PRC-174 HF Manpack Radio Set

UPDATE: 7/30/2023

I recently obtained a veteran RT-936/PRC-174 HF manpack radio from a fellow Ham (Thanks!). These were made by Tadiran from a design clearly originating from Hughes Aircraft, makers of the AN/PRC-74 and AN/PRC-104, radios with similar capabilities and applications.

What I’ve learned and observed so far. I like it.

The PRC-174 makes for a great Bush Radio. Here deployed on Brannan Island running CW along with the AN/TRC-77 standing by for its turn on the dipole antenna:

These sets provided solid CW and SSB comms to a buddy 155 miles from here on 80, 75 and 60 meters during a 3 day camping trip .

Some basic specifications:

The set is specified to provide USB, LSB, “Compatible” AM, Data and CW comms with 20 watts output (5 watts on AM). It is fully synthesized from 2 – 30 mc in 100 cps steps and is capable of being operated while being carried. In “Wide” CW and SSB the receiver is 3.5 kc wide, 6 kc in AM, 500 cps in the “Narrow” CW mode. Nice.

The receiver sensitivity is specified at 0.7 micro volts for a 10 db SINAD. This example is better than that, producing a perfectly usable CW signal with an input below 0.1 micro volts, a measurement that challenged the attenuator shielding in my URM-25 signal generator during the test.

The PRC-174 was powered by a nominal 25 volt, 8 AH NiCad or a 28 volt, 6 AH Lithium Ion battery pack. With a 26.0 volt primary power supply the receiver draw is about 160 ma. The transmitter draws about 2.9 Amps key down, delivering 20 watts into 50 ohms, on CW. That is about a 27% DC-RF power conversion efficiency. (Measured at 3.550 mc.)

The battery can be charged by the HCG-1744 hand cranked generator. It is a single-crank design that looks to be awkward to use efficiently – but good to have.

Original battery boxes/assemblies are probably rare. This example came with a nicely made riveted aluminum box that fits well with the proper clamps. However it does not seat with the radio’s weather proofing gasket. It is not watertight but is otherwise very serviceable for my purposes. Did someone have a bunch of these professionally made for an after-market?

Who ever designed and made these battery boxes did a very nice job.  Some quick measurements included.  Note that the sides with the latches are somewhat shorter than the large pieces.  Overall, the external dimensions I measured are approximately:
144 mm Height, 250 mm Width and 74 mm High.  The 2 shorter “sides” are 133 mm high. The sheet metal aluminum stock is about 1.6 mm thick; probably 14 gauge.  The 2 large panels plus the bottom are all one-piece, folded into a “U” shape, the 2 sides are riveted to it.

This one had an added battery disconnect switch and a mounted 28 volt Mil connector to power it externally or to charge the internal pack.

Below is the box that came with my set. I then outfitted it with two 12V, 5 AH Sealed Lead-Calcium batteries in series. Pretty bullet proof; it doesn’t need complex, fussy charging management and is suitable for field expedient charging, including simple solar. Heavy-ish, but together they are 2.3 pounds lighter than the issued TN-1770 NiCad pack. I don’t plan on carrying it very far up the mountain. I’ll radio ahead……

PRC-174 Battery Box

I included an inline fuse holder sized for an auto (low series resistance in a 12 volt system) Mini blade fuse. Five amps is about right, there’s room for spares in here. A previous owner had removed the original radio connector and replaced it, and the battery connectors, with Anderson Power Pole’s. Easily restorable.

For 28 volt service, they mounted 3 APP’s clipped together with a center “null” spacer to physically preclude accidentally connecting up some 12 volt load. Good idea. Dummy Proof!

The radio has some kind of battery Save mode which appears at first glance to be a Squelch function. It does not seem to work, I need to investigate/adjust.

The main power switch selects either Receive only or Transmit/Receive (in either LSB or USB). The Receive-only mode is a simple countermeasure against the operator inadvertently keying the transmitter while working under Radio Silence restrictions. Power consumption is the same with either setting.

The PRC-174 uses the standard U.S. peripherals from the VRC-12 and later series radios.

