Brian, KB9BVN posted this question on the QRPARCI mailing list yesterday.

QRP operation for QRP ARCI purposes is defined as operation with a transmitter power output equal to or less than 10 W PEP output for single-sideband or double-sideband phone (suppressed or full-carrier) and equal to or less than 5 W PEP output for other modes (e.g. CW, FM, AM, digital).

QRP ARCI awards and contests are based on these output levels.

Does this definition stand today?

That may seem innocent enough, but it’s akin to asking a room full of grandparents whose granddaughter is the prettiest. There were a lot of replies, mostly opinions. Not much was posted about the actual early internecine battles that got us where we are today. It’s a long story, and one that played out over many years. That history is well-chronicled by Ade Weiss, W0RSP in his book, The Five-Watt QRP Movement in the US, 1968-1981.

Essentially, QRP-ARCI was founded in the 1960’s as something of a protest against HF operators using big amplifiers and the bandwidth these signals occupied on the ham bands. Hard to believe there was a time when our bands were blanketed with signals even when there wasn’t a major contest going on, but such were the good old days of ham radio. QRP-ARCI promoted the use of 100 watts or less as a way of proving that HF communication was possible without the prodigious use of power. The earliest club logos even included “100” to indicate a suggested power level.

There were certainly low-power operators long before then, they just didn’t organize into groups or clubs. Most of the War time equipment that found its way into ham shacks across the nation and around the world were of the 3 to 30 watt variety. Using low-power wasn’t unusual, full legal limit was the oddball. Plus, power was thought of differently in the days of tubes when an INPUT power of 40 watts might produce 15 watts of OUTPUT power.

Forget for a moment that QRP means five-watts. It doesn’t, and never has. It’s a Q-signal that simply means “decrease your power” that could just as well indicate “I’m lowering my power from 1000 to 900 watts”. The term has evolved and many of its adherents (myself included) see it as a more wholistic approach to the hobby where one home brews their own equipment, builds kits, deploys portable gear in the field, and endlessly tinkers with antennas, usually wires, in an effort to squeeze every drop from what are essentially, stations generating weak signals on purpose.

Apologies for making the long story even longer. The bottom line is that QRP-ARCI was built on the premise that 100 watts and lower was “QRP”. Only later would there be internal struggles between the 100 watts operators and those who were having some success using much lower power levels. As the organization struggled to gain traction (and paying members) it was becoming difficult to differentiate itself from any other clubs where members were using a hundred watts or less. ARCI didn’t become really interesting until the long battle yielded to the lower power enthusiasts and five watts became the accepted threshold.

It had to be something, and in my view it still does. At least for the purposes of awards, contests, and sprints. These couldn’t be fairly distributed without some stated limit on output power and it’s why even the major contests have multiple entries based on power level, etc.

Between you and me, I don’t care at all about output power. Heck, I’d use full legal limit if I could carry the gear in my hand, it would run all day off small batteries, and if the RF exposure was safe. But it turns out that physics is a bitch and you can’t always get what you want. So I live the QRP lifestyle, but now use ten watts most of the time. Modern electronics made this possible and I see no reason to be stuck with a limit dictated by 1970s era technology. I still turn it down to five watts in QRP contests and sprints because I’m not a rule breaker, but ten watts has simply become my new five watts.

While there are countless geezers anxious to explain the mathematics of why the difference between five and ten watts is too small to be noticed, this old geezer will tell you he makes more reliable CW contacts using ten watts than with five. Besides, if the difference between ten watts and five watts is so insignificant, what’s the problem using either?