Apr 182013
 
The FN5-7 is is a lovely 'super-gun' but look at all the controls on it, making it hard for normal people to become competent in its use.

The FN5-7 is is a lovely ‘super-gun’ but look at all the controls on it, making it hard for normal people to become competent in its use.

This is the second part of a four-part article series on how to select the ideal pistol for preppers.  If you’ve directly arrived at this page, may we suggest you start reading from the first part – The Most Important Selection Criteria When Choosing an Ideal Pistol.  Of course, when you’ve finished this second part, we hope you’ll move on to Part 3 – Caliber Issues When Choosing Your Pistol and then Part 4 – Less Important Issues, and an Ideal Pistol Recommendation.  Your reward, at the end of the fourth part, is our suggested ideal pistol choice.

In the first part of this series we suggested the three most important considerations in choosing an ideal pistol for prepper purposes is to select a firearm that has great longevity, is easy to maintain, and reliable in operation.

Few people would disagree with the great importance of these issues.  But what else also needs to be considered?  Here are five more issues, in continuing order of decreasing priority, and – yes, we do expect some howls of protest at some of the comments we make!

Remember, you’re always free to selectively evaluate what you read, both here and elsewhere, and to then apply your own criteria to this and all other issues.  You don’t need to follow everything anyone tells you exactly, and you always should question all advice, even our own.  🙂

4.  Ease of Use – Controls, ‘Manual of Arms’

We’re giving more importance to this issue than you might expect, because in a survival situation, you want to have not just the gun enthusiasts and professionals in your group armed; you want everyone to at the very least be familiar with the basics of working a pistol (ie loading, charging, setting safety on/off, cocking/decocking, shooting, reloading, malfunction clearing, unloading) and hopefully to be comfortable, armed, whenever the situation calls for it (and, ideally, even when the situation doesn’t obviously call for it, too!).

So a gun that is easier to learn and use becomes more important in this situation than it does when an enthusiast is selecting another gun to add to their collection, and welcoming the ‘fun’ of learning its associated manual of arms.

Some pistols have seemingly dozens of levers and knobs and buttons on them.  Others have almost none.  Which do you think is the easier gun to learn to use?  Yes, the one with few or no controls.

You’ll find it very much easier to train people if you avoid pistols with safeties and cocking/decocking levers.  We’ve lost count of the number of times we’ve seen new shooters get confused as to if their safety is on or not – with doubly tragic results.  Some people will carelessly think the gun was safe, and then discover, via a negligent discharge, that it was not safe.  Others will end up unable to shoot due to not understanding the safety was still on.

As an interesting commentary on that second point, which sounds unrealistic, an after-batter review of dead US troops on the beaches of the D-Day landings found many with unfired rifles, but with broken triggers.

Why were the triggers broken and the rifles unfired?  Because the troops forgot to take the safety off, and in their adrenalin rush, didn’t realize what the problem was and simply pulled and pulled on the trigger until it broke.

You need to realize that in high stress situations, the adrenalin dump anyone experiences will shut down their higher reasoning functions, leaving them only with muscle memory and instinctive learned actions.  If you can make the muscle memory and learned actions totally simple, you don’t need to train your fellow retreat community members so much (and remember that some of your community will not like guns and won’t want to be trained anyway) and can still expect them to be able to ‘add value’ in a deadly encounter.

One more thing about safeties.  The most important safety is the ‘human’ safety – a total adherence to the four firearm safety rules is better than any number of mechanical safeties.

For sure, revolvers are among the very simplest of guns to learn to shoot (but the very hardest to learn to reload).  The next easiest to shoot after a revolver is probably a Glock or other double action pistol with no safety/decocker.

5.  Ease of Use – Comfortable Shooter

If you’re going to have to use the pistol, you want to have as low a flinch response as possible.  Maybe you, personally, are a super-macho type who doesn’t care how much blast, flash, noise and recoil the gun generates each time you shoot it, but your non-professional comrades definitely will be affected by such things.

We’ve all seen new shooters tensing up, closing their eyes, then jerkily squeezing the trigger, with the shot going anywhere but towards the target.  They hate the experience and shoot both more slowly and less accurately than they would with an ‘easier’ gun to shoot.

The heavier the gun, the longer the barrel, and the smaller the caliber, the easier the gun will be to shoot.  Some people also think the recoil on a semi-auto is easier to manage than on a revolver – the former is a sort of spongy springy experience, the latter is a hard sudden sharp jolt.  Personally, we quite like the ‘clean’ feeling of a revolver recoil, but we understand the easier felt recoil of firing a semi-auto for many people.

Note that we’ve put ‘comfortable shooter’ higher than caliber or accuracy or number of rounds stored.  An easy shooting gun will be more effective, in the hands of an average or less than average shooter, than a larger caliber super-accurate huge capacity pistol.  The unskilled shooter will shoot more accurately, and more quickly, with a ‘comfortable’ pistol than they will with a ‘super’ pistol, meaning they are more effective overall.

As in every element of firearms skills, the key issue is almost always the person, not the gun.  Design your firearms selections around the people who will be using them, not vice versa.

6.  Ease of Use – Reloading

We’re still not getting to accuracy, because most people don’t shoot very accurately – in a real confrontation – with a pistol.  And when we say ‘most people’ we include trained professionals such as police officers, who struggle to land shots on opponents, in actual encounters, as much as a quarter of the time they shoot.

It is one thing to shoot accurately at the range with an Olympic target pistol.  But you don’t want a gun to win a gold medal at the Olympics with.  You want a gun to save your life, and that’s a very different creature entirely.

In a real encounter (especially in a lawless scenario where all usual behavior modifiers have been nullified), you want to be able to send a lot of rounds downrange, if for no other reason than to control the battlespace and keep the other guy’s head down while you decide what you want to do and how you will do it.

We know that saying this will upset many traditionalists, who have been taught that accuracy is more important than any other element in a gun battle.  Maybe – in an ideal world – accuracy is the most important, but we’re not considering ideal world scenarios, and neither are we considering perfectly trained highly skilled shooters.  Indeed, in a Level 3 situation in particular, and lesserly in Levels 2 and 1, the precious scarcity of ammunition means that you’ll never be able to regularly train your people as often and extensively as you should, so you need to understand the compromises and considerations that become necessary.

Of course, ammunition scarcity becomes a secondary issue when fighting for your life.  In such a situation, your highest priority is to ensure your survival.  Killing – or even wounding – your attackers is not as important as ensuring your survival, and conserving ammunition is hopefully the lowest consideration of all.

Plus there’s a very good chance you’ll find yourself facing multiple opponents.  Do the math :  If you’re reasonably well-trained to the same level of competence as a police officer, that still means you’re only hitting your adversaries with one out of every four or five rounds fired, and if it requires three to five hits to take a determined adversary out of the action, how many rounds will you have to fire to stop three attackers?

The answer is somewhere from a good case scenario of 36 rounds up to a bad case scenario of 75 rounds.  Yes, that’s 12 – 25 rounds needed per person.  Okay, you might get lucky and have a couple of single shot stops, but you might also get unlucky and need to pump ten rounds into a determined adversary before they break off their attack and either run away or collapse.  Oh – and moving ahead of ourselves to the caliber issue, below, as well; that ten round requirement is as true with (your choice of good caliber) as it is with (your choice of bad caliber).

Anyway, bottom line for this section should be obvious.  No matter how many rounds your gun holds, the chances are you’re going to need to reload at least once during a real life encounter.  Some guns are much easier than others to reload.  Some guns have funnel-shaped entrances to their magazine well, and tapered off tops of their magazines (ie most dual stack magazines).  Others have narrow magazine well openings, straight sided magazines, and tricky out-of-the-way magazine release levers.

If you’re stuck with a revolver, then unless you are highly trained and practice regularly, you’ll find it takes ‘too long’ to reload after your first 5 – 8 rounds have been fired.  Reloading a revolver also requires more fine motor skills than reloading a semi-auto, and the first thing you lose in a high stress adrenalin filled situation are fine motor skills.

The low capacity and slow reload time add up to a total deal-breaker for revolvers.

7.  Number of Rounds Stored

The more rounds per magazine, the fewer magazine changes you’ll need to do – that’s sort of obvious, isn’t it.  Having more rounds in your gun also enables you to consider ‘suppressive fire’ – ie simply shooting in the general direction of the bad guys to keep their heads down and to prevent them from shooting back at you.

The subject of magazine capacity is currently a matter of huge debate, with gun-control advocates seeking to limit the capacity of pistol magazines down to 10 or maybe even 8 or 7 rounds.  Some pro-gun people have said ‘a trained shooter can change magazines in a second so the capacity issue doesn’t really matter’.

It is true a trained shooter, with magazines properly indexed in magazine pouches on his belt, can indeed swap magazines in about a second or so; indeed, a super-trained revolver shooter can also reload his revolver in a similar time (but the big difference is that the revolver shooter is recharging 5 – 8 rounds whereas the semi-auto guy is recharging up to 20 rounds in the same or less time).  But in a violent encounter, you may not have your spare magazine(s) in pouches on your belt, and wouldn’t you rather be shooting a half full gun than reloading an empty one?

Plus, most people only carry one or two spare magazines.  Wouldn’t you prefer those two spare magazines to have another 30 – 40 rounds in them, than to only have 12 – 16 rounds in them?

So a gun with a larger capacity magazine capability is better than one with a lower capacity.

Please Continue Reading

This is the second part of a four-part article series on how to select the ideal pistol for preppers.  If you haven’t done so already, may we suggest you next read the first part – The Most Important Selection Criteria When Choosing an Ideal Pistol.  Of course, we hope you’ll also read  Part 3 – Caliber Issues When Choosing Your Pistol and then Part 4 – Less Important Issues, and an Ideal Pistol Recommendation.

Your reward, at the end of the fourth part, is our suggested ideal pistol choice.

Apr 182013
 
Pistol calibers and cartridges come in many sizes.  L to R = .22 LR, .32 ACP, .380 ACP, 9mm, .40 S&W, .45 ACP, 5.7x28

Pistol calibers and cartridges come in many sizes. L to R = .22 LR, .32 ACP, .380 ACP, 9mm, .40 S&W, .45 ACP, 5.7×28

This is the third part of a four-part article series on how to select the ideal pistol for preppers.  If you’ve directly arrived at this page, may we suggest you start reading from the first part – The Most Important Selection Criteria When Choosing an Ideal Pistol and then the second part – Four More Selection Criteria to Choose the Ideal Pistol.  Of course, when you’ve finished this third part, we hope you’ll move on to Part 4 – Less Important Issues, and an Ideal Pistol Recommendation.  Your reward, at the end of the fourth part, is our suggested ideal pistol choice.

Nothing is a surer way to irrevocably change lifelong friends into forever enemies than to get into a discussion/argument with them about the ‘best’ caliber for a pistol.

Pistols themselves are creatures of compromise, and the calibers they shoot doubly so.  No pistol is as good as a rifle, and no pistol caliber is as good as a rifle caliber.  As the saying goes – a pistol is the gun you use to fight your way to your rifle.

