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Getting started to reverse AVR code

This post is a work in progress, so if you find it incomplete and not readable probably it's not finished yet. I prefer to publish a little before than leave a post to rust in my drafts.

First of all, the instructions used on ATMel's chips are RISC-like, aligned to 2-byte addresses but with instructions that can be 16 or 32-bit long.


The registers have all 8-bit size.

  • pc is the program counter, cannot be modified directly. Since the instructions are all two bytes longs (a word), the value inside this register is an index of words.
  • x stands for r27:r26
  • y stands for r29:r28 also is the frame pointer
  • z stands for r31:r30 and is used as argument for eicall
  • r0 to r25 are general purpose registers, used also for calling subroutines (see below the section about calling conventions).

What is missing from this list is the stack pointer: it's not a directly accessible register, it's implemented using the memory address couple 0x3e:0x3d, see the section about the prologue of a function to see what this means.

Note: for avr-libc r0 and r1 are particular registers that have fixed meaning, in particular:

  • r0 is a temporary register
  • r1 is usually zero

Harvard architecture

Unlike well known systems, this architecture has the memory space separated from the code space: the first is called SRAM, the second Program.

For this reason there are separated instructions to load and to store data in these spaces, lds/sts and lpm/spm respectively.

Another particularity is that by the memory space can be accessed some peripherics




It's important to understand how mathematics works with registers: the first thing to learn is that (in all the architecture) the arithmetic is module the number of bits; the other thing is that negative numbers are implemented via two's complement. I have a post dedicated to that.


As the registers have a fixed size, arithmetic operations can overflow, for example think of the result of the sum of two register containing each the value 0xff, the result, 0x1fe, cannot fit into the destination register. For this reason exists a special register named sreg containing a bit (called flag) indicating when a overflow happened.

It's not the only flag dedicated in this register, the list is

Flag Description
C there is an overflow
Z Zero flag
N Negative flag
V two's complement overflow
S \(N\oplus V\)
H half carry
T transfer bit
I global interrupt flag

Calling convention

The processor doesn't have a notion of argument of its own, when you call a routine in your program the caller have to define a convention with the callee in order to communicate. Usually is set by the compiler (I'm not completely sure).

Using avr-gcc we have the following indications (source):

  • An argument is passed either completely in registers or completely in memory.
  • To find the register where a function argument is passed, initialize the register number Rn with R26 and follow this procedure:

    1. If the argument size is an odd number of bytes, round up the size to the next even number.
    2. Subtract the rounded size from the register number Rn.

    3. If the new Rn is at least R8 and the size of the object is non-zero, then the low-byte of the argument is passed in Rn. Subsequent bytes of the argument are passed in the subsequent registers, i.e. in increasing register numbers.

    4. If the new register number Rn is smaller than R8 or the size of the argument is zero, the argument will be passed in memory.

    5. If the current argument is passed in memory, stop the procedure: All subsequent arguments will also be passed in memory.

    6. If there are arguments left, goto 1. and proceed with the next argument.
    7. Return values with a size of 1 byte up to and including a size of 8 bytes will be returned in registers. Return values whose size is outside that range will be returned in memory.
    8. If a return value cannot be returned in registers, the caller will allocate stack space and pass the address as implicit first pointer argument to the callee. The callee will put the return value into the space provided by the caller.
    9. If the return value of a function is returned in registers, the same registers are used as if the value was the first parameter of a non-varargs function. For example, an 8-bit value is returned in R24 and an 32-bit value is returned R22...R25.
    10. Arguments of varargs functions are passed on the stack. This applies even to the named arguments.

Instruction sets

Here a summary of the instrutions available on this architecture, with a little description of the operations that they implement. To have more informations read the summary or the complete reference.


Instruction Description
add ra, rb adds two register and stores the result in the first one
adc ra, rb adds two register using also the carry flag and stores the result in the first one
adiw ra, K adds immediate to word
inc ra increments a register by one
sub ra, rb subtracts two registers and stores the result in the first one
sbc ra, rb subtracts two registers using also the carry flag and stores the result in the first one
sbiw ra, K subtracts immediate from word
dec ra decrements a register
com ra takes the one's complement of a register
neg ra takes the two's complement
eor ra, rb calculates the exclusive or of two register and stores the result in the first one
mul ra, rb calculate the product between two registers and then place the result into r1:r0

Load and store

Instruction Description
ldi ra, K loads immediate in register
lds ra, K loads register with value stored in address
ld ra, x loads register with value stored in address contained in x
ld ra, x+
ld ra, -x
ldd ra, x+q loads register with value stored in address pointed by x + q


In AVR exists only two opcodes for branching, brbs <bit flag> <relative jump> and brbc <bit flag> relative jump> that for easy of use have a few aliases

