Sunday, June 12, 2016

Trailer Hitch and Accessories

Last summer I bought a Curt Class III receiver hitch for my 2007 Nissan Xterra. With the help of a friend with a garage and air tools, installation was easy. The primary reason for the hitch wasn't for towing anything. Rather, I wanted to be able to expand the carrying capacity of the truck by using a hitch mount cargo carrier.

The cargo carrier I got was this one from Harbor Freight. If you catch it during one of their sales and use a 20% coupon, you can probably snag it for about $70 - $80. I found it to be pretty well designed but at some point I might replace the screws holding it together with stainless steel screws. Assembly was pretty straightforward with a screwdriver and nutdriver.

As a compact/mid-sized SUV, the Xterra has enough room for a long weekend camping for two people. When I bring both kids, though, I need to leave the back seats up and lose about half my cargo capacity. Before I got the external cargo carrier I used a bag strapped to my roof rack. This is OK for duffle bags but is a major pain to access and kills gas mileage. In contrast, the hitch mount carrier is easy to mount and has enough space to hold a cooler, Rubbermaid Action Packer box full of stuff, a Coleman stove, and a roll up aluminum table from REI.

The major downside of the hitch mount carriers is that if you leave them unattended whatever is on them is vulnerable to theft. Also, you don't want to overload them because doing so will change the balance of your vehicle, affecting its handling.

The secondary reason for the hitch was for a bike rack. I finally ordered one this week. My girls have been after me to get one so I can take them to local trails for cycling. Now that they are beyond the little kid stage they'll be able to bike for long enough to make such trips worthwhile. I used to be into cycling but it's been years since I did more than a couple laps around my subdivision. It's a good, low impact way to get some exercise.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Camping Trip AAR

This weekend a couple friends and I went on a camping trip to Tioga County, PA. The main activity this time was ham radio. We went up on Friday and came home today.

I had to work on Friday but was able to cut out a little early. By the time I got on the road it was rush hour, so it took me a full four hours to get to my friend's land. By the time I arrived it was 9:30 PM. Before I got there, he'd put up an 80M dipole antenna made from aluminum welding wire, electric fence insulators, and some electric fence posts from Tractor Supply. The feed line was the welding wire, formed into an open ladder line held apart with pink duct tape.

This dipole worked well and pulling in signals on 20M, 40M, and 80M. A number of the calls we logged were from within Pennsylvania, demonstrating the viability of NVIS communications.

We're fans of the digital modes. He has an Icom 718 with which he uses a Donner Digital Interface at home. Since he's not going to schlepp a desktop PC with him, he used PSKdroid running on an LG Android tablet, using audio coupling. I also setup my Apple iPad Mini 2 running PSKer to try and pull some signals from the aether.

We were able to copy quite a few transmissions even without a digital interface between the tablets and the rig. We probably would've copied some more, but for the bourbon. ;)

On Saturday I setup my portable vertical antenna, Yaesu FT-817ND, and iPad.

As you can see, we setup inside his 16' x 24' pavilion, which was a godsend this weekend due to the weather. It rained on and off all weekend. There was little to no wind, so the open ends weren't a problem. We even setup my tent underneath the roof so it stayed mostly dry.

As you can see, I have my antenna feedline connected via the FT-817ND's front, BNC connector. As I understand it, using this instead of the SO-239 on the back reduces power consumption.  Also note that the feedline is connected straight to the rig, with no tuner. The vertical is resonant on 20M. Using a resonant antenna instead of one connected through a tuner increases your effective radiated power, and when operating QRP, every little bit helps.

The iPad is connected to the rig with one of KF5INZ's Easy Digi interfaces.

Pic of my vertical antenna:

The objects to the right of the antenna are steel gong targets set out at about 25 yards.

I mostly operated PSK31 and using the antenna above was able to reach the west coast.

I grabbed the above from using my iPhone. Later, my signal was also reported in Washington state, but I forgot to get a screen shot.

After doing PSK31 for awhile I changed over to WSPR, using iWSPR. This was my first time trying this digital mode and it's amazing. The signal reports below are after transmitting for awhile on 5 watts.

Numerous hits in Great Britain, Western Europe, and Germany. WSPR basically acts like a beacon, transmitting your callsign so that other hams with Internet-connected rigs can upload signal reports. With some creativity I think it could have other applications.

We took time off from the radio to have a nice lunch of venison sausage and onions, sauteed in a red wine reduction. Yeah, we eat good when we go camping.

Saturday night's dinner was venison chili washed down with Yuengling Lager or Guiness Stout.

