Chronography 7: Military Chronographs

One of the traits we love about chronograph watches is that they’re tool watches. They’re useful, often specifically so.  Nowhere is that more the case than with military chronographs. In military service, a chronograph can have any number of tasks, from timing a bombing run, to measuring distance with a known speed, to counting down engine checks.  A chronograph on your wrist gives you the ability to measure and record time in precise increments, a useful tool in numerous tasks.

Over the past 100+ years, wrist chronographs have been staples of military kit, being issued to armed forces all over the world. You could easily fill a book with all the various pieces that exist (and people have), but today we’ll just take a look at a handful of lesser-known examples from throughout the past century.

1930s: Hanhart Calibre 40

hanhart-cal-40kmDebuting in 1938, the Hanhart Calibre 40 and its descendants would become staples of German military officers’ kits from early WWII through the 1950s.  These earliest examples were issued by the German Kriegsmarine (KM) and featured a single-button flyback chronograph, smooth bezel case, and luminous hands and hour numerals. This model has been reissued by Hanhart, though, unfortunately, with the later style textured bezel Hanhart is more known for.


1950s: Blancpain Air Command

aircommand1If you read our Round Table talk about what watch we would buy if money was no object, you’ll remember that a couple of us are big Tornek-Rayville fans. Well, this big-case Blancpain makes the TR900 look downright common. It might be a little bit inaccurate to call the Air Command a true military watch, as nobody (including Blancpain themselves) is quite sure of the full story of the watch. Anecdotally, one of these was sent to Tornek in an attempt to get a U.S. government contract, which was ultimately unsuccessful. Another version of the story has the U.S. Air Force buying and issuing a small batch of the watches. A third tale says that the watches were for sale at the U.S. military PX in Chateauroux and were bought and worn by a number of U.S. helicopter pilots.  Whatever the truth may be, these things are exceptionally rare and undeniably beautiful.

1960s: Breitling Mono-Pusher

RCAF-BreitlingThis one is sly, and that’s why I love it. It’s a Breitling that doesn’t scream Breitling. In fact, it doesn’t even say Breitling anywhere on the outside of the watch; the only hit to the watch’s maker is the script “B” on the crown. These mono-pusher chronographs were issued to Royal Canadian Air Force pilots throughout the 1960s, along with watches from Omega, Wittnauer, and Rodania. They all feature white or off-white dials, single-button chronographs, and most, like this one, are unsigned on the dial.

The folklore says that this lack of branding was an attempt to deter pilots from “losing” their watches when they were supposed to turn them back in. I suspect that it was done more for legibility and design simplicity than to stop sticky-fingered pilots from walking off with them. Whatever the reason for the anonymous design, these simple mono-pushers look great. You can take a deep dive into the world of RCAF chronographs with a book by renowned collector and retired RCAF pilot Darren Crabb.

1970s: Lemania Series 3 Mono-Pusher, Nuclear Submarine

lemaniaSubThis watch checks four cool boxes for me: white dial, mono-pusher, asymmetrical case, and specialized use. Lemania supplied chronographs to multiple branches of the British armed forces for decades, from the 1940s through the 1970s (in addition to Swedish and South African forces for the remainder of the 1970s and into the 1980s). The Series 3 is the last example of Lemania’s single-button military chronograph, after which there were small batches of two-button Lemania chronographs, followed by the cheaper Valjoux 7733 chronographs supplied by Hamilton, CWC, Precista, and Newmark. This watch has something special, though; until the majority of military chronographs–including all others we see here–this watch has no luminous material on the dial or the hands. That’s on purpose. These watches were designed for use on nuclear-powered submarines, where radioactive material leaks can be a disastrous issue.

To make sure sailors catch any leaks as soon as possible, the subs were equipped with very sensitive detectors. In fact, these detectors were so sensitive to radioactive material that the relatively small amount of luminous tritium on the hands and dial of other Royal Navy issued Lemania chronographs could cause a false positive, alerting the crew to a hazardous material leak that wasn’t actually there. To prevent that from happening, Lemania specially made these watches with solid, non-luminous black hands and black painted numerals on the dials.  The dials were originally produced and stamped as standard British chronograph dials, which featured the “circle T” emblem, indicating radioactive tritium was used on the dial. In this case, however, the “circle T” has been painted over, since no luminous material was applied. This is a great example of a military chronograph designed to do a specific job in a specific place.

