Trial by fire
21 of the Best Military Watches and Their Histories
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Ahh, the rarefied world of military timepieces. Often developed under contract stemming directly from a country’s armed forces, these watches were designed for timekeeping under particularly adverse physical conditions, and often incorporated special features that, over time, found their way into watches meant for the civilian market. (We say “were designed” because today, government specifications and contracts for watches are less common, and even a special operator is far more likely to be wearing an off-the-shelf G-Shock than a mil-spec Rolex Submariner).
Military watches are a seemingly endless source of fascination to civilian watch collectors, and for good reason — these are timepieces that were purpose-designed and built to adorn the wrists of infantrymen and women, divers, explosive ordnance disposal personnel, special operators and other folks who regularly put their lives at risk in combat. There are very few extraneous design elements to a military wristwatch — what’s present is only what’s absolutely necessary to get the job done, and there’s a special kind of beauty in this type of product.
What are the necessary qualities that make a military wristwatch mission-ready? There isn’t necessarily a codified list of attributes, but the following traits make for a good jumping-off point:
Toughness: Cases should be machined from a material that is highly resistant to impact, corrosion, and harsh environmental conditions. Before the common use of stainless steel (or during wartime shortages), nickel-coated base metals or even sterling silver were used, whereas today, plastics are increasingly common in addition to steel.
Luminosity: Without some sort of luminous compound on the dial (or a backlight), it would be virtually impossible to read the time under low-light conditions, so a military watch must have some type of system for illumination. (Interestingly, this is one of the reasons why a watch worn in the military must often be covered, to prevent the enemy from spotting a luminous dial from afar.)
Reliability: A military watch, whether it features a mechanical or quartz movement, must be reliable at all times. Movements must be able to function in cold, heat, and at high altitudes, and, if battery-powered, they should feature batteries that are extremely long-lasting and efficient.
Serviceability: It should be relatively simple for a watchmaker to service a military watch and to change or upgrade parts as necessary. Parts can (and do) break during use in adverse conditions, and if a watch features, say, a movement that is difficult to work on, this will prevent the watch from quickly being put back into rotation.
Ease of Use: The timepiece should be easy to read and operate, and devoid of clutter and extraneous elements that impede its functionality. A cluttered dial, for example, makes the time difficult to read, and a special dive bezel that doesn’t turn easily can make use underwater almost impossible.
What follows is a selection of some of the world’s most famous military watches and a brief history and explanation of each. The list is by no means definitive, but we’ve tried to include examples from as many different militaries and countries as possible. Thankfully, there’s a wealth of information out there on most of these, so should you feel inclined to explore more deeply, there’s plenty of opportunity to do so.
WWI Trench Watch
The Jewelery Editor
Though a very small number of dedicated wristwatches were issued to the German navy in the late 19th century, it really wasn’t until WWI that the men’s wristwatch saw extensive use. Pocket watches were necessary for coordinating charges and calculating artillery fire, but had to be put away when one needed the use of both hands. Eventually, soldiers began soldering on wire lugs to their pocket watches and fitting them with leather straps, and soon watch and jewelry companies caught on. When soldiers returned home from the Great War with their “trench watches,” the fad took hold, and it finally became fashionable for men to wear wristwatches, which were previously thought distinctly feminine.
Weems Second-Setting Watch
Analog / Shift
Originally designed by American Lieutenant Commander Philip Van Horn Weems, the Second-Setting watch was a patented Weems invention for use in celestial navigation. In order to synch the watch with a signal emitted via radio that gave a pilot a precise time reference, Weems developed a movable bezel controlled via a secondary crown. This way, the user could monitor the margin of error between the watch’s timekeeping and that of the radio signal, thereby minimizing possible navigational mistakes. This concept was later expanded upon by Charles Lindberg with his Hour Angle watch.
6B/159 Navigator Watch
MWR Forum User Candle00
These watches date to WWII and were produced by Omega, Longines and JLC for use by RAF navigators. They received the Mk 7A (6B/159) designation and follow a spec calling for a watch with a white dial, black Arabic numerals, central seconds, non-luminous, blue steeled hands and a chrome or stainless steel case. Despite seeing wartime action and many examples receiving replacement dials over the years, many of these timepieces still exist on the market in decent condition. (That they were fitted with excellent movements, such as the venerable hand-wound Omega 12.68N, certainly helps.) The modern Longines Heritage Military recalls the design of the original.
Omega Forums User agee
Produced by Elgin, Waltham and Bulova, this 30-32mm watch was made in several different iterations to a standard called for by the U.S. military (though versions were also issued to other Allied forces under the “6B” designation). A simple, time-only watch with a black dial (though rarer white versions exist), white Arabic numerals and hands and 60-minute graduations, so many A-11s were produced that the watch is sometimes referred to as “the watch that won the War.” Mk II offers a modern, updated version called the Cruxible for $649.