I also took a break from radio in the afternoon to do a little shooting. I first shot my Cowboy Pimp Gun, AKA a Ruger Single Six in .32 H&R Magnum which has a color case hardened frame and faux ivory grips. It's a fun little blaster but needs a trigger job. I put a bunch of Prvi Partizan .32 S&W Longs through it, which made a nice little tink when they hit our steel gongs.

I also put 70 rounds of .44-40 through my Cimarron 1873 Sporting Rifle.

Fifty of those were black powder loads with 35 grains of Goex 3Fg under a bullet cast in my Accurate Molds 43-215C bullet mold, and they really smacked the gongs around. If you click on the picture to view the full sized version, you can see some smoke coming out of the rifle's ejection port. I was doing an 1870s-style mag dump. Off to the left, you can also see the gong that I just shot swinging from the impact.

After I finished shooting my other friend put up about 500 feet of aluminum welding wire in a loop, all around our campsite. We got back to radio after nightfall and the loop turned out to work well for receiving 80M and 160M, and they both wound up getting 160M phone QSOs. Because the antenna height ranged from only a couple feet to a max of 5 feet, they were NVIS to other hams in northern PA and southern NY.

Finally, I took this picture of my iPad which looked like it was detecting Space Invaders on the waterfall.

Even though the weather this weekend was crappy we had a great trip. We got some good field radio practice in, plus a bit of fun shooting.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Old School Shooting and Reloading

Over on Blog O'Stuff, I've been writing about a Cimarron Firearms Uberti 1873 Sporting Rifle that I bought in March, along with handloading .44-40 ammunition for it. The gun is a replica of the Winchester 1873, "The gun that won the West."

Although it's a 19th Century design and by modern standards it's considered an obsolete weapon, one advantage these old guns and replicas thereof is that they can be kept going with low tech reloading methods. Ammunition can be loaded for these cartridges on modern equipment or with simple hand tools.

A modern reloading press like my Lee Classic Turret press is a lot more efficient than the hand tools. The hand tools are slow and don't allow you to resize fired brass, so it can be used only in the same gun in which it was first fired. That said, with a hand tool you can put together a portable, complete reloading kit that will fit in a toolbox. Perhaps the best of both worlds would be a Lee hand press, which uses standard reloading dies.

If chambered in one of the original centerfire rounds -- .44-40, .38-40, or .32-20 -- they are ideally suited for use with black powder or black powder substitutes like Pyrodex or Triple 7 and cast bullets. (Modern replicas are also available in .45 Colt, .357 Magnum, and .44 Magnum, all of which work great with cast bullets but don't seal the chamber as well when used with black powder, because of their thicker brass.)

Other lever action models have been chambered for the WCF cartridges, including replicas of the Henry, Winchester 1866, and original and replicas of the Winchester 1892.

This is an original Winchester Model 1882 reloading tool that I got off eBay, along with the original matching bullet mold. (The mold isn't pictured.)

This tool can perform the following functions without any adjustments:

  1. Deprime fired cases, if you have the original decapping pin, or can substitute a Lee Precision case length gauge in the right caliber.
  2. Seat a fresh primer.
  3. Seat and crimp a bullet cast from the original mold, or a bullet design with the same overall length (since it's not adjustable).

Under the tool, from left to right are a 200 grain bullet cast from the original mold, a charged case with bullet pressed in ready to be seated and crimped, and a complete cartridge. Above the tool are some cases charged with 35 grains of Swiss 3Fg black powder. The bullet was cast from reclaimed plumber's lead and lubed with a mix of beeswax, mutton tallow, and canning paraffin. There are other black powder compatible lubes you can make at home, e.g., a 50/50 mix of beeswax and Crisco.

The Ideal Tool Company (bought by Lyman in the early 1900s) offered similar tools, some with built-in bullet molds, and some with adjustable seating chambers to allow different bullets to be used. The Lyman 310 tool remains in production and can neck size spent brass, and has an adjustable seating chamber.

During the panics of the past eight years, black powder and BP substitutes remained largely available. In extremis, black powder can be made. There is plenty of info available online on how to do so, just be careful.

Primers are one component that tends to disappear quickly when panics hit, and cannot be easily made or reloaded, so it would be wise to stock up ahead of time.

Likewise, if you are setup to cast your own bullets, if you can obtain a suitable lead alloy and make some kind of bullet lube, all you need to worry about stocking up on are cases and primers. As of the time this was written (April 2016) cases for these "obsolete" rounds are easily available in quantity online. The primer supply is good now, too, either online, in stores, and at gun shows.

As a side note, the capacity of these leverguns is 14 + 1 for the 24" barreled rifles, or 12 + 1 for the 20" carbines. Either one has more firepower than a pump shotgun, with a lot less recoil, and a longer effective range.