These include the handset, headphones, mic, AT-271 antenna/spring and a modified LS-454 external speaker, plus a CW key, all using the U-229 connectors. The RT (less 9 lb NiCad battery) weighs 10.8 pounds, not too bad for its capabilities.

Note the Whip mount, below right. They are apparently somewhat rare; people have been making DIY mounts for their pack sets. I was fortunate to get this one with the radio.

Here installed on the ALICE pack frame, propped up by the speaker. On the air.

PRC-174 Fixed-Portable with wire antenna

A brief History/Speculation:

I have found no online information about the PRC-174 development or specifically its deployment. Known examples are reportedly from Israeli surplus. Maybe not. There is a user site on the Web that has some good current-user information posted.

In the late 1970’s the U.S. needed an “Improved HF Radio” (IHFR), ostensibly to replace the AN/PRC-70 and 74 manpacks. This need was eventually met with the Hughes AN/PRC-104, a great, long-lived radio/system. I don’t know what the contract competition was at the time.  It reportedly included this radio, also from Hughes, and possibly what became the export PRC-515, designed by Collins Canada.

I’m guessing that Hughes had a “company” model number during the competition much like the AN/PRC-74 which started out as the HC-162. The PRC-174 did not begin with AN/PRC-xyz as that AN/ designation goes to fielded “official” U.S. equipment with an associated NSN. 

So I further guess that Hughes named their IHFR “failure” as the PRC-174 for potential export. This to denote its father being the Hughes AN/PRC-74 which pre-dated it by about 15 years.  (They are very different radios but with similar capabilities.)

Did Hughes also build some for domestic use or sale to other allies? And/or did Tadiran also build some for export, presumably under some kind of license? It looks like it.

The online history of the the Communications Command of the Guatemalan Army indicates that they were using the “AN/PRC-174” and VRC-176 radios from 1980 to 1990 (Reference 99). The “AN/PRC-174” and VRC-176 are also mentioned in the online Taiwanese Reserve Army Veterans Club website as being present in Taiwan. (Reference 100). Nothing further from them.

The PRC-174 was also used by the Argentinian Air Force during the Falklands/Malvinas conflict in 1982. (Reference 102)

The ID tag is missing from my example, no serial number. The mother board sports a hand written “PRC-174 2998”. My buddy has a PRC-174S; the tag label is in Hebrew but the panel and everything inside is in English…

Below is a photo of a data tag with “sterile”, non Hebrew or otherwise identified origin.

PRC-174 with “Sterile” data tag

English, but why no manufacturer name, contract number, date? Pretty deliberate.

Hughes probably needed a State Department license to allow them to export the design to the Israeli’s to build them at Tadiran for use in the IDF. They did a nice job.

Then Israel may have kept the PRC-174 designation (not an AN/PRC-174).  The IDF also used it as part of their HF-700 series, with this as the basic radio. The VRC-176 is the shock-mounted mobile version incorporating a 100 watt amplifier with the basic RT.

The HF-700 system included a 100 or 400 watt amplifier/shock mount for vehicular use.  Note the big multi pin connector on the radio front panel for connection to a wired, remote control unit over field wire. This “Hex” pin arrangement seems to be incompatible with the high power amplifier system via a dogbone jumper. Why?

I don’t know how many sets Tadiran made. The PRC-174 or the HF-700 don’t appear in the 1994-95 (international) Janes Military Communications directory. I have not seen the PRC-174 referenced in any U.S. military TM/FM/Directory publication either.

Incidentally, Tadiran also made (or modified/re-badged) some PRC-74‘s known as the Transceiver RT-794T. That variant includes an AM capability.

Design Details:It is built with a motherboard and plug-in modules. The PRC-174 is very complex and compact. I dread ever having to troubleshoot it.* A very elaborate test set was available to identify a bad module. Therefore, maybe no extender cables available to test/probe a module while operating in the radio? Ugh..

*So far the only electronic component failure was a 0.1 uF ceramic cap across the battery connection on the motherboard. It slowly discharged the battery while the radio was turned “off”.

