Hacking and Hand-Winding Watch Movements (Are they Really Necessary?)

Hacking and hand-winding are two terms often used to describe features in some mechanical watch movements.

In short, hacking allows you to set the watch’s second hand in addition to the minute and hour hand. When pulling out the crown to set the time, the second hand stops completely. This allows you to more accurately set the time, down to the second.

Hand-winding allows you to manually power a mechanical watch movement by winding the watch’s crown clockwise. This, of course, powers the mechanical movement, but can also be used to add additional power to an automatic movement.

Both hacking and hand-winding are often regarded as ‘nice to haves’ in mechanical watch movements, however, they may not be entirely necessary, and not all watch movements have them.

Let’s dig a bit deeper.

What is Hacking on a Watch?

Watch hacking is a feature that stops the watch’s second hand completely when pulling out the crown to set the time.

This is beneficial, as it will allow you to more precisely set the time, down to the exact second.

If the watch doesn’t have hacking, the second hand will continue to sweep while you’re setting the time, making it almost impossible to set the time precisely.

How to Hack Your Watch

To hack a watch with a hacking movement:

  1. Pull the crown out to the position that is used to set the time. This is typically the position furthest away from the watch’s crown.
  2. Once you pull the crown out all the way from the case, your watch’s second hand should stop completely.

If the second hand is still running while the crown has been pulled out, that is a likely sign that your watch does not have hacking.

Do You Need a Hacking Movement?

Hacking movements have the benefit of helping you set the time more accurately since you can wait until the secondhand lines up with the exact second on the atomic clock.

The problem, however, is that most mechanical watches will lose that accuracy by the end of the day.

This is because a mechanical movement, by nature has many small parts rotating in sync to keep the watch powered, and accurate in timekeeping. Because of the many parts in a watch movement, most watches, even expensive Rolexes, for example, have slight variances in timekeeping over a period of time.

As a result, the time you spent hacking your watch quickly becomes pointless once it loses its accuracy.

Hacking Becomes Pointless Once a Watch Loses Time

Some of the most accurate mechanical watches in the world, ones that are Chronometer Certified, only need to be accurate to +6/-4 seconds per day. This means, after 24 hours, they can either be 6 seconds ahead or 4 seconds behind and still pass this certification and be considered among the most accurate mechanical watches in the world.

All this extra time you just spent using your watch’s hacking feature to perfectly line up the seconds to the atomic clock will go to waste after just a single day.

Not to mention, if you wear the same watch for an entire month in a row, this inaccuracy starts to build up and gets worse and worse each day you wear it.

A watch running +6 seconds ahead per day will be about 180 seconds ahead per day, by the end of the month.

Now, I’m no math wizard, but that’s about 3 minutes per day, and remember, we’re talking about some of the most accurate watches in the world. Some more affordable timepieces will have even worse accuracy and will be off by an even larger amount by the end of the day! 

In short, using the hacking feature on a watch is helpful to initially set the time accurately. But over days, weeks, and months, as the mechanical watch loses accuracy, the time you spent using the hacking feature quickly becomes pointless.

What if My Watch Doesn’t Have Hacking?

Your watch doesn’t have hacking… Now what? Well, first of all, don’t be alarmed. Many mechanical watches don’t, and it’s not a very big deal. As we learned earlier, the accuracy of a mechanical watch is lost over time, so hacking quickly becomes pointless after a few days or weeks, depending on the accuracy of your mechanical watch.

If you need a watch to be precisely accurate down to the second, you’re better off with a quartz watch in the first place.

Many mechanical watch owners, including myself, disregard the second hand completely.

For example: if the time is currently 8:31 and 21 seconds, I would round down and just set it to 8:31, wherever the second hand currently is.

Some mechanical watch movements have a trick that lets you hack the time anyway.

This trick doesn’t work on all movements, so your experience may vary. But the movement most commonly associated with this trick is the workhorse Seiko 7S26 featured in many entry-level Seiko models like Seiko 5s and the Seiko SKX. It was even officially mentioned by Seiko in their 7S26 Manual.

Anyway, the trick is called “back-hacking”. Here’s how to back-hack your mechanical watch:

How to Back-Hack Your Mechanical Watch

  1. Pull the crown out to the position allowing you to adjust the time. This is usually the last click out. Make sure you’re not on the position that adjusts the day or date wheels if your watch has one. 
  2. Turn the crown ever so slowly counterclockwise (toward you) in a series of many little micro-adjustments. Careful precision and small adjustments of the crown are required to back-hack. If you go too fast, it won’t work.
  3. The second hand should have now frozen. If not, keep repeating step 2, slowly pulling the crown toward you again and again repeatedly until the second-hand stops.
  4. Congratulations! You back-hacked your watch. Now you can set your time precisely, down to the second. 

What is Hand-winding on a Watch?

Hand-winding is the ability to manually power your mechanical watch’s movement by turning the crown, usually clockwise.

This tightens the mainspring within the watch movement, which slowly unwinds over time, and disperses energy throughout the rest of the watch movement.

For some mechanical watches, this is the only way to power their watch movement. Some mechanical watches, however, have an automatic movement module that allows the watch to generate power with its automatic rotor, making it unnecessary to hand-wind the watch.

Hand-winding can still be beneficial in automatic watches, however, to allow you to wind, and fully charge the watch up to its maximum power reserve which is the maximum amount of time it can run when fully wound.

The Benefits of a Hand-Winding a Mechanical Watch

Hand-wound or manual wind watches, as they’re sometimes called, don’t have the addition of a weighted rotor, as automatic watches do.

Without the necessity of a weighted rotor like an automatic watch, it’s possible to fit the movement in a smaller case. Because of this, hand-winding watches can be made smaller and thinner than their automatic counterparts.