Some people however cling to the belief that there’s a magic caliber endowed with special powers.  There isn’t.  These people are usually the people with ‘tricked out’ pistols with lots of accessories and gadgets, in an ever more desperate effort to avoid the one issue of paramount importance when it comes to effectively using any type of pistol, and of any caliber.  What is that one issue (and why isn’t it on our list of twelve issues)?  That issue is personal training.

No amount of accessories, lasers, lights, sights, no caliber choice, nor anything else will compensate for simple basic training in pistolcraft.

But, we’ve promised you a discussion on calibers, so here goes.

8a.  Caliber – Lethality

The biggest problem surrounding discussions/debates/arguments about pistol calibers is that all pistol calibers are inadequate.

None are good.  All are bad, and as for some being less bad or more bad than others, it really doesn’t matter all that much.  There is no ‘silver bullet’ caliber or cartridge that will guarantee one shot stops.  It is silly to try to find a cartridge that will provide this; it is better to accept the limitation of all pistol calibers and to simply build that into your gun-fighting strategy, with an embedded understanding that you’ll always need to land multiple shots on any adversary to be sure of taking them out of the fight.

The subject is surrounded with huge amounts of emotion, but extremely little truly meaningful scientific research.  While some people will cite ‘studies’ in an attempt to ‘prove’ their opinion, there are so many variables associated with the effects of a person being hit by a bullet as to make all of these studies statistically insignificant and their conclusions invalid.

A year or two back the FBI came out with a new study that reversed some of their earlier findings – the new study said that caliber was less important than shot placement.  At last, they were apparently ending their hopeless question for the perfect bullet, and instead recognizing that the most important thing in a gunfight is not the bullets being fired, but the person doing the shooting.

In other words, instead of going for the biggest badass bullet you can find, go for the one that is easiest to shoot.

But if you want some scientific analysis, here’s a bit of simplified explanation.

First, all pistol bullets are ballistically inadequate.  Unlike high-powered rifle bullets, they travel too slowly to impart hypersonic shock waves into the target they hit.  Hypersonic shock waves can scramble the internal organs of a person, and can even potentially travel up into the brain as well, and significantly increase the chance of a one shot stop, no matter where on the body your shot lands.

But for pistol bullets, with negligible or no hypersonic shock effect, the majority of their lethality comes from hopefully damaging vital organs as they pass through the target.

Now for the main point.  There’s almost no difference in size between most common bullet calibers.  The length of the bullets doesn’t matter much at all, the key measurement is their diameter.

To make it easy to appreciate, let’s look at the diameter measurements in millimeters.  A 9mm bullet is right around 9mm in diameter (as is, also, a .38 or a .357 cal revolver cartridge, and the .380 semi-auto cartridge too).  A .40 cal is right around 10mm and so too is a 10mm round, while the .45 cal is just over 11mm in diameter (and a .44 magnum just under 11mm).

So the biggest bullets are only 2mm – less than 1/10th of an inch – bigger in diameter than the smallest ones.  See what we mean – bullet size is not as big a differentiator of different calibers as you might think.

All pistol bullets are small, and even if they have expanding hollow-points which increase their effective diameter as they create a wound channel through a target, the respective size of the different calibers remains closely similar.  So the statistical likelihood of the biggest bullet hitting a vital organ is only maybe 20% greater than that of the smallest bullet.

A bullet’s weight and speed/energy is important if it hits solid bone – heavier bullets with more energy are more likely to break through the bone and continue traveling, lighter and slower bullets are more likely to be deflected or stopped by bone.  On the other hand, a bullet being deflected off bone and ‘ricocheting’ internally in a person’s body might still do as much harm as a bullet going through the bone and continuing on out the other side.  So it is probably fair to say that bullets with more energy are mildly better than bullets with less energy, but shot placement is always the overriding factor for effectively stopping an attacker.

But if the bullet goes right through the body without encountering any bone, its weight and energy really counts for nothing.  All you’ve done is drill a hole through soft tissue.

Back to the FBI study, and remembering the inadequacy of all pistol calibers, the chances are that you’re going to need to shoot any attacker multiple times – or, to be more precise, you are going to shoot at the attacker many times in the hope of scoring several effective hits to take them out of the fight.

You will achieve this goal – taking them out of the fight – more speedily with a caliber that you can more readily control, which has less recoil so there is less recovery time before your next shot, and more rounds landing on target, and more quickly.

To give a ‘for example’, maybe in a given time frame you can fire six ‘easy to shoot’ rounds and score two hits, or fire four ‘hard to shoot’ rounds and score one hit.  You’re getting twice as many rounds on target, and probably better placed on the target.

Some adversaries will cease their aggression when they see your pistol.  Others will cease when you shoot (even though you miss them).  Others will cease as soon as they are hit, whether it be disabling/life threatening or not.  Only a very few will continue to attack you after you’ve scored your first hit on them.

So you want a pistol that looks ‘real’ rather than a toy to get the first category of people out of the fight, one which you can quickly deploy and credibly shoot, whether the round lands on target or not, to get the second category of people out of the fight, and one which will land rounds on the target quickly to get the third category of people out of the fight.

As for the fourth category of person, you’ll want to be able to land multiple hits on the target as quickly as possible.

All four of these needs argue in favor of the most controllable caliber, not the most ‘lethal’ (a concept which we don’t believe has any meaning with pistol rounds).  If you’re looking for genuine one-shot stop capabilities, carry a rifle.

In other words, for pistols, the best choice for your group as a whole is probably 9mm.

A Very Vivid Example of Pistol Caliber Inadequacy

No matter how much one attempts to belabor the point, many people will stubbornly claim, without a shred of evidence to back up their unchangeable opinion, that their preferred caliber is the best one out there.

Can we offer a real-life example of how pistol calibers are inadequate.  A police officer shot at an assailant 33 times (he only had 37 rounds with him), and very credibly had 14 of his rounds hit the attacker.  Six of the shots were in locations normally considered as quickly fatal.  And – get this, guys – he was using a .45 caliber pistol, almost certainly with high quality hollow point ammunition.

But it was only after two head shots that the attacker stopped his attack.  And even with his 14 injuries, six certainly fatal, the attacker didn’t die until some time subsequently, in hospital.

So – 14 hits, six of them ‘high lethality’ placements, with the caliber that many people consider to be excellent at one shot stops.  The bad guy wasn’t even on drugs, but was merely a determined opponent.  Still feel good about your pistol’s ‘magical’ ability to solve problems?

Note also what the police officer (a master firearms instructor and a sniper on his department’s SWAT team) learned from the encounter.  He has replaced with .45 caliber pistol with a 9mm, so as to conveniently carry more ammunition.  His conclusion is that more rounds of any caliber is the best approach to prevailing in future gunfights.

You’d be well advised to consider a similar strategy.

8b.  Caliber – Other Issues

The alleged lethality of a cartridge is a minor issue, with controllability being a much more important issue, as we’ve just discussed.  There are other issues, too.

You want a gun that is chambered in a common caliber, one that is easy to source, likely to be sometimes offered in trade, even in a future adverse scenario, and one which is relatively inexpensive.

Ideally it should also be a caliber that can readily and safely be reloaded, and one which is easy on the gun it is fired through.  The very high pressures of the .40 cal cartridge disqualify it under these two parameters.

Lastly, although we say that no caliber is good enough to guarantee one-shot stops, we will concede that some calibers are worse than others.  Specifically, we suggest you do not consider semi-auto pistols in a .380 or smaller caliber, or revolvers in anything less than .38 caliber.

Summary of Caliber Related Issues

Both 9mm and .45 cal are common rounds and well suited for personal defense.

9mm has the added advantages of being smaller, lighter, less expensive, and with slightly less recoil.  Your gun, if chambered for 9mm, will hold many more rounds than if chambered for .45.

So we’d generally recommend this as the best compromise caliber for your prepping pistols.

But if you insist on a big caliber, we’d not stand in the way of you getting a .45 instead of a 9mm – we have both ourselves.

Please Continue Reading

This is the third part of a four-part article series on how to select the ideal pistol for preppers.  If you directly arrived at this page, may we suggest you now read the first two parts – The Most Important Selection Criteria When Choosing an Ideal Pistol and  Four More Selection Criteria to Choose the Ideal Pistol.  Of course, we hope you’ll also move on to Part 4 – Less Important Issues, and an Ideal Pistol Recommendation.

Your reward, at the end of the fourth part, is our suggested ideal pistol choice.

Apr 182013
 
Accuracy is of course important, but is mainly dependent on you, not your pistol choice.

Accuracy is of course important, but is mainly dependent on you, not your pistol choice.

This is the final part of a four-part article series on how to select the ideal pistol for preppers.  If you’ve directly arrived at this page, may we suggest you start reading from the first part – The Most Important Selection Criteria When Choosing an Ideal Pistol and then the second and third parts – Four More Selection Criteria to Choose the Ideal Pistol, and Caliber Issues When Choosing Your Pistol.

Phew.  So far we’ve covered some obviously important issues, some moderately important issues, and we’ve tried to persuade you that something some people consider of great importance – caliber – is actually not as important as you might have thought.  What else remains?

Here are four more factors to evaluate when choosing your ideal pistol for prepper purposes, and then, finally, a suggested ideal pistol for you to adopt.

9.  Size and Weight

How big and how heavy is the pistol?  Pistols range in size and weight from tiny pieces weighing well under a pound and fitting comfortably into a regular pocket to massive monstrosities weighing well over three pounds.

In general, bigger is better than smaller.  But there comes a point where monstrously big starts to become a negative factor.  Remember the primary purpose of a pistol is convenient portability – it is the ‘take with you everywhere’ gun.  For a really effective firearm, you need to sacrifice convenience and instead choose a rifle.

A larger – that is, longer barreled – pistol is slightly more accurate than a shorter barreled pistol,  The extra barrel length allows the bullet to better stabilize and probably emerge at a slightly higher speed and with slightly greater energy.  The extra barrel length also usually allows for a longer sight radius along its top – but note that accuracy is the second least important attribute we list for pistols.

A heavier pistol has two possible advantages as well as the obvious disadvantage of extra weight meaning more hassle to carry, and we again restate that you should not try to over-engineer and over-specify what you expect in your pistol.  A pistol is merely the gun you use to fight your way to your rifle – any real gun battle should always be conducted with a rifle, not a pistol.

On the weight issue, the heavier the pistol, the less stressful the recoil will be.  The weight of the gun ‘soaks up’ the recoil better in a heavy pistol than a light one.  Many people misunderstand this and think small light guns are the easiest to shoot – that is completely wrong, but we’ve lost count of the number of times we’ve heard either gun buyers saying ‘I want a light easy to shoot gun’ or an advisor (often a husband or father) telling someone (ie a wife or daughter) ‘choose that one, it is nice and light and easier to shoot’.

Secondly, a heavier pistol implies a pistol that has more metal in it, meaning less stress on the components because they are ‘over-engineered’ for greater life and reliability, and probably less sensitivity to individual cartridge configurations.  This is sometimes the case, but also sometimes not (for example the Hi-Point pistols which have very heavy slides as part of their simple blowback mechanism).