1970s: Heuer BUND

Heuer_Bundeswehr_3H_AS01231_1We’re going to stay in the ’70s for a minute, because it was a great decade for military chronographs. The second offering comes from Germany: the Heuer BUND. BUND, readers of our military watch primer from a couple years ago may remember, is short for Bundeswehr, the German unified armed forces. In the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, German pilots were issued these 30-minute flyback chronographs, which feature a unique case–large for the time at 42 mm–and handwound Valjoux movements (calibers 22, 222, and 230 were used during the run). Besides looking great, this model is attractive to the nerdiest of us military watch collectors, as there are about a dozen different dial variations, all with minor differences (enthusiast W.A. Manning has compiled a great picture collection of all the different versions).

1980s: Auricoste Valjoux 7765

auricoste-77651These odd chronographs were issued in small numbers (probably a couple hundred or fewer) to an elite French special forces unit, the 13e Régiment de Dragons 
Parachutistes, or 13th RDP. This special ops unit has been involved in missions all over the world, primarily doing sneaky airborne and parachute reconnaissance. A cool mission requires a cool watch, and this Auricoste is certainly that. It features a Valjoux 7765 movement, which you might recognize from a number of Heuer watches of the same era. The Valjoux is an uncommon dial design for a chronograph, with a running seconds sub-dial at 9:00, center chronograph seconds, 30-minute chronograph sub-dial at 12:00, and date at 3:00.  The result is kind of off-balance, but unique. In this case, the sub-dials are black against the dark grey background of the dial, for an overall discrete and attractive look.

1990s: Tutima NATO

TUTIMA_MILITARY_DIAL2The Tutima NATO is one of the great modern military mechanical chronographs. As the Brits and the Americans were moving away from issued mechanical chronographs, the Germans held on to the classic style a little longer. Introduced in 1984 and issued to Luftwaffe pilots throughout the 1990s, the Tutima NATO is instantly recognizable by its thick tonneau case and flat buttons, designed to avoid snags in the cockpit and keeping pilots an extra little bit safer. And man, do they look cool. Inside the titanium case (Tutima made versions in stainless steel, too) is the Lemania 5100, the seven-handed workhorse of chronograph movements, featuring the time (hours, minutes, and running seconds), chronograph (with 60-second, 60-minute, and 12-hour indications), 24-hour time, day, and date. All of that is packed into an attractive and surprisingly legible dial. Tutima has updated the civilian versions of this watch, but these classic issued versions are hard to beat.


2000s: Pulsar YM92-X170, “Gen. 2”

848686A1-CF2B-4350-8DB6-519F3C88074E-6317-00000397208DDF4APulsar–and previously their parent company Seiko–have provided quartz chronographs to British Royal Air Force (RAF) and Royal Navy (RN) pilots for the past three decades. We covered the Seiko Gen. 1 a couple of years ago. This current generation (Pulsar Gen. 2) features large numerals on the dial, a classic chronograph layout plus a date at 3:00, boxy crown guards, fixed bars, 100m water resistance, and a Pulsar YM92 movement–identical to the Seiko 7T92. The previous generation wasn’t an especially tough watch, but this one seems to be holding up well so far. It was first issued in 2011, and has seen additional batches in 2012 and 2014 with a total number of issued watches somewhere around 2,000 thus far. For now, Pulsar doesn’t sell a civilian version of the watch, so if you want one, you’ll have to find a British pilot who doesn’t mind parting with theirs.

Images from this post:
Related Posts
Brandon was raised in a military family, the son of an Army pilot and engineer. An early fascination with all things mechanical developed into a love of watches that remains today. Brandon holds a pair of degrees in experimental psychology and works as a human factors test engineer for Army aviation systems.