Another upside is that some prefer the process of hand winding a watch as opposed to an automatic that automatically winds the movement for you. In a sense, the process forces you to slow down and is somewhat therapeutic.

The Downsides of Hand-Winding a Mechanical Watch

While some love the process of winding a watch, others may find it tedious. It’s not very time-consuming, it’ll take a minute at most, but it’s just an extra step you’d have to perform when throwing your watch on.

A small downside is the constant turning of the crown to wind the watch can cause the seal of the crown to wear down prematurely. It’s possible this will affect the water-resistance rating of the watch.

This will make it more prone to water damage and less fit for swimming or diving. Don’t fret, however, as a skilled watchmaker can fix this when servicing your watch.

How to Wind An Automatic Watch

As stated before, there are some automatic watches that also have hand-winding features. There are two ways to hand-wind an automatic watch that has both.

  1. Hold the watch in front of you, one finger on the crystal and the other on the case back. Shake the case side to side for 30 seconds. \
    1. This isn’t typically what we refer to when using the term “hand-winding”, but it’s a good way to give your automatic watch a kick start whether or not it has manual winding features.
  2. If your watch does, in fact, have manual winding features, simply pull the crown out, unscrewing if necessary, such as on a dive watch. 
  3. Usually, the crown needs to be in ‘position 0’, closest to the case, as you turn it clockwise slowly. If your watch was previously not running, count 40 rotations to fully wind your watch. Just a few rotations should be enough to give it some juice if you plan on wearing your automatic right after. 

Is Handwinding a Useful Feature on Watches?

While I find hacking less important, hand-winding, on the other hand, is an awesome feature to have on any watch.

You have the benefit of being able to power your watch to its maximum power reserve (usually about ~40 hours, depending on the watch) before putting it down for the night.

When you pick it up the next morning or even the day after, it should still be running, without you having to set the time all over again.

Can You Overwind a Handwinding Watch?

A very common question among owners of manually wound watches is if it’s possible to overwind them. The short answer is yes, depending on how the watch is made.

Many older mechanical watches with older movements, and “newer” watches, usually affordable from China with movements that are built like older movements, can be overwound.

As a cost-cutting measure, these cheaper watches usually don’t have a limiter that signifies when your mainspring is at its power reserve and shouldn’t be wound anymore. This means you can overwind a watch without even knowing if you’re not careful.

A quick tip is to count the number of times you rotate the crown, so you don’t overwind your watch. Usually, about 40 full rotations will bring your watch to its maximum power reserve, or one rotation per hour of power.

Most automatic watches that also have manual hand winding capabilities cannot be overwound. This is because their winding system isn’t attached to the mainspring, so you’ll just keep winding infinitely, without ever harming it.

Most other modern watches have a hand-winding limiter that will stop you from overwinding your watch, however, it’s technically possible to push past this limit with enough force, and break the watch.

It’s usually a very noticeable feeling when you’ve reached the limit, it’ll take much more force to wind the watch any further. Do NOT try to hand-wind past this limit, or you can permanently damage your watch.

Are Manual Hand-Winding Watches More Reliable Than Automatic?

Most modern watches are built with durability and reliability in mind. A newer, more updated automatic watch might be more reliable and accurate than an older manual wind watch, simply because some parts and lubrication in an older watch movement degrade slowly over time.

Aside from the possibility of a manually wound watch’s crown seal wearing down a bit faster, a hand-winding watch compared to an automatic watch of the otherwise same exact type and build quality will have exactly the same reliability and accuracy.

Conclusion – Are Hacking and Hand-Winding Necessary?

In short, hacking and hand-winding are features that are generally nice to have, but not completely necessary.

Hacking lets you more accurately set the time on a mechanical watch down to the second, but that quickly becomes pointless once the watch loses accuracy over time, as most mechanical watches do.

If you’re someone who needs the most accurate watch possible for a specific purpose, you’re probably simply better off getting a quartz watch as it’ll be much more accurate, precise, and affordable, than even the most expensive mechanical watch with hacking.

Hand-winding lets you manually wind and power a mechanical movement which is pivotal for mechanical movements that can only be charged by hand-winding.

However, most modern mechanical watches have automatic rotors which allow the movement to be wound automatically, on your wrist, without the need for hand-winding.

This makes hand-winding more of a ‘nice-to-have- as it can be used to top off the power reserve on your automatic watch before setting it down for a day or two on the wrist, which will keep it running when you go to wear it again.

While most modern luxury wristwatches have movements with both hacking and hand-winding features, not all of them do. This is especially true in the more affordable end of watches that use entry-level movements. Consider these features as nice-to-haves, but not completely necessary.

20 thoughts on “Hacking and Hand-Winding Watch Movements (Are they Really Necessary?)”

  1. Wife & I set our watches to my PC.
    Difficult in practice to actually set your watch exactly, even if you wait for the moment when the minute info changes.
    Around the house we have about 6 clocks & maybe 20 watches.
    You just can’t keep them all adjusted accurately, so you make do: + or – one minute is just fine.

    Reply
    • I agree. Especially when you start to build up even a moderate collection – keeping them all wound and on-time is an impossible task. For a daily wear, sure, it’s not that much effort to set the time once in a while, but for any more watches than that, it can become tiresome.

      Reply
  2. You missed the most serious factor about watches with the hacking feature. It’s just effing cool, looks cool, feels cool….. makes all those WW2 movies come alive in your head… and makes your friends go ‘oh…. that’s awesome’.

    I get you’re into all the technical mumbo jumbo…. but don’t undersell the ‘just effing cool’ factor.

    Reply
  3. Better titled: “Why you don’t need useful features on your wristwatch”.
    The follow-up article can be: “Why your wristwatch is superfluous in the 21st century”.

    Reply

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