There’s one more thing about size.  A ‘normal’ sized pistol (ie 4 – 5″ barrel) is intimidating and may solve a problem without needing to be fired.  When a bad guy sees you confidently present your ‘normal’ pistol at him, he is more likely to back off than if you present a tiny little ‘pocket rocket’.

A tiny 2″ barreled pistol looks much less mean and scary, and because of that, it is more likely you’ll end up needing to use it ‘for real’.  Our feeling is that the intimidation factor is greatest with ‘normal’ pistols; if you have some ridiculous ‘tricked out’ over-size pistol, you start to look slightly foolish yourself and that also detracts from the overall ability of yourself to project a credible deterrent to whoever it is you’re encountering.

So we’re suggesting pistols with a 4″ – 5″ barrel and probably weighing 1.5 – 2.5 lbs as being best all-rounders.

10.  Ease of Carry and/or Concealment

Although we ourselves live most of the time in states where open-carry is lawful, we generally choose not to visibly open-carry our pistol(s).  In the ‘normal’ world, open carrying can place the person with the pistol at a tactical disadvantage, and requires them to always be conscious of who is around them and to be ready to fight to control the retention of their pistol from unexpected attacks.

It also shows any bad guys that you have a gun and where it is; you have no surprise factor at all in an encounter.  One more thing – rather than encouraging people to be polite and well-behaved around you, it can actually incite some fools (usually drunk) to provoke a confrontation with you, and the question ‘So what are you going to do about it, Mr Tough Guy?  Shoot me?’ is one we’ve heard expressed in such situations – situations where it would be totally inappropriate to present let alone fire your weapon.

So, in the normal world, our preference is to carry concealed.  That’s a whole discussion in and of itself, and may require some modifications to your choice of firearm.

But in an extreme adverse situation in the future, maybe the need to carry concealed is no longer as strong, and instead the need to be able to quickly access both your pistol and your extra magazines is of greater importance.  Maybe also, instead of potentially provoking encounters with people who know they can safely tease you with impunity, because if you as much as touch your pistol in a threatening manner, they’ll have the police lock you up so fast your feet won’t touch the ground (true); maybe in this case, in a situation where the rule of law has been suspended, people realize that it is an ‘every man for himself’ struggle, and that provoking a fight is more likely to create a tragic consequence for the provoker, and with no police likely to respond.

So our feeling is that concealability will be much less important when TSHTF, and that instead you will want to carry your pistol in a way that you can most quickly get at it – in other words, a traditional vertical no-slope outside the waist-band holster, and ideally with an obscured retention device for the holster if you’re likely to be in areas with higher densities of people.

By obscured retention device we do not mean an obvious SERPA style lock on the outside (away from your side) of the holster, and neither do we mean a strap with a snap catch over the top of the pistol.  Instead, we suggest a lever device of some sort on the inside (close to your side) of the holster that people can’t see and don’t realize is there – a ‘Level 3’ type holster such as, for example, this Bladetech product.

11.  Accuracy

We imagine some people have already left this article, shaking their heads in disgust at our lack of respect for the ‘importance’ of accuracy.

Yes, accuracy is important, but we place it in the second last position because almost any gun can outperform the person shooting it.  The accuracy/inaccuracy of a good pistol (such as this lovely Wilson Combat) might be +/- one inch at 50 ft when fired from a bench rest (the Wilson claims one inch at 75 ft).  But, in the field, with you shooting in a stressed situation, your accuracy will be +/- one foot at a 15 ft range (or maybe even worse).  The gun is 40 times more accurate than the shooter.

All accuracy is good, but any pistol that you’re considering is likely to have good accuracy to start with, and the path to better accuracy is not to buy a fancier more expensive pistol, but rather to train yourself to better use whatever pistol you do have.

So, in case it is not obvious, we do agree that accuracy is essential, but the path to accuracy lies not so much in your choice of pistol as it does in your choice to train yourself to use it accurately.

A factor which may impact on accuracy is the ‘ergonomics’ of the pistol.  If the grip is too large (or too small) that might have a measurable impact, but in general, with standard sized name-brand pistols, they’ll all massively outshoot you when it comes to accuracy – maybe only slightly so on a range, but massively so in a combat situation.

We’ve seen some people shoot well with one pistol and poorly with another, whereas other shooters have performed exactly the opposite.  Note that such a wide and random spread of results generally occurs with inexperienced shooters – the better skilled you are, the less your personal accuracy will vary with your choice of pistol.

A pistol is not designed to be an accurate weapon.  If you want or need accuracy, use your rifle.  Instead of being accurate to an inch at 50 ft, a good rifle is accurate to an inch at over 100 yards.

12.  Price

Last, and truly least, price.

Although we linked to a $3000+ Wilson pistol in the previous section, there’s almost never any need to spend over $1000 on a pistol, and many times you’ll find that $750 or less will be plenty to buy you the best possible pistol out there.  For example, Glock 17 pistols are selling on Gunbroker.com for $600 or less, and some local discount stores may sell them for as little as $550.

On the other hand, however, you have to wonder about guns that are ‘too low’ in price.  There’s a sweet spot from about $500 – $1000 which allows a gun manufacturer to make a no-compromise pistol that will function reliably and well; if you pay less than $500, there’s a worry that some cost saving strategy might impact on the gun’s ongoing reliability; and if you pay more than $1000, well, good luck to you, but don’t assume that just because the gun costs more, it is any better than one costing less than $1000.

Do you want to save a few hundred dollars on a tool that you’ll be trusting your life on?  No, we didn’t think so!  So, within the $500 – $1000 price range, focus on the gun and how it rates under the other 11 issues we’ve discussed on this and the other pages of this article series, rather than its price tag.

And the Winner Is?

We like guns.  We own guns.  Indeed, we like guns a lot, and own a lot of guns.  We happily ‘mix and match’ our carry guns from day-to-day, depending on what we’re wearing and where we’re going.  We have revolvers and semi-autos.  We have tiny pocket pistols in .32 caliber, and long-barreled .357 magnum revolvers.  We have .22 cal plinkers, and exotic ‘super-guns’ in exotic calibers (ie 5.7×28).  We have cheap guns and expensive guns, and we have – oh, heck, you get the picture.  We like all guns.  🙂

We like Sigs, Berettas, 1911s of all flavors, Brownings, Berettas, Walthers, H&Ks, and FNs.  Rugers are great, as are S&W, Springfield, and Colt.  And so on, through the long list of gun manufacturers.  You could present us with a pistol from pretty much any manufacturer and we’d sincerely thank you for the gift.  🙂

But if we had to choose one and only one gun to take with us into a serious survival situation, a gun that we could rely on working, every time, for many thousands of times, we don’t need to think twice what our choice would be.  By all the twelve measures above, we’d happily reach for our full size 9mm Glock 17 semi-auto.  Sure, we’ve added night sights to it, and adjusted the trigger, but we loved it and won distinctions with it as a totally standard pistol with no work on it whatsoever, and we just love it all the more now that we’ve tweaked it a bit.

Glock make four pistols in 9mm, and we have all of them (models 17, 19, 26 and 34).  The 19 is slightly more concealable than the 17, and the 26 slightly more concealable again, but we’ve found that we can always conceal our 19 just as readily as our 26, so the 26 sits unloved in the safe.  The 34 is a lovely gun, but somehow we find ourselves using our 17 as our ‘workhorse’ gun.

The current model Glocks are termed the ‘Gen 4’ series (because they are, sort of, the fourth generation of Glock pistols), and when they first came out, they had reliability issues.  But those issues have been resolved, although unfortunately they gave the Gen 4 series a bad reputation to start with – so bad that Glock decided to continue making the previous Gen 3 series alongside the Gen 4 until such time as the bad reputation faded.

You’ll sometimes find people who don’t realize that the updated Gen 4 series pistols are now as ultra-extraordinarily reliable as the Gen 3 pistols, and they will try to talk you out of choosing a Gen 4 for that reason.  Ignore them.

Other people will say ‘The Gen 3 is cheaper’; and while that is true, you get an extra magazine included with the Gen 4 which helps to bridge the price gap, and it is an all-round better gun.  As we said in the previous section, do you want to save $50 or less on a tool that you’ll be relying on to save you in an emergency?  Of course not.

Summary

In this extensive article series, spanning four parts and almost 8,500 words, we’ve looked at the issues that are relevant to you as a prepper for choosing an ‘ideal’ pistol.  If you were a target shooter, you’d have different criteria, and you’d have different selection criteria again as a soldier or police officer.  Our discussion is primarily for preppers.

Realizing that there is no such thing as an ideal pistol (or caliber) and that all choices embody many compromises and limitations, we none the less end up with the conclusion and recommendation that you outfit your retreat community with Glock 17 pistols.

This is the final part of a four-part article series on how to select the ideal pistol for preppers.  If you directly arrived on this page, may we suggest you start reading from the first part – The Most Important Selection Criteria When Choosing an Ideal Pistol and then the second and third parts – Four More Selection Criteria to Choose the Ideal Pistol, and Caliber Issues When Choosing Your Pistol.

Please also see other articles in our Defense category and Firearms subcategory in particular.

Apr 172013
 
There are very many different sizes and styles of car antennas.  All give much better performance than the short antenna on the radio itself.

There are very many different sizes and styles of car antennas. All give much better performance than the short antenna on the radio itself.

This is the first part of a two-part article – please also read part two – Installing an Antenna  – for helpful further information on how to connect your antenna to your radio and how to ‘tune’ your antenna for best performance.

Perhaps the easiest improvement you can make to a two-way radio is also one of the least expensive and definitely the one that will have the greatest impact on both your radio’s transmitting and receiving range.  This is the replacement of the antenna.

Although the concept of swapping one antenna for another sounds easy and simple, there are some issues and challenges associated with it.  But – keep reading – we’ll help make the challenges easy and issues easily resolved.

This article is designed for people using either Ham type VHF/UHF radios, or alternatively, MURS/GMRS radios.  Much of what we say applies to CB radios too, except that their antennas are ideally very much larger (five times larger than 2m/GMRS and 15 times larger than 70cm/MURS).

Note that FRS radios are not allowed to have external antennas, and if you have an HF or other less common Ham radio, then with your General or Extra license, you probably already know most of these things!

If you have a base station or mobile two-way radio, it almost certainly does not have an antenna provided with it, and so you can skip the next section (but not the other sections).  If you have a portable type walkie-talkie, then there’s a big question you first need to answer.

Can Your Radio Accept an External Antenna?

Okay, so the first consideration is whether or not your radio is even capable of accepting an external antenna.  Hopefully, you used our two-part article ‘How to Choose the Best Walkie-Talkie‘ to help you select your Handheld Transceiver (HT) and one of the very first things we recommend in that article series is to get an HT that has a removable/replaceable antenna.

If your radio has a fixed antenna, then you’re dead in the water and you need to start off by getting a better radio.  Fortunately, that’s not a major investment these days – about $40 or so will get you a Baofeng UV-5R at Amazon and that’s more than good enough for most ordinary purposes (if you want an appreciably better radio, you’d need to almost add another zero to the cost of the UV-5R series).

