The Military Hack Watch
by Keith Lehman 10/3/16
Illustrations of Elgin A-11 wristwatches in Marvin E. Whitney,'s book Military Timepieces.
Much like my blog on the NATO strap, upon doing research for my next watch review (coming soon), I came across a function that is worth discussing. The military hack watch, also known as the A-11, was manufactured for American soldiers beginning in World War II. Specific features of the watch include a black dial with large white luminous Arabic numerals from 1 to 12, luminous hour, minute hands, a long sweeping seconds hands, and a dustproof or waterproof case. However, the raison d'être of the watch is the second-setting device, also known as the “hack” feature, which stops the sweeping seconds hands to allow soldiers to synchronize their watches to coordinate operations.
The United States wasn’t the only country to have the hack watch in World War II; Germany and the United Kingdom (ironically made by the same watch companies) also had their own versions of the watch, but the A-11 was specifically manufactured by US watch companies Bulova, Elgin, and Waltham. The hack watch was primarily issued to pilots but was also used by the infantry. The ability to sync their watches played a pivotal role in combat during the war and future conflicts to come.
Three military hack watches with canvas straps. KEITH LEHMAN.
Soldiers syncing their watches made possible by the hack feature of their watches.
The term “hacking” is actually nautical in origin. When astronomical observations were required for navigation, mariners took portable hack watches up on deck as aids to calibrate the ship’s chronometers. Mechanical hack watches were used by military forces throughout the world up until the 1980s when less-expensive quartz movements replaced them. Today, GPS and satellite time are now used by modern forces. The hack watch, whether vintage or a modern reproduction, is a sought-after collector’s piece. The black dial, large white numerals, and functional design make a striking timepiece, but it also represents a technological achievement that played an important role in world military history.
Whitney, Marvin E. Military Timepieces. Harrison, OH: American Watchmakers-Clockmakers, June 1, 1992, 539.