The .32-20 is suitable for small game and varmints up to coyotes, but the .38-40 (really a .40 caliber) and the .44-40 are good on deer out to about 100 yards. The latter two also work well for defense, but when shot from a rifle, even the .32-20 is comparable to a 9mm handgun, so it's no slouch. The black powder WCF rounds may be "obsolete," but they are just as effective today as they were in the 19th Century.

In my opinion, the ability to load cartridges using components that you can get in times of scarcity or make yourself has value for preppers. It's something to consider if the rest of your preps are squared away.

Saturday, April 09, 2016

SignalLink USB

This morning a friend and I drove down to the Newcastle, DE Ham Radio Outlet, where I bought a Signalink USB, the jumper module to configure it for my Yaesu FT-817ND, a Diamond RH-707 folding HT antenna, a BNC-to-SO-239 jumper cable, and an MFJ-4103 A/C adapter for the FT-817ND. After getting home I set everything up in my den. Please ignore the clutter.

The antenna is a 7 to 30 Mhz AlexLoop. A lot of QRP operators favor one. I haven't used it enough to decide if I like it or not.

Setup of the SignaLink was pretty straightforward.

  1. Using the Allen wrench supplied, remove the front and back panels from the aluminum enclosure.
  2. Carefully align the jumper module and insert it.
  3. Reassemble the case.
  4. Connect a 6 pin mini-DIN to RJ45 cable from the SignaLink to the rig's DATA port.
  5. Connect an audio cable from the SignaLink to the rig's speaker jack.
  6. Connect the USB cable between the SignaLink and laptop.
  7. Since I want rig control, I connected my Valley Enterprises USB CT-62 cable between my MacBook Pro and the rig's ACC port.

Once everything was hooked up I changed the rig from VOX to PSK31-U data mode, and in Fldigi, selected the USB AUDIO CODEC for sound input and output.

Below, I'm monitoring a PSK31 QSO in Fldigi.

I played around with this setup for about an hour and was able to receive several signals. I called CQ but did not make any contacts. I gave up when 20M died.

I was impressed with the ease of setting up the SignaLink and wish that I'd bought one awhile ago. It's easier to adjust than the internal sound card.

The MFJ-4103 power supply looks like a good buy, also. It looks like a laptop power supply and would be a good choice for anyone traveling with an FT-817ND or using one as a base station where there is 120VAC power.

Friday, April 08, 2016

Valley Enterprises Yaesu Programming Cable

Last week I got a Valley Enterprises FTDI chipset-based programming cable for my Yaesu FT-817ND. This is a USB version of the Yaesu CT-62 serial cable used for rig control and programming.

I took today off to finish my income taxes and after I was done I decided to play with the cable. I already had an FTDI driver on my MacBook Pro, so I was able to just plug it in, connect it to the radio, and use it to program the rig using CHIRP. I also tried it with Fldigi and once I selected the correct driver in the config screen, it worked. If I put the rig into memory mode and manually selected the frequency it immediately showed up in Fldigi. Likewise, if I used Fldigi to change the frequency it worked on the radio.

Tomorrow I'm planning to head down to Ham Radio Outlet and pick up a Signalink USB, among a few other things. The Easy Digi interface I have now works but it's a rat's nest of cabling. The Signalink USB should reduce the clutter and simplify setup and teardown. Combined with the Valley Enterprises cable I tested today, it should make digital mode operation a lot easier.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Kelty Cosmic Down 20 Sleeping Bag

After my last overnighter back in January I decided that I needed a better sleeping bag rated down to about 20 degrees F. I got some good feedback from posts on THR, the Hill People Gear forum, and BCUSA, but held off on buying anything until today.

I used my REI dividend and 20% off coupon today to get a Kelty Cosmic Down 20 19*F rated bag (REI link to bag. Amazon link to bag.) It weighs 2 lbs. 9 oz., and is filled with 600 fill moisture-resistant DriDown. It came with a stuff sack but no storage bag so I also bought an REI-brand cotton bag to store it in uncompressed. 

If I'm expecting colder weather I can use my HPG Mountain Serape as an overbag.  The combination should get me down into the teens and still be a lot lighter than my USGI Military Sleep System.

While at REI I also grabbed a couple packs of Nite Ize Gear Ties, which are very handy for organizing cables that go with electronics. Between my dividend and the coupon, I was only out about $50.