Measuring and Comparing Antenna Gain/Efficiency

Antennas can have their efficiency measured, so as to give you an understanding of how ‘good’ they are.  This is often referred to as the antenna’s gain.

This measurement is in decibels, and is either measured in dBi or dBd units.  What is the difference?  To convert from dBi to dBd you subtract 2.15 from the dBi rating to get the equivalent dBd rating.  For example, an antenna with a rating of 4dBi is the same as one with a rating of 1.85dBd.

(In case you wondered, the ‘i’ means it is a measurement relative to an isotropic antenna, and the ‘d’ means it is a measurement relative to a dipole antenna, and dipoles have a 2.15dB gain compared to an isotropic antenna).

Sometimes you’ll see an antenna that is described as having a certain dB gain, but the specification doesn’t indicate if it is in dBi units or dBd units.  If the rating isn’t specified, you can safely assume it to be on the least favorable scale, ie, dBi.

Choosing an External Antenna

There are three main families of external antennas.  There are short antennas designed to be used with handheld transceivers, larger mobile antennas suitable for mounting on a vehicle (either permanently or temporarily) and even larger antennas again for use with a fixed base station at your dwelling or retreat or office.

Slightly different issues apply to choosing a fixed antenna for a base station – you can consider issues such as directionality of your antenna as well as antenna style and, most of all, antenna location (and coax cable run length) and those issues are beyond the scope of this article.

Certainly, no matter what type of radio you have, you should have the best possible antennas at your main fixed bases, and these are issues we will consider separately.  But for this article, we are focused on antennas that radiate more or less evenly in a full 360° circle around them, albeit ideally in a flat pattern rather than wasting signal sent directly up into the sky or down into the earth.

Portable Antennas

The standard antenna your radio comes with – typically called a ‘rubber ducky’ – is not a very efficient antenna.  It was designed to be short and convenient (and hopefully moderately sturdy too).  But it was not designed for best performance.

Fortunately, there are many other after-market antennas out there that give massively better performance.  As we reported in our article on How to Maximize the Range of your Radio, swapping from the standard antenna to an after-market antenna improved the signal strength radiated by a small portable radio about eight-fold.  That’s a huge improvement in signal strength, for probably a less than $20 cost.

If the antennas you are selecting from quote their gain figure, then use that to help you evaluate the best antenna for your portable.  Otherwise, a generally rule of thumb can be that the bigger the antenna the better (but make sure it is designed for the frequency bands you are wishing to use).

And with antennas being such low-cost items, there’s no harm in buying two or three and then experimenting with them to see which works the best.  You could even probably sell the ones you didn’t want on eBay or Craigslist for close to what you paid for them.

Mobile Antennas

Having a separate antenna for a radio being used as a mobile (ie in a vehicle rather than handheld ) provides two major benefits.

The first benefit is that an antenna mounted on the outside of your vehicle is better than an antenna inside your vehicle.  Not only is it slightly higher up and free from the partial shielding, obstructions, and absorbent materials inside the vehicle, but it may also have a better ground connection (using your entire vehicle as part of its overall antenna configuration) than is the case for a portable antenna on the radio itself.

The second benefit is that it can be larger and therefore more efficient.

It is common to note that many mobile antennas are coiled in the middle.  There is one downside to such a design – the coil seems to act as a wind trap/musical instrument when driving down the road and particularly if your antenna is on your vehicle roof, you’ll get very much more wind noise inside the vehicle than you would with a different design of antenna.

If you find yourself unable to get an alternate style of antenna, then you can modify your coiled antenna either by placing something around the outside of the coil or something on the inside of the coil – in both cases, to make it a solid object that doesn’t make as much of a whistling noise in the wind.

Unfortunately though if you do this, you will increase the antenna’s wind resistance and may cause it to bend over more when driving down the road at freeway speeds, and the movement from vertical to angled will reduce the antenna’s functionality.  Better to either accept the wind noise or to choose an antenna that doesn’t have the center coil in it.

The best location for an external antenna is in the center of the vehicle’s roof.  Sometimes this is not practical, but it should be your first choice whenever possible.

Dual vs Single Band Antennas

You will probably have a multi-band radio – possibly with two, maybe even three ‘main’ VHF/UHF bands that you wish to communicate on.

It seems that the 2m band is the most popular ham band, closely followed by the 70cm band, although this seems to vary somewhat from region to region.

The 1.25m band is a very distant third – depending on your perspective you might see value in concentrating on popular bands or unpopular bands.  If you are hoping to use existing repeaters out there, you should focus most on 2m and 70cm bands, but if you want to use a band which probably has fewer other people sharing with you, then the 1.25m band may be a better choice.

One last comment about band choice.  The 70cm band has a very broad range of frequencies (from 420 – 450 MHz), with a 3.5% spread above and below the central point of the band.  The 2m band has only a 1.4% spread, and the 1.25m a 0.7% spread.  This has some implications with antenna design – it is harder to get an antenna that works well all the way from 420 – 450 MHz than it is to get one which works well from 222 – 225 MHz.  This is explained in the second part of this series, and we tell you how to turn this challenge into an advantage.

Back to antenna issues, you can get a single antenna that is designed to work on both 2m and 70cm, and you can even get tri-band antennas that will work reasonably well on 1.25m too.

This is normally the most convenient approach to adopt.  But in your home/base station environment, you might want to have separate antennas for each band, and possibly even in a mobile environment too.  Indeed, as well as having separate antennas, there is a lot of good sense in having separate radios for each band too – it can make monitoring and working on multiple frequencies much easier.

On the other hand, if you’re not wanting to use existing repeaters, do you really need the extra flexibility – and extra hassle too – of having multiple bands?  Why not then just concentrate on a few specific channels in only one band?

If you know you’ll only be using a radio in one band, get an antenna optimized for that band.  But if you want extra flexibility, then consider dual/tri band radios and dual/tri band antennas.

Directional Antennas

For portable and mobile use, you seldom want a directional antenna, because you have no idea what direction you’ll be facing or where you’ll be communicating to.  Instead, you want an antenna that radiates equally in all directions, 360° all around itself, but hopefully in a flat plane so the signal goes ‘straight out’ – ie perpendicular to the antenna mast itself, which you should generally hold as close to exactly vertical as conveniently possible.

There is one exception to this.  If you are only semi-mobile, and will be stationary at a particular location for a period of time, and if the person(s) you wish to communicate with are also at a known location, and if the reception is poor with normal omnidirectional antennas, perhaps you’d want to use a directional antenna in these cases.

Directional antennas are much larger than regular antennas.  The 70cm band is probably the most practical for directional antennas, because they can be much smaller and lighter than similarly directional antennas for the other two frequency bands (1.25m and 2m).

If you are establishing a fixed ‘base station’ you might then consider a directional antenna if you knew that you’d always be wanting to communicate with people in one direction and almost never in other directions.

There are many different types of directional antennas, with many different patterns of directionality, ranging from very tightly focused in one direction only, to broadly focused on perhaps about 270° which a relatively ‘blind spot’ for the other 90° (a cardioid pattern), to ones with a focus both front and back but not one the sides (a figure 8 type pattern).

Even only a moderately directional antenna might give you five times more power in its main directional focus – and note that this focus applies not only for sending power out primarily in that direction, but also to receiving weaker signals more readily from that direction, too.

The design and use of directional antennas is a fascinating subject but beyond the scope of this article.  If you can see a situation where a directional antenna would be beneficial, you should definitely consider it further.

Read More in Part 2

This is the first part of a two-part article – please now read part two – Installing an Antenna  – for helpful further information on how to connect your antenna to your radio and how to ‘tune’ your antenna for best performance.

Apr 172013
 
You don't need to get this elaborate to experience a vastly improved signal with your radio.

You don’t need to get this elaborate to experience a vastly improved signal with your radio.

This is the second part of a two-part article.

If you arrived first on this page, you might wish to first read Part 1 – Choosing an Antenna – before then reading this second part.

After you’ve selected the best antenna for your needs (using the information in the first part of this article series to help) you now need to match the antenna to your radio, and to ‘tune’ it for best efficiency.

Please keep reading for information on how to do these two essential things.

Fitting Your Radio To An External Antenna

This sounds like a simple process, but – alas – it is not.  While the process itself is indeed simple – you connect your antenna to your radio – the complexity arises because different radios and different antennas use different sizes and shapes and genders of connectors.

Murphy’s Law being what it is, there’s every good chance that the radio you have will have a different type of connector on its antenna output than your antenna will have at the end of its lead.

There are a number of reasons why this mess of different connector types exists these days.  There’s no ‘ideal’ connector size for our purposes, and you probably shouldn’t give too much thought as to the connector type used by specific radios or antennas – especially for mobile use.  You have two choices after selecting your radio and antenna(s) – either get an adapter to connect from one style of connector (on the radio) to a different style of connector (on the antenna), or alternatively, if you are able to conveniently do so, cut the connector off the antenna lead and wire the lead up to the correct type of connector to work with the radio you have.

This latter choice is slightly better, but is usually not practical for portable radio antennas, only for mobile and base station antennas.  You want to have as strong as possible a mechanical connection between the antenna and the radio on a handheld portable unit, and if you start adding extra connectors, then you are weakening the connection, and the connectors are generally not designed to be load bearing devices.

It is therefore highly recommended that you limit your antenna choice, for an HT, to only those antennas that have the correct connector built-in to their base.

When evaluating your connector needs for mobile and base station antennas, the most common types of connectors you are likely to encounter include :

PL-259/SO-239 (‘UHF’ connectors) These connectors are sometimes referred to as ‘UHF’ connectors, although in strange contradiction to their name, they are not very good at UHF frequencies.
This is because when they were given that name, the term ‘UHF’ referred to much lower frequencies than the term now refers to.
They are however relatively sturdy and straightforward to specify and use.  Male plugs (PL-259) are usually on antenna leads and female sockets (SO-239) are usually on radio outputs and SWR meters.
SMA/RP-SMA These tiny connectors are clearly much better suited for the miniature size of today’s handheld/portable radios.  Unfortunately, there is a confusing mess of different SMA and RP-SMA (reverse polarity) connectors and so you need to focus very carefully on two things.
The first variable is whether you want a connector that screws into/over the other connector it is pairing with, or whether it has a threaded exterior that the other connector will screw into/over.
The second variable is whether, in the middle/center of the connector, there is a hole for the lead from the other connector to be inserted into, or whether there is a sticking out ‘prong’ that will go into the other connector’s hole.
Originally, connectors with external threads had internal holes and were called female SMA and those with internal prongs and external bolt type things that screwed into the other connector were called male.  And that is sort of intuitively obvious, isn’t it.
But now there are the RP series which combine a ‘female’ exterior thread concept with a male interior prong/hole concept.
You also need to understand, when a device is described as using a certain type of SMA connector, does the description mean it needs this type of connector on the other piece of equipment, or has this type of connector on itself.
You can guess at some of this (particularly the external threading) by looking at enlarged pictures of devices, but few pictures clearly show if there is a prong or hole in the center of the connector.
BNC BNC connectors are back to simple and easily identified and understood territory again.  There are two very obviously different types of connector, one fits over and around the other, and connects via a bayonet type twist/lock.
Others Oh yes, there are lots of other types of connectors too.  N connectors.  TMC.  Mini-UHF.  And that’s just the start of the list!
These less common types of connectors are not deal breakers, but it might take some more effort to find (or make) an adapter.

