From the beginning of its existence, the watch has been an information tool, giving its wearer some piece of intelligence that he wouldn’t have on his own. Perhaps nowhere is that truer or better realized than in the military watch.
Almost as long as watches have existed, governments and militaries have been buying and issuing timepieces to be used in nearly every military scenario imaginable. Strictly utilitarian, these watches have served as functional instruments, designed to give their wearers specific and accurate information in environments not often encountered by civilian watches.
Made popular by their simple yet functional design, sturdy construction, and relative scarcity, many military watches have become prized by collectors. The world of military watch collecting is vast, and offers examples at almost every price point, from a $100 infantry field watch to a $100,000 dive watch, and everywhere in between. There really is a milwatch for everyone. In this column, we’ll feature watches from throughout that price spectrum, primarily focusing on the cheaper end of the range. We’ll also explore the design origins of some of the more classic military watches, demonstrate how their designs and functions influenced civilian watch designs, and suggest modern, affordable watches that carry the spirit of military watches in their design.
Today’s post will serve as a brief introduction to the world of military watches. We’ll explain some of the common design elements found in most pieces, divide the large range of military watches into a few major categories, and briefly discuss the current state of the collector market.
Military watches are often fantastic examples of function over form. Or, more accurately, function inspiring form. Built to perform a specific task in a known environment, they are no-frills workhorses of timekeeping. The specific design of each milwatch is best examined in the context of its mission, but there are few design traits that are common among most examples.
If you’ve ever enjoyed the dulled finish of a bead-blasted or matte-finished case, you have a milwatch to thank. There are a number of reasons why a non-shiny watch case are beneficial in a military setting, but two stand above the rest: detectability and passivation. When you want to remain hidden, you do not want a bright piece of metal and glass glinting on your wrist in the sunlight. Covering the watch works well when you’re not actively using it, but when the time comes to put it to use, every bit of undetectability helps you remain unseen. For that reason, milwatch makers often dull the surface of the case to make it nonreflective and less detectable.
The other major reason for those cool matte finishes is passivation, the process of making a material less susceptible to environmental conditions like air, temperature, and moisture. If you imagine all the places in the world that military forces have operated in the last hundred or so years, you’ll understand why resistance to the elements is a key feature of military watches. Very few wars have been fought in air-conditioned buildings. Manufacturers can make a watch case passive in a number of ways, depending on the material in use. Metallic coating processes like Parkerizing have been used by watch companies to make their watches less vulnerable to environmental effects, resulting in a tough and corrosion resistant matte finish on the case. This feature is most common on watches designed be used on land or water, but it can be seen in examples of almost every type of milwatch.
Milwatch dial designs can generally be summed up in three words: minimalist, luminous, and readable. Reinforcing the idea of function inspiring form, manufacturers of military watches have made dial designs simple and legible, including a minimal amount of markings needed to convey the information provided by the watch. The genesis of these specific designs will be discussed shortly, but looking at almost any milwatch will demonstrate the concept beautifully. Dial markings are usually limited to timekeeping or other functional indications and occasionally the manufacturer’s name.
Since military operations continue around the clock, milwatch dials often feature a 24-hour track, designed to aid the wearer in relaying accurate communications in military time (for example, 4:00 in the afternoon becomes 1600, 11:00 at night is 2300, or “twenty-three hundred,” etcetera). To aid in 24-hour visibility, milwatch dials are usually lit by one of the luming methods we discussed a couple weeks ago. The simplicity of the dial design and the presence of lume makes milwatch dials quickly and easily readable. The idea here is that the faster and more accurate your watch gives you information, the better you can complete your mission.
You may be wondering who made all of these military watch design choices. Unfortunately, that’s a tough question to answer. It’s difficult mainly because no one group or company made the design decisions, and many designs have been appropriated and adapted over time and by lots of groups. Part of the confusion arises from the different ways that governments have purchased watches. Rarely have governments used their own manufacturing capabilities to produce watches; instead, they have relied on watch companies to build them under a specific set of guidelines. On many (or even most) occasions, governments have retained control of the design details of the watch. To tell manufacturers specifically what they want in a watch design, government organizations wrote detailed specifications laying out design and performance requirements that had to be met in order to fulfill a watch purchasing contract.
These military specifications (mil-specs) were documents produced by governments and made available to manufacturers who wanted to sell watches to the government. In later articles, we’ll take a look at some of the landmark US and UK mil-specs and follow the changes made to the documents as they progress and improve through their life cycle. Taking another route, government purchasers also occasionally bought commercially available watches to issue to specific military units. In these rarer cases, most of the design work would have been completed in-house at the manufacturer.