24 November 2017

So Does PRC-77.com Acutally Own A PRC-77?

I have been looking for a good working example of an AN/PRC-77 for over a year now, but for several reasons have been reluctant to pull the trigger on buying one. First is that nagging little inner voice that keeps asking me "why the heck do you need a 40 year old obsolete, overweight and under powered radio you can't talk to anybody with?"  My inner voice was making some good points, but I'm the master of impulse buying over self control. The hunt continued, but with some caution.

My first concern was not getting burned. There are plenty of PRC-77 radios available for sale on the internet. Some come from surplus vendors like Fair Radio Sales and Murphy's Surplus in the US or Army Radio Sales in the UK. At any given time there are as many as a dozen on offer on eBay. Many of these are coming out of Europe where the radio saw wide acceptance with our NATO allies. Then there are the radio-specific venues like amateur radio hamfests and militaria shows and events. But when you buy a radio you also have to buy the seller's promise that the radio actually works. Before buying a radio I wanted to personally inspect the unit and look the seller in the eye as he assures me it works.

But who would I talk to if I had one? Well, you actually can talk to fellow ham radio operators using the PRC-77 since part of its frequency coverage falls in to the Amateur Radio 6 meter band (50 - 54 mHz). Most of the HF radios sold today include 6 meters FM, including the incredibly versatile and portable Yaesu FT-817.

The Yaesu FT-817 (top) communicates with the PRC-77 on the
Amateur Radio 6-meter band (50 - 54 mHz)

A few weeks ago while attending the Stone Mountain Hamfest in Atlanta I stumbled on a guy in the boneyard area selling a small collection of military radios, one of which was a PRC-77. The radio looked a little rough but the seller assured me it worked fine. He had no way of proving the radio worked since he didn't have a battery pack or accessories, but as I looked over his offerings it struck me that I'd seen this fellow at hamfests in the Atlanta area before. He was a regular and if I had a beef with the radio it was likely I would run in to him again at another local show. His asking price was right, and he even came down a bit after I grumbled about having to take his word that the radio worked. When all was said and done I walked away with an early RCA production model PRC-77 that I hoped would work as advertised.

She may be ugly, but she's mine

Standard accessories are another issue, but the good news is that you can buy complete sets of PRC-77 accessories - handsets, whip antennas, tape antennas, carriers, etc. at very reasonable prices from several sources. Within an hour of getting this radio home I had an antenna and handset on their way through the magic of eBay.

But what about juice? Like so many US military radios of its time the PRC-77 used a non-standard battery. The magnesium 'slab' battery, the BA-4386/U was introduced for the PRC-25 and was first issued during Vietnam. designed to work with both the PRC-25 and the PRC-77. In the 1980s the US military replaced the magnesium battery with a smaller, lighter lithium battery (you could carry two in the PRC-77's battery case, one powering the radio and one a spare). You can still buy both batteries - dead magnesium batteries are used by reenactors for display purposes, and the lithium batteries are still manufactured but run over $100 each. I needed something cheaper and easy to replace. Luckily there are two battery replacement options that take standard D-cells. One is a battery 'bracket' manufactured by Brooke Clark at prc68.com. The other is a D-cell battery case manufactured by the (now defunct) German firm Telemit. The Telemit cases are long out of production but can be found on the surplus market.

Top left: prc68.com battery 'bracket' (10 D-cells)
Top right: Telemit (Germany) clamshell battery pack (10 D-cells)
Bottom: original BA-4386/U magnesium battery

I still needed to find out if this little beast worked. After some inquiries, a friend of a friend of a friend arranged for me to take the radio to a super secret test facility hidden away down a dark alley in the Atlanta area. I'm happy to report that the radio passed all of its operational tests with flying colors. Now, the term 'flying colors' is relative. This is an early 1960's design, built using 1960's components. It is very broad banded by today's standards (50 kHz channel spacing) and the specific test equipment used by military repair and calibration shops was hauled to the landfill years ago. All we could do was test the radio using a generic (but very precise) spectrum analyzer. But pass it did! Frankly it performed better than I thought it would given the radio's external condition.

It's Alive!

In short order the accessories arrived and the radio went out to play. During a recent ham radio gathering at a local park I brought my PRC-77 along to play with some friends and run a small 'Cold War net'. Tons of fun! I even brought along a few Czech RF-10's so we could run an 'Iron Curtain net'; two models of radios that actually did face off against each other within eyeball distance across the West German/Czechoslovakian border. The strains of 'Neunundneunzig Lufballoon' were filling the air!

"Comrade imperialist, can you hear me?"
"Roger you godless commie, I read you lima-charlie. 
I'll trade you a pair of blue jeans for a case of Pilsner!"

So, one and done? Ha, hardly! As so often happens when you go after a goal with determination other opportunities appear. Not long after my hamfest discovery an auction popped up on eBay that proved too tempting - a working PRC-77 along with a literal pile of accessories - multiple antenna sets, handsets, a PRC68.com battery bracket, a USGI backpack radio carrier, manuals and more. After some back-and-forth bargaining a deal was struck and a second PRC-77 was added to the group.

"He who dies with the most toys wins"

So let's get back to the original question posed in the opening paragraph,"why the heck do you need a 40 year old obsolete, overweight and under powered radio...?" The answer is simple - I don't need any of this communications gear. However, putting it to use helps celebrate the history of US military communications technology during the Cold War era and puts in context the communications technologies that are ubiquitous today. Less than 30 years ago, before smartphones and the internet, your fathers and grandfathers were using this technology to defend America. It's important to remember what was accomplished - what was doable - with simpler technologies.

W8BYH out


  1. Excellent recap. I was one of the friends in the 'friend of a friend' chain and it was good to see the verified PRC-77 back in service. In Vietnam I was on the other end of the FM radio comms having two FMs and one UHF transceivers in my airplane in support of the good guys on the ground. I even air dropped spare batteries and a hand set, along with a six pack of beer, to a Special Forces-led Vietnamese unit on patrol.

  2. Your whole thing about the Prick made me remember and smile....

    I was in the U.S.A.F. as a Security Police Air Base Ground Defense team member and even before I was a ham had an interest in radios so I volunteered to take the job.

    It had it's benefits because I had an extra shelter half so a whole pup tent to myself. I would pitch it hard up against the GP Small that the LT. used for his command post and I'd work the radio, shoving the handset under the tent edges to the LT whenever he had to talk direct.

    Kept me out of the rain and the dirt that did.

    I may have to get my hands on one.