The situation can become even more complex still when buying a mobile antenna.  Some mobile antennas are nothing more than the antenna mast itself, with a screw thread on the bottom of the mast.  If that is all you get, you then need a compatible mount to screw the antenna into.

Unfortunately, there’s not one universal thread type or mast diameter, so you’ll need to carefully ensure that the diameters and threads are compatible between the actual antenna mast and the base it needs to be affixed to.

But wait, there’s more.  Maybe (or maybe not) the base mount device has a coaxial cable pre-wired into it, to enable the signal to be run between the radio and antenna.

About the only good thing that can be said of a mount with no included cable is that you are then free to build a cable of the exact length you need, of the best type of coax cable, and with the correct connector on it.  Other than that, it is a hassle.

Tuning Your Antenna and Coax to Your Radio

If you are fitting an antenna directly to your HT, there’s not much more you need to consider.  But if you are adding a mobile or fixed antenna to your radio (HT, mobile or base) then there’s one more important step, and that is making sure your antenna matches the output of your radio as closely as possible – that is, your antenna is ‘tuned’ to your radio and its location.

We’ll avoid the electrical theory and simply say that not all antennas are exactly matched with all radio transmitters.  But – here’s the good news – it is usually possible to adjust (ie tune) the antenna to improve the match between it and the transmitter.  This can make a big difference to the effective power transmitted from the antenna.

The degree of efficiency of your antenna compared to your transmitter is termed its standing wave ratio, always abbreviated as its SWR.  An ideal transmission system has an SWR of 1:1, meaning no power is reflected back from the antenna.  A SWR value of 1.5:1 (usually just referred to as 1.5) means that there is a 4% loss of power, a SWR ratio of 2 means 11.1% loss, 2.5 is an 18.4% loss, and at 3.0, the loss has grown to 25%.

This power is not just ‘lost’ – it is reflected back to the transmitting circuits and can damage them.  It is hard to say at exactly what point a high SWR value changes from not just being a regrettable loss of power to becoming a dangerous amount of power being reflected back into the transmitter, and it probably varies depending on the design of the transmitter that is experiencing the reflected power.  It is uncommon to see values lower/better than about 1.2, and if your SWR is above 3 or so, then that is perhaps becoming cause for concern.

So for all reasons, you want to have an antenna with as low an SWR as possible.

Although there two things to consider with SWR.  The first is how to measure it, and the second is how to change it.

Measuring SWR

To measure SWR, you need a special device – an SWR meter.  These are readily available and not too expensive.

SWR meters only work on some frequencies and are also power limited too, so you need to ensure that the SWR meter you get is designed to work with the frequencies you’ll be transmitting and can handle the power output of your transmitter.  An SWR meter also needs to be of the same impedance as the feed line and antenna you are using – in our case, that is almost always 50 ohm, and you can assume that your meter is also 50 ohm unless it states to the contrary.

Some SWR meters display their value by a needle moving on a scaled analog meter, others have two needles moving and you read the value from where the two needles intersect.  It is unclear if the dual needle system is actually appreciably more accurate than a single needle system, especially for our type of ‘close enough is good enough’ purposes (as opposed to scientifically calibrating and measuring exact laboratory values).

But dual needle systems do have one advantage.  You don’t need to calibrate them every time before you take a reading.  Calibration isn’t a difficult process to do with a single needle system, but the challenge comes when you forget to calibrate, meaning that perhaps you are getting an inaccurate reading and making the wrong assumptions.

Note also it is important to attach the transmitter and antenna leads to the SWR meter the correct way around.  If you swap them, you’re unlikely to harm the meter, but you’ll get an inaccurate reading.

Fortunately, a basic SWR meter is not unduly expensive, and a unit such as this Workman 104 seems to represent as a good compromise between cost and functionality, and with a price of under $40 on Amazon, is good value too.

The Workman 104 can handle power outputs of up to 150W and covers frequencies from 120 MHz – 500 MHz. and so is probably more than sufficient for your needs.

If you wanted to treat yourself to a dual needle system, then this $60 unit on Amazon seems like the best choice currently.

When you measure the SWR of your system, you should have your antenna mounted the way you will use it.  In other words, if mounting an antenna on your vehicle, have the antenna already mounted where it will be on the vehicle (the SWR value will change depending on where on the vehicle the antenna is located).  Some sources suggest you should also close the vehicle’s doors to further ensure that the system being measured is the same as the one the antenna will actually be used in.

Once you have your SWR meter connected into your transmission line, you now want to take SWR readings across the band you want to transmit on.  We suggest you get a piece of paper to write them down, because it can get confusing and you want to track what is happening when you make changes.  Maybe have a set of columns for each different frequency you are taking readings at, plus another column where you can write what you did to change the setup from the previous set of measurements, and then one line for each set of measurements.

Changing SWR

The first part of changing your antenna’s SWR performance is to understand what it is at present and how you want to change it.

Let’s say you are tuning an antenna for the 70cm band.  This ranges from a low of 420 MHz to a high of 450 MHz.  We suggest, to start with, you get perhaps a set of seven readings, at 420, 425, 430, 435, 440, 445 and 450 MHz (remember, with single needle SWR meters, you need to recalibrate before each reading).  These readings will show one of four possible situations

  • The SWR value consistently decreases from 420 to 450 MHz – this means the ideal frequency for your antenna is higher than 450 MHz
  • The SWR value decreases for a while then turns around and increases – the ideal frequency is where the SWR is at a minimum
  • The SWR value consistently increases from 420 to 450 MHz – this means the ideal frequency is lower than 420 MHz
  • The SWR value is more or less the same all the way across the band – discussed below

The optimum solution is to have the SWR at the lowest in the part of the frequency band you’ll be using the most; the part that is most important to you.  If you wish to be able to use the band equally, then the SWR should be lowest in the middle of the band.

If by some happy chance, the SWR is already at a minimum at the key point of the band, then there’s nothing more you need to do.  But if it is not, then you need to tune your antenna to move its ideal frequency from whatever it is to whatever you now wish it to be.

There are many different ways an antenna can be tuned, but in the case of a typical mobile antenna, the most practical way is by varying its length.  Pretty much every mobile antenna you’ll come across will have a way of adjusting the length of the antenna – usually there’s a tiny set-screw somewhere and when you loosen it, you can then slide a section of antenna up or down (or in and out of whatever it is sliding to/from) to adjust the antenna length.

If you wish to raise the ideal frequency to a higher value, you need to shorten the antenna length.  Do we need to add that if you wish to lower the ideal frequency, you need to increase the antenna length?

Small adjustments can have big effects.  Try adjusting the antenna length by perhaps half an inch and then redo your readings (remembering to recalibrate each time, of course).  You can then see on your sheet of paper what the impact of the half-inch adjustment was, giving you a feeling for if you need to make more of an adjustment, or if you made too much of an adjustment, and so on.

It will probably take a few adjustments to get things close to good, but it will be time well spent.

Special Tuning Situations 1 – Flat SWR and Narrow Band

It is relatively straightforward to tune an antenna for the 2m and 1.25m bands.  This is because each of these bands is ‘narrow’ with not much difference between the upper and lower frequencies.  The 2m band has only a 1.4% spread from its midpoint to its upper and lower limits, and the 1.25m band has an even tinier 0.7% spread.

This means that sometimes you won’t see any difference in SWR across the entire band, because whatever change there might be is less than that which is picked up by the SWR meter.

But that is not the same as having the antenna fully optimized.  Maybe the SWR can still be improved – unless it is already very low (say less than 1.5) we’d recommend you test the antenna by increasing its length until you see the SWR change – does it go up or down?  If the SWR is unchanged or reduces, keep adding to the antenna length until it is clear you’ve reached the minimum and the SWR starts to increase again.

If even a slight increase in length immediately causes the SWR to increase, you should instead start shortening the antenna length until such time as the SWR has decreased to the minimum.

Special Tuning Situations 2 – Broad Bands

Unlike the 2m and 1.25m bands, the 70cm band has a very broad range of frequencies (from 420 – 450 MHz), with a 3.5% spread above and below the central point of the band.

This can mean that there is a large range in SWR values between one part of the band and another part of the band.  That can be a nuisance if you wish to be able to transmit and receive all the way across the band, but if your main usage will be restricted to only communicating with other known users, we suggest you agree among yourselves on which part of the band you’ll use and so tune your antenna for best performance in that part of the band.

Summary

An optimized antenna for your radio will give you more range for both sending and receiving than anything else you can do to your radio.  Instead of spending many hundreds (or even thousands) of dollars on fancy radio transmitters and receivers (which will also use much more power – something that will be at a premium in any ‘grid-down’ type situation) you can instead spend a few tens of dollars on a better antenna and get the same end result – longer range and more resilient and reliable communication capabilities.

The information in this two-part series and our other radio communication articles can help you choose the best radio and antenna for your requirements.

Read More in Part One (and Other Articles Too)

This is the second part of a two-part article.  If you have no already done so, you might wish to also read Part 1 – Choosing an Antenna – for additional information on getting the best antenna for your radio communication needs.

We have a lot of other helpful articles about radio (and regular) communications too – please see our listing of Communications topics.

Apr 152013
 
Cell phone service can be disrupted either deliberately or unexpectedly.  You can't rely on it working when you most need it.

Cell phone service can be disrupted either deliberately or unexpectedly. You can’t rely on it working when you most need it.

Just hours ago, two bombs were detonated close to the finish line of the Boston marathon.  At least one more has been found, unexploded.  The count of killed and wounded is still progressing.

The situation is now being featured in non-stop wall-to-wall coverage by all the networks, and one of the actual explosions was caught live on video and is being endlessly looped over and over again, with more video footage appearing all the time – an interesting example of how almost nothing these days escapes video recording.

But, from our perspective, the really significant thing about this tragedy is what the authorities immediately did in response.  It seems that at a federal level, a decision was made to shut down cell phone service across a wide part of central Boston.

This was initially reported as ‘people were finding it difficult to get a cell phone signal due to everyone trying to use their phones at once’ but subsequently the reality became apparent – nameless authorities had instructed the wireless companies to block cell phone service from regular people with regular cell phones (security and first responder groups are sometimes equipped with phones that have special service designators that will continue to function when normal phone service is blocked).

Interestingly, while a nameless official in DC said that cell phone service had been shut down, Verizon and Sprint both denied that claim, saying instead that the only call-blocking was due to increased traffic.  Details on this link but note the text has changed a couple of times already, who only knows what it will say when you click on it!

Perhaps it doesn’t even matter as to how it is that cell phone service was disrupted.  The bottom line is that for many people, they were unable to call in or out of the affected area for an extended time period.

There are several reasons why the authorities would block phone service.  The first and most obvious is due to concerns that there may be other bombs out there with cell phone (or pager, if such things still exist) controlled detonators; by turning off the cell phone coverage, they prevent such bombs from being remotely triggered.