The August 1976 Technical Manual, OM-107-10, is comprehensive but the one I have from Online sources was an OCR scan of the original and a lot of detail was lost in the translation, especially the schematics. A Maintenance Manual, MA-2124-09503-00, was issued in July 1986 which seems to be pretty good so far.

PRC-174 Internal Module layout
PRC-174 Motherboard

A portable manpack with a 10′ whip antenna moving around in a constantly changing environment on foot presents a challenge for antenna matching.

The design includes an automatic antenna L-C-L “TEE” matching system that works quite well. After an initial automatic tune initiated by a frequency change, PTT or CW Key closure, the ATU then transitions into a continuous “monitoring” mode.

It then samples the antenna VSWR and then re-tunes the ATU if the measured VSWR exceeds 3:1, reducing it back down to below 1.5:1. With every transmission. In less than 200 milliseconds. Transparent to the operator. Probably hard to kill it; the Specs say transmitting into an Open or Short will not harm the PA.

PRC-174 Whip Antenna Mount

The detachable whip antenna mount seen above uses a clever design. The mount includes 2 magnets* that signal to the radio (through the aluminum side casting) that the whip mount is installed. This causes the radio to route the T/R signals from the “Dipole” BNC connector on the front panel to the whip connection. Remove the mount, T/R signals revert back to the BNC connector. No compromise of the environmental protection. Good design.

(* This mount was initially intermittent in signalling its presence to the radio; the magnets had become weak with age. I re-magnetized them with a strong Neodymium magnet, now back in service.)

Like most SSB radios that also work on CW, it generates a suppressed carrier but then drives the mic circuits with a 1 kc modulation tone (non-adjustable). When in LSB, WCW/NCW mode this produces a CW signal 1 kc below the suppressed carrier freq that shows in the window display. (Vice versa when in USB/CW.)

Example: To put a CW signal on 7050 kc you enter 7051, LSB/CW mode.  Then, when it is tuned to 7051 and listening to a signal on 7050, it sounds like a 1 kc tone, a little high for my liking, I prefer about 800 cps but it’s fine as-is…

Below, illustrating the 1 kc offset. In this test there is a difference of 1020 cps, (the counter reads high by 20 cps, close enough).

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The front panel includes a 5 LED display. This indicates received and transmitted signal strength, modulation, battery voltage, low voltage alarm, tuning and a tune-fault indication. Simple, bullet proof, I like it.

The frequency is entered by push-button. Each push of each digit increments the frequency “up” by one. Not a “band cruiser”, your finger will hurt. (A receiver incremental tuning function would have been nice.)

These switches look to be the same ones Hughes used in the early PRC-104’s. The switches include integral red illumination lamps, very dim, unless in total darkness with dark-adapted eyes. Bring a flashlight.

Control labels are phosphorescent, no Radium or Tritium. It works.

This example has component date codes ranging from 1980 to 1984, including some with a JAN designation. Almost all the bipolar transistors except the PA and a few PNP types are the ubiquitous 2N2222A, a silicon NPN workhorse – which simplified design and logistics. Many FET’s and latching relays.

There is a lot of standard 4000 series CMOS digital logic on board in the synthesizer and control systems. It does incorporate an EPROM which sets the initial conditions to configure the antenna matching logic once a frequency is entered.

Thankfully there are no unobtanium microscopic microprocessors, “menu’s” or multiplexed switch functions. No fragile, unobtanium LCD display just waiting to fail or become unreadable in high or low temperatures. It should be repairable long-term with readily available parts and not become a shelf queen or a wheel chock. (It would make a very good wheel chock as compared to any plastic KenYaeIc box…)

As received by me, this example was putting out almost 35 watts CW and SSB PEP into 50 ohms. Not wanting to provoke the PA Transistor Gods, I adjusted the ALC circuit to reduce the output back to the specified 20 watts. But it’s good to know that 20 watts is a rather conservative specification. The batteries will also be happier.

