Mil-Spec Turns Nerd-Spec

This Is the Field Watch You Buy When You Outgrow Your Timex


May 2, 2018 Reviews By Photo by Hunter D. Kelley
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It’s hard to say when the current fascination with military timepieces began. Wristwatches and war have been forever linked since pilots and soldiers started strapping pocketwatches to their arms back in WWI, and militaries worldwide have issued everything from Rolexes to Bulovas. Watch enthusiasts have always seemed fascinated by these artifacts, but lately stylish young men — that aren’t indoctrinated watch dorks — have seemed to take a larger interest. An overall growth in enthusiasm for vintage watches probably has something to do with it, but Timex has played its part, too. The American watch brand has relentlessly pursued collaborations with menswear brands, notably J.Crew and Todd Snyder, and their low price tags and vintage style have made them ubiquitous.

More specifically, most of these Timexes take heaping amounts of inspiration from general issue field watches of the Vietnam era. These watches were made by a couple of manufacturers — most notably Benrus and Hamilton — but all conformed to a specific specification set forth by the U.S. Government. The forbearer for these watches was the MIL-W-3818B, introduced in 1962, which eventually morphed into the MIL-W-46374. The latter has actually persisted for decades, with numerous revisions, the last of which was specified in 1999. Tweaks and improvements have been made over the years, but the basic look and layout have endured.

Which brings us to the Hamilton Khaki Field Mechanical. It is not a continuation of these military watches, nor does it meet any current military specification. But you wouldn’t know that from looking at it — it appears nearly identical to the many mil-spec Hamiltons made decades ago and shares many of the same features. Like Timex’s collaborations, it’s an homage to those early pieces, albeit one with a touch more authenticity. What better watch to pair with a bomber jacket or leather boots?

The Good: Vintage Hamilton mil-spec watches from the ’60s and ’70s aren’t hard to come by or expensive to acquire (they’ll run you somewhere between $200 to $500), but if you buy one you’re putting up with the quirks and questionable reliability that can come with a decades-old timepiece. That’s where the Field Khaki Mechanical comes in: to the uninitiated, it looks like it’s an actual vintage piece from this era thanks to some thoughtful design from Hamilton. It’s a great alternative that’ll be much less of a pain to own. For $500, you get a Swiss-made hand-winding timepiece, making it an excellent value for money.

Who It’s For: Because of its low price point, this is undoubtedly going to be a potential purchase by folks wanting to get into their first mechanical watch, especially if they came to love watches though Timex’s military-inspired collaborations. That said, most watch enthusiasts, especially those who have a predilection for military pieces, are going to really enjoy the spot-on vintage design and the hand-winding movement inside.

Watch Out For: It’s hard to find a fault with the Filed Khaki Mechanical, but if there is one, it pertains lugs — they’re too long. This, for one, throws off the proportions of the case; it also means the watch wears bigger than its 38mm diameter suggests on paper. This might actually be a good thing for buyers intimidated by a sub-40mm watch, but for vintage aficionados who prefer smaller sizes, it’s a downer. The bigger issue, though, is that the gap between the spring bar (where you hook on a strap) and the case is too wide. You won’t notice it on a passthrough NATO because the part of the strap running under the case back fills in this space, but if you put it on a two-piece leather strap on the watch it’s gonna look a little goofy.

Alternatives: As said, the Field Khaki does not meet any military specifications, but if you want to buy an actual mil-spec watch, brand new, you have a couple options: Marathon builds watches to the current American MIL-PRF-46374G specification, both in quartz and automatic mechanical variants. Both also happen to cost less than the Hamilton (the Quartz starts at $200, the automatic $360), though they do not have the same sort of vintage charm as the Hamilton. Similarly, CWC makes modern versions of the British G10 from the ’80s and W10 from the ’70s, the former powered by quartz ($235) and the latter an automatic ($619).

Review: The watch industry seems to be experiencing a vintage renaissance of sorts. Yes, watchmakers have always understood the value in embracing their pasts and reviving old models through reissues, but in the last couple years, we’ve seen a more concerted effort to make reinterpretations that look and, more importantly, feel like the originals. Look at a photo of a MIL-W-46374 then look at a photo of the new Khaki Field Mechanical and see just how similar they really are. Then, go and look at a photo of the Kahki Field Officer Mechanical that the new Khaki Field is replacing and see just how much closer to the classic mil-spec watch the new Hammy is.

First and foremost, the dial is cleaned up. There’s no extraneous branding apart from the Hamilton logo and the “Swiss Made” moniker at the very bottom of the dial. The date window is gone, leaving just a clean, purposeful and legible dial that looks way more akin to an early military field watch. The updated, printed font on the new Khaki Field looks like it was practically pulled from the MIL-W-46374, while tan-hued lume around the chapter ring and on the hands give off the convincing look of faded tritium.

The Khaki Field Mechanical is small, at least for a modern watch, at 38mm. The original mil-spec timepieces of the ’60s were a mere 34mm, a size that’s almost impossible to sell to modern buyers today. The bump in size is understandable, and at least Hamilton kept the matte-finished case super-thin at 9.5mm which, more than anything, gives the watch its vintage feel. Too often, reissues are needlessly-bloated reinterpretations of their forbearers.

Inside the watch, you’ll find an ETA 2804-2 hand-winding movement, which features hacking — a desirable feature on field watches — that stops the second hand when resetting the time, allowing the user to set to the exact time. The crown winds up the watch in a smooth, tactile way that’s sure to pull at the heartstrings of any wistful enthusiasts (and bring newbie watch guys aboard onboard the mechanical train). Its inclusion here over an automatic is key, as its simplicity keeps the watch compact and echoes the bare-bones utility of the early mil-spec watches it pays homage to.

Verdict: The affordable end of the mechanical-watch spectrum can feel lacking in captivating pieces, but the Hamilton Field Khaki has so much to bring to the table, both in terms of design and tactile joy. The considered details that make this an accurate reinterpretation of the early Hamilton mil-spec watches will surely capture the admiration of collectors both established and new. If you’ve been toying with the idea of trading up from your Timex for something with a bit more horological oomph, it’s hard to think of a watch that can offer everything the Field Khaki does at its price.

What Others Are Saying:

• “So enduring is the popularity of these watches that just this year, Hamilton has released its own homage to that first MIL-W-46374 field watch. Called simply the Khaki Field Mechanical, it is virtually a dead ringer for the originals, besides the fact that the diameter is now a more widely acceptable 38 millimeters.” — Jason Heaton, Hodinkee

• “The Hamilton Khaki Field Mechanical has apparently proven to be a huge success since its launch earlier this year. I think it shows that a reasonably priced mechanical watch, sans date, can work and that companies don’t have to throw a ton of modern conveniences in to satisfy the 80 percent of buyers out there. Plus, we finally have a nice alternative response to ‘Seiko’ when friends who are new to the watch world ask about a mechanical watch for under $500.” — Michael Stockton, Fratello Watches

• “Though vintage mil-spec Hamiltons can still be found for a relative bargain, for the wearer who wants a modern, upgraded version of a classic that’s meant to be abused in the field (or the boardroom), the Khaki Field Mechanical presents a highly attractive option.” — Oren Hartov, Worn & Wound

Key Specs

Movement: ETA 2801-2
Winding: Manual
Power reserve: 46 hours
Case diameter: 38 millimeters
Water resistance: 50 meters

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