The Dirty Dozen
Analog / Shift
This cinematic moniker describes a group of watches from 12 different Swiss brands produced under contract to the British MoD and delivered in 1945. Though each company’s model differed slightly, the watches featured 35-38mm cases in either stainless steel or plated base metal, black dials with radium lume, mechanical movements regulated to chronometer grade, screw-down case backs (with the exception of the IWC model) and military markings. In total, about 150,000 pieces were produced, so it’s still possible to nab a Dirty Dozen watch for a few thousand dollars.
Perhaps the most iconic of all pilot’s watch designs, the Beobachtungs-uhren (“observation watch”) was developed in the late 1930s as an instrument for German bomber crews, who were then preparing for war. A specification was put forth by the Luftfahrtministerium (air ministry) and answered by 5 companies (IWC, A. Lange & Söhne, Wempe, Lacher & Company/Durowe (Laco), and Walter Storz (Stowa), which produced the watches under identical specifications. Two types were specified, the A and B, which had slightly different dial layouts, but each featured a hand-winding movement in an oversized 55mm case that was meant to fit over a flight jacket (or, supposedly, to be strapped to the pilot’s or navigator’s leg for hands-free use).
Seikosha “Kamikaze” Watch
Matthew Bain Inc.
Seikosha, a branch of the famed Seiko company, originally produced clocks, watches and other devices, one of which is sometimes referred to as the “Kamikaze watch.” While the Seikosha division produced numerous watches during the 1930s and 1940s for the Japanese military, the “Kamikaze” watch is notable for having supposedly been issued to Kamikaze pilots during their last, fateful flights, which accounts for why there are so few of them still in existence. Whether the watches were actually utilized in this specific capacity or not is difficult to confirm, but they’re interesting for their oversized cases, much like those used by the German B-Uhren of the same time period.
Blancpain Fifty Fathoms
Designed from the ground-up in 1952, the Fifty Fathoms was born from the mind of French secret service agent Captain Bob Maloubier, MBE, who worked with the Special Operations Executive during WWII. Tasked along with Lt. Claude Riffaud of the French Navy with formulating a new, secret dive unit, Maloubier sketched his ideal dive watch and brought the design to several companies. Blancpain bit, and the Fifty Fathoms has since became one of the most well-known military divers in the watch world. The company still makes modern versions.
Analog / Shift
Monopushers chronographs, which feature a single button to control start, stop and reset functions, were first produced under contract for the British MoD beginning in the late 1940s or 1950s by Lemania, Breitling, and Rodania. These watches, which were issued to RAF pilots as well sailors and submariners in the Royal Navy, feature 38.5mm stainless steel cases, 17-jewel Lemania cal. 15 CHT movements and radium dials. Another monopusher, the Lemania 6BB, featured a 40mm asymmetric case and the manually-wound Lemania 2220 movement.
MIL-W-46384 and GG-W-113
Analog / Shift
The MIL-W-46374 and the GG-W-113 are two watches developed for use by (mostly) American military personnel beginning in the 1960s, and have become well-known as the timepieces often issued to G.I.s during the Vietnam War. Myriad iterations of these models have been created in the decades since their debut, to the extant that a simple eBay perusal yield watches with steel or plastic cases, 7-jewel or 17-jewel mechanical movements, and even quartz variants. Thankfully, as of this writing, because of their relative plentifulness, you can pick up a MIL-W-46374 or GG-W-113 from companies like Benrus, Hamilton and Marathon for less than $200. If you’d prefer a modern homage, Military Watch Company makes a tribute to the GG-W-113.
Omega Seamaster 300
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Though developed in 1957, it wasn’t until 1967 that the British MoD began using the Semaster 300M, which replaced for a time the Rolex Submariner as its primary dive watch. With a depth rating of 300 meters, twisted lugs, a caliber 552 self-winding movement, fixed spring bars and a bezel with hash marks for every minute, the 300M is an iconic military diver on par wit the Milsub. When one with genuine military markings comes up for sale that was used by a member of the elite Special Boat Squadron, the watch is almost guaranteed to fetch five figures. Omega makes a modern version.
Analog / Shift
Developed by famed British clock- and watchmaker Smiths, the W10 was built from the late 1960s through the early 1970s and is unique as a military watch for having been manufactured in England, with an in-house, English-made movement, to boot. The W10 is roughly 35mm in diameter and features a hand-wound movement with integrated anti-magnetic dust cover, a tritium-illuminated black dial and hands, fixed spring bars and a prominent “broad arrow,” marking it as Crown property. Versions were made for both the Army and the Royal Air Force, which are marked “6B” on the case back.