The PRC-174S: A variant of this radio was produced with the “S” denoting a digital Squelch system. That variant included some other improvements as well. A panel applique was added to the Mode switch to indicate the new functionality. See below:

PRC-174S Version – Digital Squelch

Not much information out there regarding its use or systems integration but it transmits an annoying high-pitched coded data stream along with the audio. My buddy has one, reports were that it was annoying to listen to as we were initially evaluating his radio. So we disabled that function. A simple “fix” was published online at N3OC’s nice website under the Military Radios tab:

Just adding one ground wire jumper (blue Kynar wire above) on the mother board disabled it; back to “normal”. Note the component designations etched into the copper. Also note the resistors used are 5% tolerance, 25 ppm temperature coefficient parts. Nice…

Initial Field Trials:

Upon arrival a quick evaluation of my new set was in order. Fortunately Winter Field Day 2021 was on the sked so I tested it outside mounted on an ALICE pack frame with cargo shelf.

At the time, and absent a proper 26 volt battery system that fits in the attached box, I wired a pair of 12 volt 8AH SLA batteries in series seen in the external butt pack below. They worked great but at nearly 11 pounds, heavy! Definitely Fixed Portable on this Op.

PRC-174 with external SLA batteries and Whip antenna

As a lifelong, and almost exclusively a CW operator, I appreciate its performance; the 500 cps NCW filter is quite effective if needed. A J-45 Knee Key with connector adapter made it happen. Those H-251A/U headphones also kept my ears warm on Winter Field Day. Win Win!

I took advantage of my kind of field ops (I don’t “do” contests) that weekend to evaluate it while there were lots of like-minded portable stations to be had.  I worked a bunch of stations on 40 meters CW plus the MRCG Net on 3985 kc.  Good signal reports ensued from CA, OR, WA, NV and CO. It’s about 4db more powerful than my usual field set: the AN/TRC-77.

While running CW contacts on 7050 kc with the whip, I connected a 32′ “drag wire” to the ground post and laid it on the dry ground. As a quarter wavelength, low impedance “RF Return” this produced a noticeable improvement in the transmitted field strength. Not surprising.

That drag wire / ground radial / RF-Return is also effective in keeping RF otherwise on the chassis from biting your fingers…

The ME-61/GRC FSM is pretty handy. Place it far enough away from the radio/antenna that you need to use binoculars to read the meter while tuning/testing. A short piece of hookup wire with an alligator clip to the antenna improves its sensitivity. Hint: Since the lid is non-removable I removed the chassis and rotated it 180 degrees and reinstalled it as shown. Much more convenient to use it that way; you can now tilt it “forward” to read the meter and controls without the lid flopping down and shorting out the antenna..

PRC-174 Drag Wire field strength improvement

Of course, operating this radio in any mode besides humping it as a manpack would best be done with a dipole or some other wire antenna versus the simple 10′ unloaded whip. Like then replacing the whip with another 32′ length of wire in the trees making it a Hasty Dipole. That would be a substantially better antenna system for fixed-portable ops.

The radio fits nicely in the main compartment of an ALICE Medium pack, on or off the frame. It will hold all the necessary accessories in the pockets for field ops. Including that non-issued LS-454 speaker which is handy at an FOB/LZ.

PRC-174 in an ALICE Medium pack

The MK-1742 dipole system seen above is the same one as provided with the AN/PRC-74. The radio set deployment drawing in the manual showing the set connected to a slant wire out to a tree is identical to the sketch in the AN/PRC–74 manual, further convincing evidence of its Hughes heritage.

That dipole system borrowed from my GRC-109 kit is pretty handy for quick deployment even while wearing mittens. A Tip Jack/BNC adapter interfaces the feedline to the radio. They plug in directly while running the GRC-9, GRC-109 or RS-6 set.

PRC-74 / MK-1742 Dipole Antenna Kit

The spindle will accommodate the two 66′ wire legs for operation in the 3550 kc CW band. Note the use of fishing snap swivels on the far ends: I don’t use insulators when hung with nylon halyards; swivels prevent kinking while rewinding. Quick and easy. Below: As deployed on Brannan Island. (See the PRC-47 whip deployed for NVIS?)

MK-1742 Dipole Kit Deployed

The PRC-174 can also be strapped directly to an ALICE pack frame, the cargo shelf makes it self supporting. As a tall, thin set it would have benefited from a pair of fold-out support legs on the battery box(es) like the AN/PRC-10 has. Probably a weight/cost consideration. The fully rotatable whip mount takes care of the problem; just lay the radio down or leave it upright on the ALICE frame, adjust the mount accordingly.

