The A-11, Rolex, Tudor, Blancpain, DOXA and the modern battery set
The U.S. military isn’t exactly the senior member on our list, but it’s certainly old enough to have a rich history of pocket watches and wristwatches. Prior to WWII, specification standards were nearly non-existent, which allowed for a wide range of watches to be found on the battlefield. Eventually, pocketwatches and makeshift wristlets gave way to Mil-Spec wristwatches.
Specification designations like the A-11 — which led myriad companies such as Bulova, Waltham and Elgin to produce watches with increased shock- and water-proofing, center sweep hands and added hacking seconds capabilities — truly drove the evolution of American military watches from mere timekeepers to useful battle hardware. While WWII A-11 watches and others are highly collectible, they’re a bit antiquated and small for modern wear. It’s the watches from the 1960s and ’70s that really draw the big bucks. Rolex, Tudor, Doxa and Blancpain could all be found throughout U.S. military units as the mid-1900s wore on.
Since the military must be (ahem) responsible with its budget, the days of issued mechanical watches are mostly gone. Today, American soldiers typically wear highly functional battery-powered watches from Casio, Marathon, and Luminox — and they actually have to purchase their own, as standards do not dictate a specific watch be issued.
The Mark XI, Rolex MilSub, Omega SM300 and W10 Mil-Spec
British watchmaking was going strong in the late 1800s, and early examples of battlefield timepieces would likely have been domestically sourced. But moving into the early 1900s, Swiss movements began replacing British ones — a foreshadowing of what was to come for MOD-issued watches.
Like the U.S. military, the MOD began issuing watches according to recognized specifications during WWII. The Mark VIIB and VIII were two of the early variants, followed by the Mark XI just after the war, which has become one of the most collectible of that era. Produced by IWC and Jaeger LeCoultre, the Mark XI navigator watch was so ahead of its time that it was issued for over 30 years. It’s a must-have for any serious military watch collection, in addition, of course, to a Rolex MilSub and Omega SM300.
Companies like Seiko, Pulsar, Citizen, and Precista have been able to reap benefits of the shift in power from mainsprings to batteries, all having earned contracts at various times with the MOD over the last 30 years. However, the classic W10 Mil-Spec watch — a reliable relic of the Cold War, and favorite of military watch collectors — is still being made by CWC and MWC.
The first wristwatches, and Fliegers from Stowa, A. Lange & Söhne, IWC and more
While the history isn’t exactly crystal clear, the German Imperial Navy had some influence in the adoption of the wristwatch for military use somewhere around 1880. Prior to that time, only women dared fashion a wristwatch. These early wristlets proved the utility hands-free timekeeping could provide, eventually pushing the new look into the mainstream.
Where the Germans had an even bigger influence on the watch world was the pilot watch, or Flieger, first commissioned by the Luftwaffe in 1936. The original brands contracted to produce Fliegers are household names today: Stowa, Laco, A. Lange & Söhne, Wempe, and IWC. The Type A and Type B Fliegers, differentiated only by their dial designs, remain immensely popular, likely on account of their clean yet sporty looks and rich history (for better or worse).
The rest of the German military’s watch history is littered with extremely functional and robust watches from brands like Heuer, Sinn, and Tutima. Compared to the über expensive MilSubs and original fliegers, later issued models like the Heuer Bundeswehr are relative bargains.