Benrus Type I and II
Analog / Shift
Built by American watchmaker Benrus in the 1970s, the Type I and II came about from a specification calling for a purpose-built dive watch for the U.S. military, water-resistant to nearly 1,200 feet. Two types were produced: the Type I with lumed markers at each hour, and the Type II, with a 24-hour dial and lumed triangular indices. Interestingly, a special non-lumed version of the Type II was produced for personnel who were working in environments in which the tritium used on the watch might set off sensitive instruments (think: nuclear submarines). Mk II makes a modern version, called the Paradive, and Marathon has long produced a plastic-cased Navigator watch with a similar, asymmetric profile.
“Bund” Flyback Chronographs
Analog / Shift
These chronographs, produced by the likes of Heuer, Leonidas, Zenith and others in the 1960s and 1970s, were meant for use by German (hence “bund” for “bundeswehr,” the German military) and Italian military pilots. Though numerous iterations of these watches were produced by different brands, all were dual-register chronographs equipped with Valjoux flyback movements and rotatable timing bezels. Interestingly, Sinn was the brand that had an early contract to service many of these watches, and replacement Sinn service dial-equipped Bund watches can still be found floating around the vintage market. Additionally, Bund chronos originally shipped on the iconic 2-piece leather strap that now bears the “Bund” name as a generic moniker. Guinand makes several modern versions.
Following on the heels of the monopusher chronographs, the British MoD utilized asymmetric-cased chronographs produced by four companies: Hamilton, CWC, Newmark, and Precista. These were issued in the late 1970s/early 1980s and featured dual-button chronographs based on the Valjoux 7733 movement, steel cases, black tritium dials and military marking indicating which service they were issued to (RN, RAF or Royal Australian Navy). CWC makes a handsome modern reissue of its original version.
Eterna Kon-Tiki Super
Analog / Shift
Though Eterna’s Kon-Tiki Super was not designed after a military specification, its robustness, incredibly legible dial and ultra-rugged Eterna-Matic movement made it the perfect wrist companion for operators of Israel’s elite Shayetet 13, the IDF’s clandestine naval special warfare unit. Because civilian versions of this 44mm watch are essentially the same as the military version, it’s really only the issue number and Hebrew letter tzadi (for “Tzahal,” or I.D.F.) on the case back that mark these watches as having been issued to some of the best special operators in the world. Eterna makes several modern versions of the Kon-Tiki Super.
Though numerous Rolex Submariners (beginning with the first Sub reference in 1954) were supplied to the British Ministry of Defense for testing and issue, it’s the modified civilian reference 5513, the “double-reference” transitional 5513/5517, and the dedicated military reference 5517 that are perhaps collectively the best-known military watch model in the world. These special “Milsubs” were fitted with a circled “T” on the dial to indicate the presence of tritium lume; fully-marked dive bezels for accurate timing underwater; sword hands; and fixed spring bars. Expect to pay six figures for an original (only 1,200 or so were made), but some companies, such as Steinhart, make tributes.
Tudor MN “Snowflake” Sub
Bulang & Sons
Beginning in the 1950s, Tudor began supplying several of the world’s navies with its Submariner dive watches. Though several different iterations of the Sub were used, most famous is probably the 7016/0, the so-called “Snowflake” Submariner. It is widely understood that the French Marine Nationale requested a special hand design that was more visible underwater, and the resultant hands and indices were put into production (they later trickled down into civilian production of the watch, which saw a second reference debut in the form of the 9401). When a Snowflake Submariner with confirmable military provenance can be found, it commands an enormous premium over the civilian variant. Modern versions could be said to live on in Tudor’s Black Bay line.
According to Marathon, its Navigator was first developed in 1986 in answer to a request by Kelley Air Force Base for a watch that could be used by pilots and paratroopers. The Navigator is manufactured to government specs (the general shape may be familiar from the Benrus Type I and II and steel ADANAC navigators) and features a fibershell case, quartz movement, tritium illumination tubes and an acrylic crystal. These watches are super lightweight, accurate and hard-wearing, and have evidently been used by American and other military personnel for the past thirty years. A newer version with sapphire crystal and steel crown was recently released.
G-10 Field Watch
The G-10 is a field watch produced mostly by Cabot Watch Company from 1980 through the early 2000s. It features a 36mm steel case with battery hatch, matte-black dial with tritium lume, fixed spring bars for use with a NATO strap and an acrylic crystal, and is notable for having been produced in enormous quantities for the British MoD. These are neat, rugged little watches with slim case profiles (excluding the earliest models, which are thicker and nicknamed “Fatboys”), and can easily be found in good condition on eBay for a couple hundred bucks. CWC also produces a modern version.
Hunter D. Kelley
Produced in accordance with U.S. and Canadian government requirement and ISO standards, the Search and Rescue line of timepieces has been featured on the wrists of troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, and, most especially, on the wrists of combat divers — this is a serious modern military combat dive watch if there ever was one. Available in both quartz and automatic variants, on steel bracelets or rubber straps, and with various dials, the SAR line has been receiving accolades for years for its no-nonsense, tough guy aesthetics and feature set.
Mk. II and Marathon watches are put through their paces. Read the Story