With an M-80 dynamic mic and headset or an H-189/250 handset plus an AT-271 whip you’re “Good To Go”. Get to the FOB and rig the dipole, commence operations. Don’t forget the little solar panel.

Here is the complete field kit, less the ALICE frame/pack:

PRC-174 Complete Field Kit

The above kit includes everything you would need in the field for voice or CW Ops, including the antennas. Everything here except the radio fits inside that little day pack to keep it all organized.

PRC-174 Accessory Kit Bag as deployed along with the AN/TRC-77

Aside from my VHF AN/PRC-127ef HT, this PRC-174 is the newest, most modern technology military radio at N6CC. Casual Ops at a nearby park:

PRC-174 in its element

Below is a handy adaptation (I know, I know..) of a rusty old LS-7 speaker housing from the junk box that was missing the speaker, transformer, cable and data plate. Back in service, especially for a fixed/temporary installation.

LS-7 Speaker with CW Key Jack

I took the old LS-7 speaker housing and installed a speaker, 600:8 ohm impedance matching transformer, CW Key connector and a 2-conductor shielded radio cable with a U-229 plug. I wired the plug to bring both receiver audio and the CW key line out to this speaker.

This allows me to use a speaker and CW key from the same radio front panel connector while operating fixed-portable. This frees up the other panel connector for a handset, RWI Remote, RATT Signalink interface etc. Example:

RATT: Although this is a bit of a divergence from the PRC-174’s normal usage, the PRC-174 will also work on the military standard radioteletype waveform. This is done while running in the USB mode via AFSK, here using my existing Signalink USB interface. A fun and very useful FrankenSystem technology nexus:

PRC-174 with Signalink RATT System

Above: Connected to a PC Laptop “glass terminal” running FLDIGI* software set for 850 cps shift, (space high), USB AFSK, 60 WPM for military “RATT” format comms on Clatternet (currently in 2022 the West Coast Clatternet is 1730Z Saturdays, 7087 kc.)

The above RATT system also lends itself to portable, battery-powered remote field Ops: Good teletype (as well as Voice and CW) comms were had on 40 meters from this campsite up in the Sierra Nevada mountains. This trip included evaluating an Inverted L wire antenna made with WD-1A/TT infantry field phone wire up in the pine trees.. Antenna details at the end of this Post.

PRC-174 Radio Teletype system at a Forward Operating Base

I worked 2 of the Military Radio Collectors Group Clatternet RATT stations down in LA from this remote deer camp up in the Sierra’s. 350+ miles. Works great! The little (essential) alarm clock reminds me when my Comm Windows approach. Easily distracted in camp!

PRC-174, Signalink and Laptop RATT comms from the mountains

RTTY: The transceiver and S/W can also be set up for AFSK LSB 170 cps shift for Ham “RTTY”. I worked a few targets-of-opportunity contacts on 20 and 40 meters during the busy BARTG RTTY event. That included an 1875 mile shot to NJ4P in Kentucky on 20 meters for my first Ham RTTY try. Not bad for a 20 watt portable to a dipole from a very remote campsite.

*Note that this system running FLDIGI “freeware” on the computer is also capable of many other modes including CW and other digital formats such as MT-63 etc. You can even use it to receive and display SITOR and FAX weather image transmissions as examples.

Although the radio’s heat management system is probably not designed for continuous duty FSK transmissions (despite the “Data” mode), it’s fine for typical “short” RTTY/RATT contacts to minimize PA transistor heating.

WINLINK/EMail: The above system can also be connected to any one of many distant HF Gateway stations to provide Internet EMail via Winlink. This equipment works quite well running the Winlink Express and VARA HF software. Handy if needed to pass EMail to/from my non-ham buddies from The Bush. (You DO go camping to get away from EMail of course!)

Send your buddy an E Mail from your campsite telling him to get on the freq. The below site had no Cell service, VHF FM repeater coverage nor of course WiFi. No worries.

