Time Spec: Military Watch Markings – Deciphering the Code

One of the more interesting and unique characteristics of military watches that sets them apart from their civilian counterparts are the issue markings. These numbers and symbols–sometimes on the dial and almost always on the case–can carry a number of different meanings. Interpreting those meanings can sometimes be like solving a puzzle, with long strings of numbers telling you important information about the watch, like where it’s from, how it was designed to be used, when it was made, and a lot more. Today, we’ll share a quick guide for deciphering a majority of military and government issue watch markings. The guide is organized into a few major categories of markings, with a few examples in each category. Using this guide, you should be able to develop a basic understanding of the issue markings on most military watches you encounter.  Let’s take a look.

Serial Number

This is the most common issue mark among all issued watches. The serial number is unique to each individual watch and allows it to be traced in the stocking and maintenance systems. Serial numbers are almost always stamped or engraved on the case back, and depending on how the watch was procured by the issuing agency, multiple serial numbers may exist. Watches made specifically for the military and never for public sale will often have only one serial number, while watches with a civilian variant or adapted for military service may have both manufacturer and issuing agency serial numbers. On some issued watches, the serial number is the only mark seen; while on others, it’s the only feature that distinguishes the watch from an everyday civilian watch by the same manufacturer.

Left to right: U.S. Benrus Type 1, Sterile – Serial number is the only engraving on the caseback; British CWC G10 – Serial number second row from bottom; French Marine Nationale Casio G-Shock DW-9000 – Serial number is the only thing different than the civilian version of the watch


Another very common case back marking on issued watches is a date. It seems simple enough, but this one is a little less straightforward than the serial number. The date engraving on an issued watch can mean a couple of different things.  Most dates stamped on military watches are the date that the issuing agency received the watch from the manufacturer. Watches could sometimes sit around in government inventory for months or years, so the date on the watch may not reflect the actual date of issue to the soldier, sailor, or airman who wore it. In a similar way, some date marks represent the year that the contract was awarded to the manufacturer. In this case, watches may have been produced on that contract for a number of years following the initial contract date, but would display that original contract date on their cases. Finally, some date marks represent the year that the watch was manufactured. Again, this sometimes leads to confusion about when the watch actually found its way to someone’s wrist. Unfortunately, few issued watches were stamped with the actual date of issuance to the user, leaving collectors to deduce this by other methods.

Left to right: RCAF Breitling – Contract date “67”, RAAF JLC Mk XI – Purchase date “53”, U.S. Hamilton Mil-W-46374A – Batch date “November 1972”

Stock Number

As is the case for any large organization, keeping track of contract items and inventory is a huge and important process in the military. With millions of items to track over decades of procurement, the US government developed a numeric system for keeping track of everything it buys and owns. In 1953 they began government-wide use of the Federal Stock Number system, an 11-digit numeric code with place-specific digits to define both the type of thing and the specific thing itself. In 1974 the code was formally made international and another two digits were added to denote an item’s country of registration. This brought the total number of digits to 13–where it remains today–and the system was renamed the National Stock Number system. Internationally, these numbers are known as NATO Stock Numbers, and they are the primary classification system for all 28 NATO countries, as well as around 30 other non-member nations.

3---NSN-breakdownThe first six digits of the NSN have specific meanings that define what the item is and where it was registered. This means that items of the same type will share many of the same digits, despite where and when they are coded. The first two digits, called the Federal Supply Group (FSG), define the overall category of the item. In the case of most issued watches, that’s “66 – Instruments and Laboratory Equipment.” Adding the FSG to the next pair of digits–the two-digit Federal Supply Class (FSC)–narrows the item category even more. For military watches, that’s “6645 – Time Measuring Instruments.” The next two digits are the Country Code (CC) and they signify just what you would expect–the country that initially contracted and coded the item. Common CCs seen in military watches are “00” and “01” for the USA, “12” for Germany, “66” for Australia, and “99” for the UK.    For a full list of Country Codes, see the NATO website here. To browse FSGs and FSCs, the US Defense Logistics Agency website is a good spot.

The final 7 digits of the NSN are the item number, specific to the item itself. Note the distinction between a serial number and an item number–the serial number is unique to each individual piece (every watch), whereas the item number is the same for every piece made of that type (all watches in a single contract). This number will specify exactly one type of watch (or any other coded piece of equipment).

While few US military and government organizations still issue watches directly to troops, manufacturers still apply for and are granted NSNs for their watches.  Having an NSN puts the watch into the procurement system and enables units to place individual or group purchase orders for watches. Marathon watches, whose navigator and field models were issued to US forces into the 1990s, still engraves NSNs on their commercially available watches.

Left to right: Swedish Air Force Lemania Tg 195 – Three Crowns engraving; German Blancpain Fifty Fathoms – “BUND” engraving; British IWC Mk XI – Broad Arrow / Pheon engraving

Government Mark

In these marks, we see a bit of a departure from what we’ve seen so far. The main difference we see with these marks is the increased likelihood of them being printed on the watch face as well as, or instead of, being engraved on the case back. The purpose of a government mark is as simple as it sounds: identifying the country or government that issued the watch and signaling that the watch is government property. These marks are most typically words, initials, or symbols. The words and initials are usually either the issuing country or government force, e.g. “U.S.” for United States or “BUND” for the German Bundeswehr, or federal defense force. Similarly, symbols are used to represent the issuing government, as well as being used to mark the item as government property. Probably the most famous of these symbols is the pheon, or broad arrow, which has been used to mark property of the government (or Crown) in England and the United Kingdom as far back as the 17th century. Familiar to military watch collectors, the broad arrow is featured on the dial or case back of nearly every British military watch.

Left to right: Iranian Seiko 7005 – Dial text “Army of the Shah”; British IWC Mk XI – Broad Arrow / Pheon dial printing; SAAF Lemania 1872 – Broad Arrow / Pheon dial printing

Other Marks

The list above is by no means exhaustive, but it covers the major categories that you can expect to see on a majority of cases.  In addition to what we’ve discussed at length above, here are a few other marks sometimes seen on issued watches:

Contract Type – As we’ve said before, issued watches can be purchased in a variety of ways, and sometimes that way is specified on the watch. Common examples are the Military Specification (MIL-SPEC) and Army Trade Pattern (ATP) methods.

Contract Number – Similar to the type above, the specific contract number used to purchase a batch of watches may be listed on the watch. A good example of this are the Benrus field watches of the 1960s and 1970s, which were purchased by U.S. Army suppliers on a wide variety of contracts.

Purchasing or Issuing Department/Branch/Unit – When batches of watches were ordered, manufacturers and government officials were sometimes more specific in marking who ordered the watches. A nice example of this is in the modern British system, which often designates the branch of the military that originally ordered (or paid for) the batch. Usually preceding the NSN are 3 or 4 digits specifying the purchasing branch: “6BB” for the Royal Air Force, “W10” for the British Army, “0552” for the Royal Navy, and “0555” for the Royal Marines. Confusingly, watches with one branch designation could be issued to any other branch as needed. The branch designation only signified the original purchasing branch.

Manufacturer Part Number – Similar to the government stock number, a manufacturer part number allows the item to be tracked within a manufacturer’s production system.

The above should give you a great start to deciphering the codes of issue markings. You’re now armed with a pretty solid knowledge base, so good luck hunting down your next military watch!

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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.