Test Boolean Mnemonic Complementary Boolean Mnemonic Comment
Rd > Rr Z & (N ^ V) = 0 BRLT Rd <= Rr Z+(N ^ V) = 1 BRGE Signed
Rd >= Rr (N ^ V) = 0 BRGE Rd < Rr (N ^ V) = 1 BRLT Signed
Rd = Rr Z=1 BREQ Rd != Rr Z=0 BRNE Signed
Rd <= Rr Z+(N ^ V) = 1 BRGE Rd > Rr Z & (N ^ V) = 0 BRLT Signed
Rd < Rr (N ^ V) = 1 BRLT Rd >= Rr (N ^ V) = 0 BRGE Signed
Rd > Rr C+Z=0 BRLO Rd <= Rr C+Z=1 BRSH Unsigned
Rd >= Rr C=0 BRSH/BRCC Rd < Rr C=1 BRLO/BRCS Unsigned
Rd = Rr Z=1 BREQ Rd != Rr Z=0 BRNE Unsigned
Rd <= Rr C+Z=1 BRSH Rd > Rr C+Z=0 BRLO Unsigned
Rd < Rr C=1 BRLO/BRCS Rd >= Rr C=0 BRSH/BRCC Unsigned
Carry C=1 BRCS No carry C=0 BRCC Simple
Negative N=1 BRMI Positive N=0 BRPL Simple
Overflow V=1 BRVS No overflow V=0 BRVC Simple
Zero Z=1 BREQ Not zero Z=0 BRNE Simple
Instruction Description
sbrs Rr Skip if Bit in Register is Set
sbrc Rr Skip if Bit in Register is Cleared


Below take a look to some examples of common routines implemented with this language


This is the start of a function, where it sets its frame pointer and allocate the space into the stack for local variables; generally looks like the following

push r28
push r29        ; save the frame pointer
in r28, 0x3d
in r29, 0x3e    ; set the frame pointer to the location of the stack pointer
subi r28, 0x10  ; reserve space in the stack for local variables
sbci r29, r1    ; (taking into account possible carry)

In this case the code saves the frame pointer of the caller and sets the frame pointer to the actual position of the stack pointer. The moves downs the frame pointer of 16 bytes to create space for the local variables. I think is backward with respect to the normal use of stack and frame pointers in the x86 code.

To access local variables you simply can use the load/store with displacement instruction with the y register (that is the frame pointer)

ldd r24, y+1
ldd r25: y+2
eor r24, r25
ld r25, r1
std y+1, r24
std y+2, r25


    movw r30, r24
    ld r0, z+
    tst r0
    brne loop

    com r24
    com r25
    add r24, r30
    adc r25, r31

Here the tricky part are the last five instructions (not ret of course): when the r0 contains a NULL byte then z point to the address of that byte plus one (remember the post-increment addressing), so the com (the one's complement), and add/adc instructions can be summarized as follow

$$ \eqalign{ r25:r24 &= r31:r30 + \left(r25:r24 \oplus {\tt 0xffff}\right)\cr &= r31:r30 - 1 + \left(r25:r24\oplus {\tt 0xffff} +1\right)\cr &= r31:r30 - 1 - r25:r24\cr &= \hbox{pointer to the next address fo the NULL byte} - 1 - \hbox{pointer to the start of the string}\cr &= \hbox{number of bytes not NULL} } $$


    movw r30, r22
    movw r26, r24
    rjmp start
    ld r0, z+
    st x+, r0
    subi r20, 0x01
    sbci r21, 0x00
    brcc loop

Sign extension

This section explains how I arrived to understand the meaning of this piece of code:

lds r24, y+1
lds r25, y+2
mov r0, r25
lsl r0
sbc r26, r26
sbc r27, r27

initialy didn't make any sense, it loads from the stack a short and then left-shifts the most significant byte; to end it subtracts two unrelated registers using the result of the shifting as carry.

Pratically r26 and r27 are always zero if the last bit of r25 is zero, if it's not zero then r27:r26 are equal to 0xffff. Seems sign extension to me.

In order to prove my point I decided to experiment and to experiment I need to create a test case where I cast a variable from short to 32bits like the following:

$ cat extended.c

int32_t miao(short value) {
    return (int32_t)value;
$ avr-gcc -c extended.c

Once compiled I can look at the assembly code generated and bingo

$ r2 -A -a avr extended.o
[0x08000034]> pdf
/ (fcn) entry0 44
|   entry0 ();
|           0x08000034      cf93           push r28                    ; [01] m-r-x section size 44 named .text
|           0x08000036      df93           push r29
|           0x08000038      00d0           rcall 0x800003a
|           0x0800003a      cdb7           in r28, 0x3d                ; '=' ; IO SPL: Stack lower bits SP0-SP7
|           0x0800003c      deb7           in r29, 0x3e                ; '>' ; IO SPH: Stack higher bits SP8-SP10
|           0x0800003e      9a83           std y+2, r25
|           0x08000040      8983           std y+1, r24
|           0x08000042      8981           ldd r24, y+1
|           0x08000044      9a81           ldd r25, y+2
|           0x08000046      092e           mov r0, r25
|           0x08000048      000c           lsl r0
|           0x0800004a      aa0b           sbc r26, r26
|           0x0800004c      bb0b           sbc r27, r27
|           0x0800004e      682f           mov r22, r24
|           0x08000050      792f           mov r23, r25
|           0x08000052      8a2f           mov r24, r26
|           0x08000054      9b2f           mov r25, r27
|           0x08000056      0f90           pop r0
|           0x08000058      0f90           pop r0
|           0x0800005a      df91           pop r29
|           0x0800005c      cf91           pop r28
\           0x0800005e      0895           ret

UART communication

Like looking for printf() in "normal code", in embedded, bare-metal code you probably are interested in finding where the system communicates with the user, and in AVR systems this means the serial port.

The Atmel has produced a certain number of microcontrollers with a serial port, someone with more the one (but also a few without native support, where you need to bing bang some pins to recreate the functionality).

Explaining how the UART protocol works is out of scope of this post, you only need to know that you need to specify the number of bits, and the speed of trasmission of these and in a microcontroller this is done via some registers.

The most important registers are the following


obviously each register has an address (probably) different in different microcontrollers.

If you want a tutorial look here.


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