WINLINK Email via HF: Field Day 2023

Enabling the PRC-174 RATT/RTTY system just took making a U-229 -to- RJ-45 cable* between the radio and the Signalink. * U-229 wiring: A=Gnd, B=Spkr, C=PTT/CW, D=Mic, E= N/C. Set the Signalink internal jumpers accordingly.

Aside from these RATT experiments I’m looking forward to putting the PRC-174 into additional voice/CW field use. That either “Mudborne” via my LPC’s (Leather Personnel Carriers) just to try that, but more useful as a fixed-portable setup with wire antennas as above. And no, I won’t be generating FT8 Auto-QRM on the CW bands with it…

Remote Control: Another capability I built up is to permit remote operation of the PRC-174 (or any other New Family radio such as the PRC-25/77/104 etc. ) using the Old Family AN/GRA-6 Control Group set.

Remotely Operable PRC-174 Radio

I modified the GRA-6/C-434 Local Control unit to enable it to connect directly to the radio with a U-229 connector (modification included replacement of one of the 2 original U-77’s from the Local unit and a simple resistive attenuator inside the Local unit).

This enables the remote control of the PRC-174 over up to 2 miles of infantry field telephone “slash” wire. Not real useful for portable (or “pedestrian mobile” if you like) but great for a Forward Operating Base where the radio and operator are in different places. More details here:

A recent FTX at Forward Operating Base Herring Creek in the Sierra Nevada mountains:

PRC-174, TRC-77 and PRC-25 in the mountains

Gear included the TRC-77, here awaiting its turn on the 132′ dipole antenna. The PRC-25 was online for local ops during this 4-day stay at a hasty campsite. The little alarm clock is essential for making scheduled Comm Windows at campsites (too many other distractions!) Below: Working CW in the field – where this gear belongs!

CW in the mountains

In addition to many PRC-174 CW contacts we also checked into the MRCG AM Phone net at 0100Z on 3985 kc; good signal reports were obtained from many Nevada and California stations. Running the 5 watt AM PRC-174. It’s all about the antenna!

Radio Teletype Ops from a remote field location

Above: Running the PRC-174 on radio teletype “keyboard-to-keyboard” comms using the Signalink USB interface to a laptop PC. This is a pretty simple, workable configuration for extended range HF ops in the boonies.

My little 20 watt solar panel makes this system capable of “indefinite” duration portable Ops..

Then off to another FTX in the boonies where portable Mil radios are right at home:

USMC Mountain Warfare Training Center Pickel Meadow

Below, Ops at the USMC MWTC, Pickel Meadow (near Bridgeport CA). Still chilly at 7100′ in early June. A great place to train/camp.

That’s the West Walker River in the background. A group of Marine instructors were practicing swift water crossings right here. We gave them a “briefing” on Ham radio comms with legacy military HF morse code equipment. “Cool”. They wanted to buy the Bronco. Ha!

HF Radio training at MWTC Bridgeport

The PRC-174 is an excellent CW radio working from the bush. Above paired with the TRC-77 HF CW set, alternately sharing the antenna. Either set drives the EFHW experimental antenna. Note the prototype impedance matching transformer sitting on the tire for HV insulation.

(One somewhat annoying issue with this example is the long (about 2 seconds) delay when switching from transmit to receive upon “key up”. This causes me to miss the first 2-3 letters from the other station.)

Below is the PRC-174 subsequently mounted on the ALICE pack frame with shelf, the whip antenna is mounted for portable ops.

PRC-174 on ALICE pack frame
Portable PRC-174 “Pedestrian Mobile” Tests

The PRC-174 was designed for portable, manpack operation, denoted by the “P” in PRC. Working portable HF “Pedestrian Mobile” is a fun novelty for casual Ham band ops. However PM is of limited practical value to me (or my knees these days, even with a miniature commercial transceiver!). As a nearly 100% CW operator it is pretty cumbersome. However WØRW has perfected it!

A work in progress, additional Bush Ops evaluations in the near future, stay tuned. As usual your comments, additions, corrections and observations to add to the PRC-174 knowledge/experience base are always welcomed.

Details on the EFHW antenna as tested with the PRC-174: