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Time Spec: A Primer on Military Watches

Guides | Series | Vintage | 09.10.2013

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.

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Marathon Mil-W-46374E, circa 1990

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.

Design
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.

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Marathon/Gallet Adanac Navigator, circa 1988

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.

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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.

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Marathon Mil-W-46374E, circa 1990

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.

A final key trait seen on military watches is military or government markings. Most often etched, stamped, or engraved on the caseback, these sometimes cryptic markings can contain specific information about the type of watch it is, details about the manufacturer of the watch, what military unit or branch it was issued to, and what number the watch holds in the inventory. The markings provided accountability and traceability for the watch so that equipment managers could keep track of who was issued which watch and when a particular watch was ready for its regular required maintenance. For each watch we feature in the column, we’ll explain what all those crazy numbers, letters, and symbols on the back mean to give you a better idea of when and how the watch was used.

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Waltham A-17, circa 1956

Categories

The different types of military watches issued are almost as varied as the types of military missions that troops who wear them perform. Here are three major categories of milwatches that we will likely be featuring most often in this column.

General Service / Field Watch
This is as close as you can get to the idea of “standard issue” in a military watch. These were primarily issued to infantry or other ground units and were often designed to be cheap but rugged. In many cases the watches were designed without the intent to be regularly serviced. These watches saw time in all parts of the world and likely provided much-needed accuracy in the timing of maneuvers, from the front lines to the headquarters. Many of the watches we feature will be from this set, as they’re relatively cheap and readily available in the market.

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Benrus GG-W-113, circa 1973; Hamilton Mil-W-46374B, circa 1978, Marathon Mil-W-46374E, circa 1990

Pilot’s / Navigator’s Watch
When the military takes to the sky, timing is everything. Whether navigating by time and heading, clocking a bomb run, or delivering troops to a specific location at a precise time, an accurate and reliable timepiece is needed. In general, these watches feature more accurate movements and larger dials than their land-based brothers and would have been worn by pilots and other members of an aircrew. Other features regularly seen on a pilot’s or navigator’s watch are a chronograph for measuring time intervals, a tachymeter for performing speed/distance calculations, and a highly legible dial for high readability in the vibration of an aircraft. With classic brands like Heuer, Omega, Jaeger LeCoultre, IWC, A. Lange & Sohne, and Hamilton having made great examples of this style of watch, it’s no surprise that many are highly collectable.

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Seiko RAF Gen. 1 Chronograph, circa 1984

Dive Watch
When used for diving, a watch better be solid, and military dive watches are certainly that. They’re the most robust – and often most expensive – military timepieces. Including models built by famed watch brands like Rolex, Tudor, Omega, Blancpain, and Eterna, military dive watches have found their place on the wrists of some of the most elite members of the military, including clearance divers and naval special operations forces. Top quality construction and relative scarcity drive the prices of these watches higher than most other milwatches, and many collectors count these watches among their favorites. Thankfully, for those people who don’t have many thousands of dollars to spend on a watch, some cheaper military divers exist as well. Considering the technological advances introduced in military dive watches, owning one of these watches often means owning a piece of watchmaking history.

Collectability
As mentioned at the top, there really is a milwatch for everyone. With a wide array of styles and prices, there’s little doubt that at least one military watch will suit the tastes of every watch collector. Military watches are also a great place to start a collection; many are available for little cost, while still offering good quality and great value.

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Waltham A-17, circa 1956

In the past 20-25 years, the collector market for military watches has increased significantly. While 25 years ago a military issued version of a watch might have been seen as too plain and less desirable than its civilian variant, today it’s the military issued watch that commands the higher price. In some rarer cases, this can be as much as a tenfold increase over the civilian version. (For example, a 1996 military watch guide lists the going rate for a British military issued Rolex Submariner – the famed MilSub – at around $3000, comparable to the price of a vintage civilian Submariner at the time. While today a civilian Sub from the 1970s will set you back $5000-$7500, you would be lucky to find an all-original MilSub for less than $50,000, with some examples selling for well above that.) Thankfully, those kinds of prices are reserved for the rarest of military watches, and many remain very reasonably priced.

As is true when buying or collecting any used or vintage watch, there are many factors to consider when purchasing a military issued watch. Since many of these watches actually spent time in the environments and conditions they were designed to encounter, condition of the watches varies widely. While many collectors will only buy pristine examples of the watches they collect, there is some appeal to owning a watch that bears the scars of use from its time on the wrist of a service member. More than most civilian watches, military watches carry the story of the people who wore them and the places they went, and that makes them special.

In the coming months, we will be showcasing a full range of military watches here on Worn&Wound. While keeping our focus primarily on the lower end of the milwatch price range, we hope to occasionally feature rarer and more expensive models. (Everyone needs something to dream about!) We hope you will enjoy our in-depth look at each watch we cover, and consider adding a milwatch or two to your collection.

by Brandon Cripps

  • http://www.joelconison.com Joel

    Great history lesson & looking forward to the next installment

  • http://nevernormalmedia.com RJ McDonald

    love this article.

  • http://URLwearinteractive.com Li Wang

    Great article. Where’s the Like button?

  • http://URL Ron

    This is awesome. Can’t wait for more articles on this subject!

  • http://URL Mike

    Awesome! You guys definitely do your fair share of Military inspired watch reviews. Very cool to see the history behind them. Hoping for a Hamilton Khaki Field to be covered in the coming weeks.

    • http://URL Ron Squire

      Agreed!

  • http://URL Brian M

    Awesome, look forward to the rest of the posts in the series. I’m a sucker for these kind of watches.

  • http://URL ingineer

    Brandon;

    Thank you for giving my humble Maratons the respect they deserve.
    When the mains were out due to storm Sandy, I reached for the H3 field watch.

    How about the TSAR in your review?

    Keep it up , I purchaed a Bernhardt based on your review.

  • http://andrewartajos.wordpress.com Andrew

    I’m looking forward to those affordable military watches you promised to feature.

  • http://www.orologimilitari.biz Militare Rossi

    Awesome post dude!! A gret lesson for me.