Once I get the chance to use the Kelty bag I'll post a report, but it may be awhile.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Arc'Teryx LEAF Atom SV Hoody Review

A couple years ago I bought my first article of clothing by Arc'Teryx, an Atom LT Hoody. I've been incredibly happy with it. It weighs about one pound but keeps me warm down into the low 40s, and makes a great mid-layer when combined with an outer shell. It's also super packable, which is very handy when adding it to a bag for a trip, or when I wear it to work on a cool morning but want to shove it in my laptop bag for the trip home.

However, I wanted a warmer jacket that would still be packable. Last Fall I picked up an Eddie Bauer 700 fill power down jacket that is pretty nice, but the hood bugs me when I try to wear it over a ball cap. It simply isn't large enough. So, back in January I ordered an Arc'Teryx LEAF Atom SV Hoody in Wolf grey from SKD Tactical. It got to PA from MO in two days. SKD is probably going to get more of my business.

Arc'Teryx calls this jacket a hoody but don't compare it with a sweatshirt. This is an insulated technical jacket that is filled with 100gsm Coreloft with a wind and water resistant shell. The jacket weighs a little more than a pound.

"LEAF" is Arc's Law Enforcement and Armed Forces line. Arc LEAF items are built with a bit more durable material and have a fuller cut, which is good for me since I'm not exactly athletic. I ordered my normal t-shirt size, XL, and I find it pretty true to size.

As with my other pieces of Arc'Teryx gear, the workmanship is top-notch. The stitching is exceptionally well done, there were no loose threads, and it looks sharp.

The LEAF Atom LT has a generously-sized hood that can be cinched down with a shock cord accessible from the back, and one on either side of your face. The shock cords and cord locks are concealed by fleece panels that prevent them from rubbing your face. This keeps them neat but does make it more difficult to adjust with just one hand. When not in use the hood can be rolled up and secured with a loop and toggle.

Likewise, the bottom hem can be tightened against wind via shock cords. These are also captured in tunnels, unlike in every other jacket I've seen. This prevents them from snagging on items on your belt, like a holster, or on things you brush against. Simply brilliant.

The jacket has three pockets -- two large handwarmer pockets and one internal left chest pocket. All are zippered.

There are inside ports on both handwarmer pockets that allow you to route earbud or microphone cables from a device up through the inside of the jacket.

Since the LEAF line is marketed towards law enforcement and the military, the upper sleeves have Velcro patches. While I'm neither, I figured that I'd adorn the jacket with a couple -- an American flag that I bought with the jacket, and a Gadsen patch in Hebrew that I got from

The cuffs are a light, stretchy material that seals out drafts but is light and dries quickly. They are the same as on the Atom LT.

I've had the Atom SV now for about a month am very pleased with it. I've been wearing it as my winter coat during my daily commute with temps down into the teens. When it dips down to 20*F or below I'll add a light fleece underneath. (I'd expect to get too warm with the fleece if I were active, but my commute consists of a two mile drive to a train station, then a half hour ride on a commuter train into town. I.e., pretty sedentary.)

The outer shell is more robust than the shell of the Atom LT. It's highly wind resistant and the DWR finish shrugs off light snow and rain. Despite the light weight of its outer layer, it's durable. I wore it on a January overnighter in a Pennsylvania State Forest, when I had to abort in the middle of the night due to unrelated gear issues. While walking out to my truck I had to do some bushwhacking, which included going through some thorns. I thought for sure that I'd just trashed a $270 jacket, but nope. Remarkably, the Atom SV showed no signs of wear when I was able to inspect it in daylight.

For cold, dry conditions, the Atom SV works well as an insulating layer under a German surplus flecktarn parka. I tried this combination while getting my snow blower ready for Winter Storm Jonas. The temp was 23* F. with a wind chill of about 11*. That's pretty cold for those of us living in SE Pennsylvania. The inexpensive German parka adds further protection against stains and tears, while extending a windproof layer down to your thighs, and has a good camo pattern if you need it. Underneath I wore jeans, a t-shirt, and a Duluth cotton flannel shirt. After being outside for about 20 minutes and mildly exterting myself I started needing to vent. It's a good combination.

As good as the Atom SV's shell is, it's is still a synthetic. Care is warranted if you'll be spending time around a campfire, and an outer layer like the German parka, a British smock, or similar cotton or wool shell would be a good idea to prevent the Arc hoody getting holes from sparks.

The only changes I'd make would be to add a left side Napolean pocket on the outside of the coat and move the inside pocket to the right. I like stashing my phone in a Napolean pocket since it's easier to access while seated in my truck or on the train.

Overall, I am extremely pleased with both SKD Tactical's fast service and the Arc'Teryx Atom SV Hoody. It's a light but warm jacket that will serve for the vast majority of my winter coat needs.