The other reason is to prevent an attacking group of terrorists from coordinating their ongoing plan of attack (and making good their escape).  Maybe other bombs are to be detonated by suicide bombers, or a timer to be initiated by a bomber who then endeavors to escape.  If such people don’t get their activation instructions by text message or cell phone call, they hopefully won’t set their bombs off by themselves.

Both these types of considerations are perfectly valid and make good sense.  We understand and agree with the blocking of cell phone service in such cases.

But.  Imagine if you were in the affected area; or, alternatively, if a loved one was in the affected area.  You’d want to urgently establish contact either to advise of your situation (if you were in the area) or to check (if calling to someone in the area) and finding cell phone service unavailable would be a major disruption.  These days, with few or no pay phones, we have become increasingly reliant on our cell phones, and seldom pause to question our assumption that they are ideal emergency communication tools for us.

The reality is that cell phone service is vulnerable to a number of potential problems that could interrupt their ability to provide reliable service in an emergency.  Clearly the Boston Bombing shows one such vulnerability – a decision by the authorities to block all calls in or out of a region.  And while on this occasion it was due to an apparent terrorist bombing, the increasing use of the internet by violent protesters to coordinate their protesting means that in other civil disorder events, there is an increasing temptation by the authorities to switch off cell phone service so as to disrupt the actions of the group the authorities are trying to put down.

Other types of emergencies may cause other vulnerabilities to be exposed as well.  A regional power outage will see cell phone towers dying as their emergency batteries, of varying capacity and run-time capability, run out of charge.  An earthquake might physically disrupt service by toppling towers and breaking cables.  An EMP attack would simply destroy the electronics in the towers (and possibly in your cell phone too).

An Emergency Communications Alternative

Fortunately, there is an alternative means of communication that is much more resilient and less likely to suffer outages from any of the preceding vulnerabilities.  Good old-fashioned wireless radio – portable and car/mobile mounted walk-talkies.

In an event such as the Boston Bombing, normal radio service would be expected to continue unabated.  While walkie-talkies have very little range in a downtown situation, their range can be massively extended by any nearby repeaters, and most towns and cities of medium or larger size (and many smaller population centers too) have one or many repeaters that you could use to bounce your signal on from where you are to where you wish it to be received.

To help you understand the prevalence of repeaters, have a look at this website (and others like it, some provide better coverage for some areas than others) and click-through to your state and county to see how many repeaters are in your area.  Or do some searching to find the local repeater frequency coordinator for your area – we went and checked the service for Boston and found 26 repeaters within ten miles of Boston, twelve of which were within five miles (on either the 2m, 1.25m or 70cm bands).

We suggest you Get a Technician class Ham License (click the link to see how easy this can be) and then always carry a small walkie-talkie radio with you.  A Baofeng UV-5R would be an excellent choice, costing less than $50.

We recommend disassembling it into three parts – the antenna, the battery and the radio itself.  We’d pack the radio in a lightly vacuum sealed nylon barrier bag – just enough vacuum to cause the bag to drape moderately around the radio, but not too much as to risk puncturing the bag on sharp edges of the radio, or to potentially harm internal radio components such as electrolytic capacitors.

Next, we’d wrap several layers of aluminum foil around the packed radio (to act as a Faraday cage in the event of an EMP attack) and then place that in a protective outer plastic bag (so as not to break the aluminum foil).

Oh – we’d also have in the radio’s pack a sheet of paper showing all the relevant frequencies for repeaters and the channel numbers we’d programmed them in to the radio, plus our group’s cascading series of contact frequencies, so that when you open up the radio pack, you not only have the radio itself, but all you need to know about the frequencies to use.  We’d probably include a copy of the radio’s instruction manual too for good measure.

You keep the battery separate so as to conveniently recharge it every few months as it self-discharges.  You keep the antenna separate for two reasons – to make the unit more compact to carry, and to stop the antenna increasing the radio’s vulnerability to EMP attack (yes, even with the radio off and battery removed, and even inside a Faraday cage, some vulnerability remains).

If you needed to use the radio, it would only take a minute to remove the radio from its protective package, screw in the antenna, and click the battery in to place, and then you’d have a working radio, suitable to use contacting other members of your extended family and retreat group (who also should have radios too of course).

In a more serious event where the repeaters might be compromised and also cease functioning, it should be part of your plan to exit the city area as best you can, and to monitor/call other group members at designated times – maybe for five minutes, once every 30 minutes, commencing at 10 and 40 minutes past each hour – until such time as you make contact with each other, either by radio or by meeting up at an agreed assembly point.

Summary

A resilient communications strategy that will ensure the members of your group can reliably keep in contact with each other and coordinate their actions and movements is an essential part of surviving both the immediate effects of an unexpected event and the ongoing problems that may ensue.

For information on how to plan your communications prepping, please read through our ongoing series on Communications in general, and in particular those articles that relate to wireless/walkie-talkie communications.

While cell phones are generally better than two-way radios for most ordinary communication requirements, they are also much more reliant on everything outside of our control continuing to work as it normally does, and as preppers, that’s an assumption we can’t comfortably accept.

Apr 092013
 
A very detailed new survey maps states by their Freedom Ranking.

A very detailed new survey maps states by their Freedom Ranking.

Two studies have recently been published, one ranking the states from freest to least free, and the other ranking from most small business friendly to least small business friendly.

The two studies, conducted by different organizations and with different parameters, still showed some similarities in their findings, which is unsurprising because the philosophy of freedom vs state control spans both our business and our personal lives.

It should go without saying that we will be more comfortable in a state that ranks positively in both these dimensions.

Free/Not Free Survey

The Mercatus Center of the George Mason University has just published its third annual (2013) ranking of states in terms of personal freedom.

The ranking measures attributes in three broad areas – fiscal policy, regulatory policy and personal freedom.  Most prominence was given to tax burden (28.6% of the total 100% index), the legal liability system (11.5%), victimless crime impacts (9.8%) real property rights (7.6%) and gun control (6.6%).

Many other attributes were also evaluated in what is a truly comprehensive evaluation of the states, with the states ranked and scored separately for each attribute, so if you wish to change the weightings and rescore the states to better reflect your own priorities, you have the raw data to do so.

It also provides extensive narrative discussion on methodology and other considerations, and then provides an aggregate ranking.

The top ten states and their scores (max score = 100) were

Rank    State    Score   
1 ND 66.6
2 SD 61.3
3 TN 60.8
4 NH 55.6
5 OK 47.9
6 ID 43.2
7 MO 37.6
8 VA 37.3
9 GA 36.6
10 UT 35.7

 

The worst five states, all getting minus scores, were

Rank    State    Score   
46 RI – 40.4
47 HI – 67.3
48 NJ – 78.8
49 CA – 85.8
50 NY – 150.2

 

And the American Redoubt States

Rank    State    Score   
29 E WA 5.6
28 E OR 8.0
6 ID 43.2
12 MT 29.5
36 WY – 15.8

 

You can see the full report here.

Small Business Friendly States

Maybe you want to have your own business, and maybe you’ll eventually move to your retreat full-time.  Even if you don’t have or won’t start/buy a business, there’s a clear correlation between a state that interferes with its small businesses and a state that interferes with its citizens.

Thumbtack, in conjunction with the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, have just published their second annual ranking of states in terms of perceived small business friendliness.  In addition to ranking states, they also rank 57 major metropolitan regions and a further 73 regions in comparative terms.  Information was gathered from a survey of small business owners, held over a two month period, with 7776 responses received in total.

We view this survey as being more qualitative than the first survey on freedom, which is more abstract and quantitative.  But even so, it gives another helpful perspective, even if primarily on how selected small business owners rate their states and regions compared to their perceptions of how they should perform (perceptions which of course vary from region to region).

These regional variances in perceptions perhaps explain why states such as CA and NY don’t come 49th and 50th respectively.

There were eleven main factors scored, ranging from ‘overall small business friendliness’ to specifics of various regulations and tax procedures, labor and zoning laws, and so on.

Because of the ‘fuzzier’ nature of the data, the survey ranks states on a nine-point scale from A+ to C-, and then with three failing grades, D+, D and F.

Twelve states got A+, A or A- grades.

Rank    State    Grade   
1 UT A+
2 AL A+
3 NH A+
4 ID A+
5 TX A
6 VA A
7 KS A
8 CO A
9 SC A-
10 GA A-
11 MN A-
12 NV A-

 

Nine states got failing grades.

Rank    State    Grade   
42 NY D+
43 PA D+
44 CT D+
45 MI D
46 IL D
47 CA D
48 HI F
49 MI F
50 RI F

 

And the American Redoubt States (with insufficient data received to rank MT and WY)

Rank    State    Score   
E WA B-
E OR C+
ID A+
MT no data
WY no data

 

You can see the full report here.

Summary

Please add the information in these two new reports to other information you are collating from other sources when choosing the state to set up your retreat in.

Please also see the many other posts in our section on Where to Locate Your Retreat for other factors and considerations.

Apr 072013
 
This looks - and is - overwhelmingly complicated.  But Ham radio doesn't need to be like this, it can be simple and straightforward for everyone.

This looks – and is – overwhelmingly complicated. But Ham radio doesn’t need to be like this, it can be simple and straightforward for everyone.

This is the first part of a two-part series on how to most readily pass your Ham licenses.  After reading this first part, please be sure to click on to the second part ‘Learning and Study Aids to Help You Pass Your Ham License Test‘.

If you get a Ham radio operator’s license, you will be able to legally use the widest range of radios and frequencies, and at much greater power levels than are permitted for unlicensed radio users.  You’ll be able to communicate more reliably in your immediate area (ie line-of-sight, stretching out a mile or more depending on topography and obstructions) as well as in a broader region (via relays) and also nationally and even internationally too.

If you limit yourself only to unlicensed FRS, GMRS, MURS and CB type radio services, you’ll be limiting your communication range, usually to something less than a mile, also depending on the topography and obstructions.

So, a Ham license is the way to go, and getting one is easier than you think.  We discuss the three different types of licenses on our page ‘Why You Should Get a Ham Radio Operator License‘, and no matter if you decide to settle for the entry-level ‘Technician’ class license or if you decide to pursue the ultimate ‘Extra’ class license, you will face common requirements and be tested in a similar format.

The strategies we offer, below, will apply equally to all three licenses.

No Morse Code

One of the big hang-ups many people used to have, was the need to learn Morse Code as part of the licensing/testing procedure.  This is no longer required, so if that was a concern and something holding you back, it is no longer a reason to not get a Ham license.

On the other hand, once you’ve got your three levels of Ham license, we’d suggest you consider voluntarily learning Morse code.  Believe it or not, there are still occasions when it can be useful, and it can also improve your Op-sec – while anyone can go out and buy a radio scanner and listen in on your voice transmissions, very few ‘bad guys’ will go to the lengths of learning Morse code and deciphering your Morse transmissions.

