The actual function of an “antenna tuner” seems to remain shrouded in mystery for most hobbyists. Most amateur radio operators seem to think it’s mandatory for every HF transceiver, and many shortwave listeners are certain that it’s the magical answer to improved reception. There is both myth and misunderstanding, but no magic.
These simple inductance/capacitance adjusters are more correctly called “transmission line impedance matching devices” (shortened to “transmatches” by the American Radio Relay League) than “antenna tuners”; they compensate for inductive and capacitance reactance (mismatches) throughout the antenna system – antenna, transmission line and all – not just the antenna.
The main purpose served by the transmatch is to adjustably cancel these reactances to provide an efficient transfer of power from the transmitter to the antenna without the losses caused by impedance mismatches which produce high voltages on the transmission line along the way. These periodic high and low voltage points exhibited by standing waves are measured as a ratio (VSWR, often shortened to SWR).
Theoretically, in a lossless antenna system, the SWR wouldn’t matter, but the practical fact remains that some transmitted power does leak across the insulation in the coax, dissipating as heat, and the higher the voltage, the more power loss.
In addition, transistors are vulnerable to burnout from high voltages, much more so than the old vacuum-tube circuits. This is why modern transceivers invoke automatic power reduction when high SWR is detected.
Shortwave receivers aren’t concerned with transmitted power, so do they need transmatches? Generally not. Modern receivers are very sensitive, limited in weak-signal detection only by the accompanying atmospheric noise and co-channel interference. The bigger the antenna, the stronger the signal and interference levels.