for pone of those table clamps.
      Wonder who makes/sells them?

      Armin VA3YB (portable in Florida for a bit)

    2. Thank you for all of the words of encouragement on the CW journey. I’ll have to look into the LICW Club and see what they have to offer.

      With the counterpoise connected to the radio grounding may have been an issue. The radio has the cheap Chinese knockoffs side kit by WindCamp. I’m not a fan, I bought the radio used that way, it didn’t come with the original sides and they’re rather expensive to get from Elecraft. That would be the route I’d prefer to go, but more than likely I’d look into the SideKX panels from Pro Audio Engineering. I dummy understand how someone could spend almost $2000 in a radio and then cheap out on the protection. Once again I’m not a fan of cheap knockoffs.

      I think the reason a lot of ops elevate the counterpoise wires is because it’s recommended in the instructions to supposedly improve efficiency. Which makes sense because all of the studying I’ve done on vertical antennas is that if it’s elevated it requires an elevated tuned counterpoise wire to go with it. Whereas ground mounted supposedly length doesn’t matter. But I have not found that to be true either. Maybe in above field report I can share my results.

      I found something online that has suggested settings for the TX EQ. Here’s a link for those interested.

      You’ll have to give your field report on a SSB activation using the AX1. Next time I try it I will lay the wires on the ground, see what happens, and also try 2 wires for each band instead of just one since I have a pair of both the 13’ & 33’ Elecraft wires. Thank you again for the words of encouragement. 73 W2ITG

    3. Boy I do agree about the AX1 counterpoise. What the proper length for using it with AX1 20/40.
      Is the telescopic carbon fiber “fishing pole” the same length as the org Ele Craft metal telescopic antenna?

      Tom KT3P

  2. Good that you made your 10! Thanks for the report Mark.

    I too find the AX1 fussy. Yet I’ve made some good contacts with it. My successes come when I let the counterpoise (sometimes 2) lay on the ground. On the ground always seems better than elevated. (That’s with the AX1 on a photo tripod about 3′ above ground.)

    Whenever I use it, I always spend a few minutes optimizing using a NanoVNA and then run without a tuner.

    Best luck the next time you try it.

  3. Thanks for posting this. I sometimes learn more from what doesn’t work too well than from reading success stories.

    What Thomas and Bob said above seems right. Conventional antenna theory says that, for radials lying on the ground, the length doesn’t matter very much (well, the sum of all lengths might matter) but for elevated radials, they have to be tuned to the frequency, ground conditions, interactions with surroundings, etc.

    FWIW, I use a DS-1 antenna (a qrpguys AX-1 knockoff) with 2 15′ radials lying on the ground, and it seems to work fine. Even when it’s sitting on a little tripod right next to the radio. If you try your setup again with radials on the ground, please post here and let us know if that seems to work better.

  4. This park (K-1625, “The Rock”) is certainly a place to do self-imposed challenges. This is where I did my “Only P2P on CW” activation challenge back in December.

    Great job Mark, and thank you for the perseverance and the write-up!

  5. Mark,
    Thanks for posting this. Like you, my CW journey is going slower than I’d like, but I’m enjoying the trip all the same.

    I have activated several parks on SSB using only the AX1 and my KX2. When I first got the AX1, I ran many tests using a WSPR transmitter and 20mW. Because the WSPR device doesn’t have a tuner, I needed to find a way to make the AX1 reliably resonant on the WSPR frequency. My eventual solution was to elevate the AX1 on a 6” tripod on a picnic table a few feet from the transmitter. For a counterpoise, I used a 35’ length of 26 AWG stranded wire coiled up in a figure 8 pattern. I attached the end to the AX1 tripod adapter and left the coiled end on the ground. Using my antenna analyzer, I then slowly uncoiled the counterpoise till I got a 1:1 match. My AX1 is very high Q, so a 6” variation in counterpoise length can make a significant difference.

    My WSPR results were all over North America and Western Europe with only 20mW on 20 meters. WSPR will get to lots of places SSB cannot.

    At parks, I do the same thing. But I now have the counterpoise rolled up in a tiny plastic clothes line reel I found on Amazon. I mark the length for 20 and 40 meters and that puts me close enough that the final adjustments are small. I have never failed to get the match to less than 1.5:1 on the target frequency and it is good enough across the band that I can disable the KX2 tuner (if I remember to do it).

    Note: 20 meters works better for me on the AX1 than 40 meters. The matching method still works, but my results have never been as good with either WSPR or in the field with SSB.

    I hope you keep experimenting with AX1 and pass on any ideas that work for you. I made a capacitance hat for the AX1 from an alligator clip and four 8″ wires, but haven’t tested it much. Might be worth a try.

    One last thing. You mentioned that you have never failed to get your 10 contacts. That’s great! But from my limited experience, the risk of failure makes it interesting. I’ve failed a few tines because I’m constantly trying something different or limiting myself in some way. For me, that’s where the fun is.

    Best Regards,
    Keith KY4KK

    1. Keith that’s a great idea, actually making the antenna resonant, although it’s really not its intended purpose. Hence why we get such a wide range tuner in the KX series radios. What I’ve done to test the antenna is send an automated test message using the CW memories in the radio and then looking at the reverse CW beacon network to see where my signal is heard. I feel that this gives a better representation of where a SSB signal may be heard. WSPR will be heard where maybe not even a CW signal would be heard. My opinion is digital modes are OK for testing purposes, but not much more than that. FT8/4 is too impersonal for my liking.