The Three Different Licenses

These days there are three main Ham licenses available – they are called the Technician, General and Extra licenses.  The General license gives you all the privileges of the Technician license plus adds more frequencies you can also use, and the Extra license gives you all the privileges of the General license plus adds still more frequencies, and also allows you to then get a ‘vanity’ Ham call sign (fewer characters and more choices than the auto-assigned ones you are given to start with).

To get a Technician license, you sit a single multi-choice exam where you are asked 35 multi choice questions, each with four answer choices.  You are required to get 26 questions correct to pass.

The 35 questions are semi-randomly drawn from a question pool of about 400 questions.

To get a General license, you first need to pass your Technician test, and then sit a second test, also comprising 35 multi-choice questions, each with four answer choices, and you again must get 26 correct.

The General question pool is slightly larger, and has different questions to the Technician pool – there are about 460 questions in the General pool.

To get an Extra license, you first need to have passed your Technician and General tests, and then sit a third test.  This time you have 50 multi-choice questions, still with four answer choices each, and you must get 37 correct to pass.

The Extra question pool is quite a lot larger, with about 700 questions in it, and these questions are generally different (but sometimes similar and of course directly related) to the questions in the other two question pools.

The question pools and the correct answers are widely distributed so you know in advance exactly what you need to study and what questions you might be asked.

It is possible to sit for one test, pass it, and then immediately sit for a second test in the same session.  Some people – this is rare but occasionally happens – sit for all three tests in a row (and pass all three, too).  Which leads to the first strategy.

Work Through All Three Tests Consecutively Without Stopping

We’re not saying you should try to do all three tests on the same day, indeed, unless you already know a lot about the subjects covered, we’d recommend you don’t try to do this.  It might give you some boasting rights to pass all three tests in one day, but it might also overwhelm you with the learning needed, and you will probably find it overall quicker as well as much easier to do the tests in easy ‘bite sized’ stages.

Although we don’t suggest doing all three tests on the same day, we are suggesting that you should steadily go through all three tests, perhaps one a month, because each test builds on knowledge you will have learned for the previous test.  It is better that you soon get a Technician license, then a month later the General, and another month later the Expert, than perhaps end up learning solidly for six months before sitting any tests at all.

One more thing about timing.  Keep at it, steadily.  If you wait too long between one test and the next, you’ll have to relearn much of what you knew after passing your previous test – it is much easier to simply keep moving forward while everything is fresh and still in your mind.

Test Structure Strategy Part 1

Each test is created by choosing, on a semi-random basis, a selection of questions from that test’s pool of questions.  The questions are grouped into a series of ten different subjects, ranging from the rules and regulations associated with operating a ham radio station to safety procedures, and of course including subjects such as antenna design, radio wave propagation, and electronic circuits.

Now, note the use of the term ‘semi-random’.  A certain number of questions are taken from each of these ten different subjects – for example, with the General test, five questions come from the Amateur Radio Principles group, but only two from the Electrical and RF Safety group.

So here’s the strategy.  If you find one subject easy and another difficult, maybe you don’t need to study the difficult subject at all.  Remember you only need 26 correct answers from 35 questions for the Technician and General tests, and 37 out of 50 for the Advanced test, so you can ‘sacrifice’ some parts of the knowledge you need entirely.

In other words, learn all the easy stuff first, and then only as much hard stuff as you need to be sure you can get up to the score you need to pass.

Test Structure Strategy Part 2

So you now know there are ten subjects that the test covers, and we’ve indicated that if there’s a subject you just can’t understand at all, maybe you can skip it entirely and still be able to pass the test due to the generous number of incorrect answers you are allowed.

The testing is actually even more structured that this.  Within each subject category there are a number of subsections.

So maybe you’ll find that one subsection is easy and another hard – rather than make a decision to study or abandon the entire subject, just pick and choose the subsections that you understand and make sure you are fully optimized on those questions.

Only when you have the easy stuff mastered do you need to return to the more difficult subsections.

Huge Issue :  Focus On the Questions Most Likely Asked

Now here’s a suggestion that can massively help you direct your studies most productively.

Each of the ten subjects has a number of subsections, as discussed in the preceding section.  As if by coincidence, the number of questions allocated to each subject is the same as the number of subsections in the subject, and so it is common for an exam to allocate one question to the material in each subsection.  Now for the interesting thing – some subsections only have half a dozen or so questions, while others have more than a dozen.

So, guess what.  If you study a subsection with half as many questions in it as another subsection, each of the questions and answers you are learning is twice as likely to be asked.

What is the point in struggling with a question that has perhaps only a 5% chance of being asked, when there is another question with a 10% chance of being asked that you could learn in the same amount of time?  Or, to phrase it a different way, which is easier for you – to learn a group of six question/answer sets, from which you expect one question to be asked in your exam, or to learn a group of 12 (or even 20) question/answer sets, from which also only one question will be asked.

So, when you’ve polished up on the easy subsections, your next strategy should be to concentrate on the harder subsections with the fewest number of questions in them.  This will give you the best results from the time you spend.

Intelligent Answer Guessing

The good news is that the questions are multi-choice and that each question has only four answers to choose from.  Furthermore, you don’t lose points by choosing wrong answers.  So, of course, answer all questions, even if it is only a WAG (wild assed guess).

Fortunately, you can sometimes improve your guess by eliminating one of more of the answers not so much based on what you know is right but rather based on what you know is wrong.  We’ll go through some examples here, and to prove our point, we’ll use the most difficult Extra exam questions rather than the simplest Technician exam questions.

For example, one question for the Extra exam asks

What types of amateur stations may automatically retransmit the radio signals of other amateur stations?

A.  Only beacon, repeater or space stations

B.  Only auxiliary, repeater, or space stations

C.  Only earth stations, repeater stations or model craft

D.  Only auxiliary, beacon or space stations

Now maybe you’ve no idea what the answer is, but perhaps you also know that a beacon does nothing other than simply broadcast a signal of some sort, maybe for radio direction finding, maybe to test propagation, or for some other purpose.  A beacon clearly does not retransmit signals from other stations.  So that would enable you to eliminate answers A and D, leaving only two to choose/guess from.

If you look at the two remaining choices, you might wonder about a model craft rebroadcasting signals, decide that was slightly strange, whereas the three choices in B include one that on the face of it looks obviously correct (repeater), and two that could be correct, and decide to choose answer B.

So, without knowing the answer, you’ve eliminated the probably-wrong answers to come to the probably right answer.  Well done – you’ve now mastered one of the Extra test questions.

Another example of intelligent answer guessing is when you might see a question that has two answers that are very similar to each other as well as two other quite different answers.  The chances are that the correct answer is one of the two very similar answers rather than one of the two very different answers (but note that there are sometimes exceptions to this!).  For example, here’s another Extra test question

What is the amateur satellite service?

A.  A radio navigation service using satellites for the purpose of self-training, intercommunication and technical studies carried out by amateurs

B.  A spacecraft launching service for amateur-built satellites

C.  A radio communications service using amateur radio stations on satellites

D.  A radio communications service using stations on Earth satellites for public service broadcast

You can see that answers C and D are sort of similar, whereas options A and B are quite different from each other (and from answers C & D too).  It seems common in such cases that the examiners have created two ridiculous answers to trick people who know nothing about the topic, and then two similar answers to see if people really know the answer or are slightly confused.

So if you didn’t know the answer for sure, we’d suggest guessing between answers C and D.  And if you had to carefully select either C or D, we’d point out that answer D talks about public service broadcast whereas answer C talks about amateur radio stations.  Which do you think more likely to be something to do with the amateur satellite service – amateur radio stations on satellites, or public service broadcasts.

Yes, option C is correct, and you’ve now answered two of the Extra exam questions purely by applying logic to the questions rather than based on specific knowledge of the subject.

Another example of intelligent answer guessing is if you can work out or guess an approximate answer and then choose the option closest to your guess.  For example, another of the Extra exam questions asks

What is the phase angle between the voltage across and the current through a series RLC circuit if XC is 100 ohms, R is 100 ohms, and XL is 75 ohms?

A.  14 degrees with the voltage lagging the current

B.  14 degrees with the voltage leading the current

C.  76 degrees with the voltage leading the current

D.  76 degrees with the voltage lagging the current

In this case, there are two parts to the answer – is the angle likely to be 14 degrees or 76 degrees, and will voltage lag or lead current?  You do need to know some of the theory to get this right, but you don’t need to know the exact formula.

Both parts are easy to guess with only a little theory.  The first part – the angle – if you see there is 100 ohms of resistance and a net of 25 ohms of reactance, then that implies the angle will be small rather than large (because most of the circuit is resistance).  So it would be a safe bet that the angle is more likely to be 14° which is relatively small, rather than 76° which is of course relatively large.

Now, will voltage lead or lag current?  You see that the capacitance is larger than the inductance, so the dominant effect will be caused by the capacitance.  Hopefully you know that with a capacitor, there is a rush of current into the capacitor, and the voltage builds up subsequently while the current flow slows down – in other words, voltage lags current.

If you know either of these two general principles, you can eliminate two of the four answers,  And if you know both principles, you can correctly guess answer A without needing to know the formula involved at all.

Sometimes you have no clue about a question, but you can tell that at least one of the answers is nonsense because of other things you do know.  For example :

Why is it advisable to use an RF attenuator on a receiver being used for direction finding?

A.  It prevents receiver overload which could make it difficult to determine peaks or nulls

B.  It reduces loss of received signals caused by antenna pattern nulls, thereby increasing sensitivity

C.  It compensates for the effects of an isotropic antenna, thereby improving directivity

D.  It narrows the bandwidth of the received signal to improve signal to noise ratio

Maybe you don’t know the answer, but there are some clues in the four choices as to which answers are wrong.  For example, look at answer B, which claims that an attenuator reduces loss.  If you have even the simplest understanding of an attenuator, you’ll know that although it does indeed reduce a thing, but that the reduction – in this case of signal – would thereby increase loss.  So answer B is out.

If you have studied antennas, you’ll know that an isotropic antenna is a theoretical concept that is impossible to exist or create in real life, so therefore, answer C which refers to the attenuator being used in conjunction with this non-existent device is also obviously wrong.

As for the other two, it seems intuitive that an attenuator might reduce overload, although maybe you’ve no idea whether that would help determine peaks and nulls or not – maybe you don’t even know what peaks and nulls are, but the part you do understand sounds reasonable.  The last option might be something that you simply don’t understand at all, and so in that case, when forced to choose between an answer that seems at least half right, and one which you don’t understand, why not choose the one which is at least half right.  After all, sometimes the reason that one of the other answers is not something you understand or recognize is because the fun-loving examiners created it as a credible sounding but utterly nonsense statement!

Oh yes – if you chose answer A, you’ve just got another of the Extra exam questions correct.  Congratulations!

As you study for your tests, you want to do three things each time you come across a question you can’t answer correctly.

First, of course, ideally you should study and learn the materials needed to understand the topic being questioned.  That’s also the most time consuming and difficult approach.

So, the second thing to do is to study the question and the four answer choices, and from the benefit of knowing the correct answer, see if you can analyze the question and answers so that even if you can’t clearly be sure of the right answer, you can perhaps become more certain that some of the four choices are obviously wrong.  Learning which answers are wrong (and why) is almost as helpful as learning which answer is right, and sometimes can be a quicker and easier strategy.

The third thing to do is to just use ‘brute force’ and rote learn the question and its answer.  To do this, try to see if there’s a clue or mnemonic you can create from the question to guide you to the appropriate answer.  I’ve used all sorts of mnemonic ‘tricks’ to remember answers to questions – and sometimes to group answers to a series of questions – for example, there were a series of questions about what happens with either a 1/4 or 1/8 wavelength antenna was either shorted or open at the end, and so I remembered ‘SHOL4’ – Short High, Open Low (impedance) for the 1/4 wavelength (and the opposites for the 1/8th wavelength).  That one mnemonic walked me through four different scenarios.

The Pointing iN Proudly mnemonic helps to remember the difference between the symbols for PNP and NPN transistors (the arrow points iN for a PNP device).  And so on for many of the other questions – sometimes it is just something like ‘only one of the four answers has an odd number, and that is the right answer’).

Two Practice Traps to Avoid

There are two things you have to be very careful to not do.

The first is don’t memorize answers on the basis of ‘the second answer is the correct answer to this question’.  It is very easy to do this, either consciously or unconsciously, because as you see the same question/answer repeatedly, you may build up an almost Pavlovian response of quickly zeroing in on the correct answer based on where it is rather than what it says.

I unconsciously did that myself for the first of the three tests, and then discovered to my horror, when sitting the test, that the order the answers were presented in had been shifted from the order they were shown in the practice tests I’d been doing.

Without realizing it, I’d been instinctively choosing things like ‘the second answer’ for some of the questions, and then I realized that the answers were jumbled up and I had to stop and rethink the answers more carefully.

Make sure the sample tests you are taking jumble up the order of the answers they present to you.  If they don’t, then try using several of the different online sample test services.

The second is a subtle derivation of the first trap.  We urge you to try sample tests in different formats.  It just seems that one becomes familiar and comfortable with test exams in one style of presentation, and so when confronted with a different layout and format, it seems unfamiliar and the questions/answers look ‘foreign’ and different and harder.

It seems that even if you are careful not to ‘learn’ answers by their position in the list of four choices, sometimes you key in on links between the question and the answer based perhaps on the way the question is written – your eye goes straight to something like ‘the third word on the second line’ and based on that, then knows the answer to choose.  So when that key word or phrase has shifted in location, you no longer have the key between the question and its correct answer.

Sample tests that randomly shift the answer order around never randomly shift the layout of the questions around, so this remains as a potential problem.

We strongly recommend you should use several of the different free services for taking sample tests, so that your knowledge becomes separate from the presentation of the test materials.  The format of the actual tests you’ll take will be different to any of the online tests (for one thing, it is printed out rather than on a screen) and so by getting experience with several different formats and presentations, you’ll take another format and presentation in your stride.

Read More in Part Two

This is the first part of a two-part series on how to most readily pass your Ham licenses.  After reading this first part, please be sure to click on to the second part ‘Learning and Study Aids to Help You Pass Your Ham License Test‘.

Apr 072013
 
Your Ham License study and exam is not like this - it is relaxed, informal, and relatively easy.

Your Ham License study and exam is not like this – it can be relaxed, informal, and relatively easy.

This is the second part of an article series full of tips and strategies for making it easier to pass your Ham License Exam.  If you directly arrived on this page, you might want to first read the first part ‘Ham Test Exam Passing Strategies‘ then read this part, which focuses on learning and study aids, second.

Learning and Study Aids

There are plenty of websites with lists of the questions and answers for the three tests, and sites which will create sample tests and score them for you, so you can see if you’re getting close to being able to pass the test or not in something similar to a real test.  These are useful but only part of the process.

And note, from the immediately preceding paragraph, that if you are running sample tests, it is really helpful to use either different sites on different occasions or a site that randomizes the order in which the answers are listed each time you do the test; otherwise you run the risk of remembering the answer position rather than answer context.

There are two excellent overall learning approaches to consider.

Highest Recommendation :  The ARRL Book/CD Study Guides

The best overall approach is to get the combination book and software for each of the three courses that is published by the ARRL (the main amateur radio organization in the US).  They offer sets for the Technician License, the General License, and of course, the third in the series, for the Extra License.

These are reasonably priced (the Amazon links above show pricing currently in the range of $21, $27 and $29) and each has a large (8.5″ x 11″) softcover manual plus a Windows CD with teaching and testing software on it.

The books range up to 460 pages in length and do double duty as ongoing reference manuals.  They are very sensibly laid out both to help you learn the tests and also to gain a broad knowledge in general.  The good news though is you don’t need to read and understand and memorize every page of every book.  You can simply zip straight to the section on any question or series of questions you need to brush up on, and even see in the text mentions of which parts of the text relate exactly to which questions.  So you have the choice of either building up your general radio knowledge, or of ‘rifle shot’ selectively learning only the key points needed for each exam.

The computer training and testing is also very good.  It can generate tests, the same as free sites, and will also allow you to selectively study parts or all of the questions for each level.  Best of all, it will give you not just the answers but also explanations of how and why the answer was obtained.

These three books and the associated software might be all you need, especially if you already have some general grounding in electrical and electronic theory.  We suggest you get them first, and then if you feel the need for extra support, move on to the next item.

Secondary Recommendation :  HamTestOnline

There’s also a good – but not perfect – web-based training/testing program calling itself HamTestOnline.  This is very nicely designed and set out, and uses very clever training routines to help you learn the material you need, repeating parts automatically until you show you’ve mastered it, and making the process about as painless as possible.

They sell a two-year access to their site for $25, $30 or $35 depending on which of the three classes you want to use.

We like it being web-based – it therefore works on all types of computers and tablets, and doesn’t clutter your computer up with more programs.

There is a generous amount available for free, so give it a free trial and if you like it, and particularly if you are finding it hard going with just the ARRL books recommended above, you might find it extra money well spent over and above the ARRL manual and CD.

Our quibble with this service, and the reason we’re not giving it a higher recommendation is that, while the testing process they take you through is excellent, many sections are light on actual teaching materials.  It is excellent at helping you to get the answers right, but not nearly so good at helping you learn the underlying information needed to understand the questions and answer choices.

For example, the section on Oscilloscopes comprised a quick outline and then a couple of links to take you to, eg, the Wikipedia article on oscilloscopes.  Then when they asked you the relevant questions on oscilloscopes, there was no supporting material actually as part of their service to teach you what you needed to know to get the right answers.

This is repeated in most other sections of their materials.  This service is primarily an intelligent augmented testing program rather than an actual learning program.

I’m not sure that it is entirely fair to take $25 or more from a person and then – in some but not all cases – simply send them off to read a generic article on Wikipedia!  I want to be told exactly the focused relevant information I need, and to have each question associated with on-topic explanations of why the correct answer is correct, and why the other three are wrong.

HamTestOnline doesn’t offer the focused directed learning, closely linked to the test questions.  On the other hand, the ARRL books do, but with much more simplistic exam preparation software.

For the easiest of the three tests – the Technician level test – I was able to prepare and pass the exam with little need for any study at all, primarily drawing on high school and college physics and related knowledge.  For the General test, I had to work hard through the ARRL materials, and while I started trying to prepare for the Extra test with only the ARRL materials, I found it tremendously easier to rely mainly on the HamTestOnline service to prepare for this exam, occasionally referring to the ARRL materials for explanations.

HamTestOnline offers a very good way of working through the test questions (in their ‘study’ section) as a positive and effective way of learning.  If you find the ARRL books and CD program isn’t a positive enough experience or isn’t bringing you up in speed to the point where you are consistently passing practice tests with a comfortable safety margin, you should definitely sign up for HamTestOnline too.

Attending Training Classes

Another option is to go along to a class or series of classes offered by a local Ham operators group.

If you really want to know and understand the subjects being taught and tested, there’s no better approach than this.  But if you just want to quickly pass the tests, this will be the least productive use of your time.

How Much Study Does it Take to Pass

HamTestOnline say that it typically takes ten hours of study to be able to pass the Technician test, another 20 for the General test, and a further 30 for the Extra test.

Looking at the statistics on their own site, it seems they are underestimating the time most people take.  On the other hand, it seems most people ‘over-study’ to the point where they get not just minimum passes but close to 100% passes.  (In my own case, and after having earlier spent time learning with the ARRL materials, it took me 11 hours of study on the HamTestOnline site to then pass the Extra exam with a score of 49/50.)

Of course it really depends on if you’re starting with zero knowledge of electrical and electronic principles or not, and also if you’re a fast learner or more average on the uptake (and you can even change a setting in their adaptive learning for how fast you are picking up the concepts compared to how much revising you need).

Even if you take twice as long as they say, twenty hours of study to get a Ham license isn’t a huge chunk out of your life, is it.  An hour a day for three weeks is all you need to set aside.  Who can’t manage that?

Where and How to Sit the Test

If you live in a medium or larger sized city, the chances are there are one or more than one organizations that have a regular schedule of conducting tests for your Ham licenses.  You can see a list of nearby test dates, times and locations here.

Most of the time, all you need to do is show up perhaps 15 – 30 minutes before the test is scheduled to start, pay perhaps a $15 or so fee, show ID to prove you are who you say you are, and you can then sit one, two, or all three tests in a row (the fee covers all the tests you might take that session).  There’s no time limit on the test, so you can carefully work your way through the questions without feeling any pressure or panic.

Some experts say you shouldn’t do desperate last-minute revision prior to taking any test, but in the case of these tests, I disagree.

I found it helpful to quickly brush up on some of the areas I was unfamiliar with prior to going in to take the test, and in all three tests, I found some of the questions in the test were questions I’d revised just an hour or less before, and that helped me more confidently choose the answers.

A Second Chance

Who doesn’t wish for a second chance in life!  Here’s a way you can get a second chance at passing your Ham License test.  If you narrowly fail when you go for your exam, (for example, if you get 24 or 25 out of 35 instead of the 26+ you need to pass) and if you’ve been scoring 26 or better in practice tests at home, why not ask permission to take the test a second time.

This is permissible under the ARRL/VEC testing rules.  You would have to pay a second testing fee, and would be given a different set of random questions, but if you feel your first test result was randomly less than you were capable of, with a large percentage of ‘hard’ questions, maybe simply immediately re-sitting the test might get you a better score and have you passing.

Summary

Anyone of average intelligence can readily master the limited amount of information needed to pass any of the three Ham license tests.  Heck, if I can do it, I’m sure you can, too!

The benefits from having done this can be potentially enormous after TEOTWAWKI.

Although the easiest way to pass the test is to selectively learn only the information needed to answer the 350 – 700 questions in each of the three question pools, you’ll get even more benefit by a broader understanding of how radios work and how to get best use from them.

More Information in Part 1

This is the second part of an article series full of tips and strategies for making it easier to pass your Ham License Exam.  If you haven’t already done so, you should also read the first part ‘Ham Test Exam Passing Strategies‘ for lots of tips and ‘tricks’ as to how to most positively pass your ham tests.