      As far as failed activations I’m fortunate not to have had any and I’d like to keep it that way. Either way I have a blast with POTA and my favorite POTA activity is doing multi park & multi state roves. That’s how I challenge myself with it.

    2. Keith, inspired by your comment on the counterpoise on a 35′ counterpoise left partly curled up on the ground, I set up a duplicate of what you described – AX1 on tabletop tripod, counterpoise on ground with the length adjusted by slowly unfurling more of the figure-8 wound wire. In no time I had a great match on the antenna and was running a Zachtek WSPR beacon on it. That’s a great way to get a good setup with the AX1. Thanks so much!

  6. Thanks for such a wonderful and educational post. I, too, have a KX3 and AX1 combo, so it’s super interesting for me.

    I live on the west coast now, but I have a lot of fond memories of going for walks with my wife in that park when we lived in Piscataway, many years ago. Seeing your photo of the view I got a nice five minute nostalgia thing!

  7. Mark,
    Reading comments posted thus far it appears you have all the guidance you need to assist you with your CW. Just do some CW every day is all I do.

    I will harness my inner Thomas as I ask – what bag are you showing in the photos? That looks super-nice for the kit you are carrying.


    1. Vince, it’s the Elecraft ES-80 case which I’m told is the same as the Lowepro ES-80 case. Not sure if you can still get the Lowepro version or not. Elecraft had a sale a while back and were selling ones with very slightly off kilter Elecraft printing on the front of it for 50% off. You can’t even really tell as far as I’m concerned.

  8. Fantastic job and a great learning experience! A couple of thoughts:
    When I go out either portable or pedestrian mobile with my KX2 and AX1 (or AX2) I’m usually hunting parks and I start out on CW. After I’ve “worked ’em all” I switch to SSB and am amazed at how much success I have with it, even sometimes breaking a small pileup. (If I’m also at a park and can call “park to park,” I’m sure that adds 20 dB to my signal. )
    Regarding counterpoises, the easiest approach is to use one of the Elecraft supplied counterpoises and LEAVE IT ON THE GROUND where it can couple into the earth. (In fact, it’s the only option when /PM.)
    If you’re having trouble with RF getting into things then I suggest the old “second floor hamshack” trick: use an insulated, elevated “radial” that is A QUARTER WAVELENGTH LONG. Why a quarter wavelength? If the far end is floating then it is a very high impedance. What happens every quarter wavelength along a line? Phase inversion — so the near end, attached to the radio, is a low impedance — effectively an RF ground. It works! This was a very common solution back in the good ol’ days for hams feeding a “random” wire from their second floor hamshack, with their quarter wavelength counterpoise just laid out on the floor of the shack. (But caution, the high impedance end is also at a high voltage so keep it well insulated.)
    One of the counterpoises that I carry into the field is made from #26 stranded, insulated wire with inline connectors made from 2mm banana plugs and sockets so I can adjust the length to a quarter wavelength for any band 40 through 10. After changing bands I typically observe a significant increase in received signal strength when I then adjust the counterpoise length. To me, this indicates that “it works.”

    Random thought: should the plural of “counterpoise” be “counterpoii”? 🙂

  9. I’ve had ‘So-So’ results with my AX1 as well, using my KX2. But I’m quick to point out however that Thomas has had stellar success.

    My wife & I are going to Paris this Spring. My thoughts were to sit quietly in the Jardin du Luxembourg and tap out a park activation. With a baguette, cheese and wine, of course! Or (if possible), activate the top of the Eiffel Tower itself.

    In that case, the only way to deploy an antenna using my QCX Mini, discreetly and harmlessly, in a crowd, is the AX1. My QCX Mini with CapKey, is velcro’d to a 12v TalentCell, and is entirely handheld, much like a KH1.

    I’d quickly send a beacon signal out to test propogation on the RBN. The CW message: ‘test de W7UDT W7UDT Paris Liberte Egalite Fraternite test test.’

    The ‘hypothetical’ beacon message would be repeated three times, that’s it. Then I’d QRT, pack it up and report on the RBN results.

    At 300 meters above Paris, the results would be interesting. Is there a amatuer beacon even on the Eiffel Tower? Curious…

    I’d have to run through the rapid deployment several times at home, measure SWR, then check to see if it’s even at all possible.

    It’s not like I’m planning to do it while ‘Base Jumping,’ only to send a quick minute long signal, right? ‘Viva Liberte!’

    The scenario is not really likely, but it does point out why the AX1 is so ‘handy!’ I’d welcome your comments…

    de W7UDT

    1. That would be very interesting indeed! I’d like to complete a park rove in 5 parks in Philly where there’s not much space at all, this is where the AX1 would shine as it doesn’t take up a lot of space. Operating from the Eiffel Tower world be an awesome field report.

  10. I also have found the AX1 to be very challenging to run SSB, and have only made a couple of contacts. I keep it in my pack because I want it to work, not because I have experienced it working…..
    Perhaps when I activate on CW it will come in handy.

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