Military Watches, the history in brief, and some modern reissues

Military Watches, the history in brief, and some modern reissues

When it comes to military watches, most people often refer to modern military-inspired timepieces. In contrast, they originally represented a specific class of watches whose specifications had to comply with military-issued standards. Back to the first half of the 20th century, military watches were professional tools designed to work in the harshest possible conditions and nothing short of instruments or back-up devices, helping you operate on land, sea, and air. The original military watches all featured mechanical movements while, moving forward, today's special corps all adopt a large variety of products, from quartz to digital.

leonidas-cronografo-sgancia-bombe-compressaAs you put vintage military watches under scrutiny (pictured above is a Leonidas Bomb Timer sold via cambiaste.com), you soon understand that WWI and WW2 identify different products. WWI was a testing ground; what followed after that was a massive step in terms of timing precision, sturdiness, and reference standards, making them easy to identify and list.

IWC-Big-Pilot-historical-3During World War II, the business of military wristwatches sky-rocketed. Manufacturing countries mainly involved Germany, Switzerland, the U.S., and Italy, with Great Britain and the United States playing a significant role in equally setting the standards and buying products, with Germany and Italy to follow.

Which is the first-ever military watch, who manufactured it and why

In 1879, German emperor Kaiser Wilhelm signed an agreement with Girard-Perregaux for the supply of two thousand wristwatches to his naval officers. They were produced in two groups totaling one thousand pieces each. The story goes that officers were so focused on their daily military operations that taking a watch out of their pocket while under siege, was a hard task putting their survival at risk.

girard-perregaux-first-military-watchHowever, this was not the first-ever wristwatch. According to the Guinness World Record, the Countess of Hungary first wrapped a Patek Philippe around her wrist in 1868. The grid placed on top of the glass, as seen in the photo above officially released by Girard-Perregaux, was a protective device soon adopted on the majority of watches issued to the military during the Great War.

Military watches during the Great War (World War I)

When World War I started, pocket watches were a man's favorite choice. Women's watches were regarded as too small for a men's wrist, but field battles sped up pocket watches to wristwatches replacement. Traditional watchmakers quickly understood a pocket watch was not up to the task and began producing and advertising pocket-watch derived purpose-built wristwatches, in 1915. The so-called "trench watches" became popular, as they were used to time the firing of gun batteries. By the Great War's end, military watches underwent an unstoppable development process.

The main features of a military watch

This section is not about standards or exact specifications, mainly about an early military watch's requirements, and what to expect from such a product to achieve. Although generic, such performances were all but a given during the early 20th century.

Durability and sturdiness

The military watch business has promoted new materials, better timing precision, and enhanced performances. It paved the way for modern diving and pilot's watches too. A challenging proving ground, and outdated technology, back then, encouraged watchmakers to begin studying how to improve case sturdiness and mechanical movements precision and reliability. For example, the German military-supplied Girard-Perregaux included 14-karat gold parts to prevent or reduce rust. A stainless steel case was long to come, and cases usually came in sterling silver.

Accuracy, visibility, and ease of reading.

Accuracy was an important performance to achieve too. Manufacturers worked hard to provide the military with watches as sturdy as accurate (and hopefully more accurate than a pocket watch). Again, World War II changed the game with the army submitting specific standards to the watch industry. Visibility was also a priority, and radium helped watches glow strongly in the dark, equally in mud, while diving or flying. What makes a vintage military watch so sought-after also is its no-frills and stripped to the bone dial design. More than anywhere else, these watches were asked to be easy to read at a glance. Conversely, lightness was a hard-to-achieve task.

Examples of vintage military watches

Military watches from the Great War and World War II

During the transition from "pocket watch" to "trench watch," Elgin played as a pioneering brand, as explained in the book "Elgin Trench Watches of the Great War" by Stan Czubernat, a reference guide for lovers of all things military watches from WWI.

elgin-trench-watches-the-great-war-stan-czubernatAs showcased on the book's cover, the 1879 Girard-Perregaux became a source of inspiration. Most of those timepieces featured a protective grille, to safeguard the glass from unwanted shocks. There was no sapphire crystal nor a Richard Mille RM 53-01 Tourbillon Pablo McDonough's laminated glass in the old days.

laco-b-uhr-fl23383-1A great example of a military watch from World War II is the pictured B-Uhr, which is the acronym for Beobachtungs-Uhren, better known as observation watches—produced by Lacher & Co. Pforzheim, now Laco, belongs to the much-coveted class of large aviator's watches, whose engraved code provides plenty of information. The photo you can see here refers to a timepiece sold by Antiquorum (which owns this picture and the one on top of the article) in 2011, identified by the serial number FL23883, where F.L. stands for "Flight Qualified" and the first two digits identify the military department it was assigned to.

seikosha-tensoku-tokei-wwii-pilots-watch-phillips-auctionHamilton produced the first watches designed explicitly for the American army at the end of the First World War. The road to standard-based and mass-produced military watches had been paved. According to most historical sources, there were mainly five to six standards ahead of WWII: the A-7 specifications (which appeared before 1939) and A-11, the B-Uhr (Germany), a Japan-specific standard set for the so-called "Kamikaze Watch" produced by Seikosha (now Seiko, the piece you see it in the photo above was sold by Phillips), the W.W.W. standard (Wrist - Watch - Waterproof) behind the so-called "Dirty Dozen," a joint supply of over 140,000 watches produced by a pool of 12 brands. Finally, the Glashütte Chronograph was built for the Luftwaffe pilots.

Modern military watches

Today's military relies on somewhat different instrumentation, although there's a brand whose products are virtually unbreakable; I think you guessed which brand I am talking about. Today's offering includes mainstream brands' products that mimic old military watches, niche brands whose production is mostly geared towards the military corps (e.g. Luminox U.S.A.). Also, those whose products are everyday timepieces set for specific military use. Finally, there are boutique brands drawing inspiration by models of the past, especially among divers and tactical military watches. Let's try and list some.

Military watch type A-7

Longines played a key role in producing military watches, ranging from A-7 specs-based to "Dirty Dozen" listed timepieces. An A-7 compliant wristwatch is a single push-piece chronograph whose dial is rotated clockwise to ease reading. Fastened around a pilot's thick leather suit, it showcased a large case and big radio-painted numerals.

Longines-Avigation-Watch-Type-A-7-1935The brand's archives and historical production are so abundant that re-issuing an original military timepiece is a no-brainer for the Swiss brand. The Longines Avigation Watch Type A-7 1935 is a tribute to the A-7 Longines pilot's watches, housing modern automatic mechanical movement replacing the original hand-wind one. In its latest iteration, the brand has dropped the case size to a more reasonable 41mm compared to the first A-7 re-issue, for example, whose case measures an outrageous 49 millimeters in diameter.

Military watch type B-Uhr

We mentioned Laco among the observation watches, and rightly so, Laco deserves to be in the headlines when it comes to a B-Uhr replica. The Laco Watch Pilot Replica 55 is true to the original down to the smallest detail, and almost perfect reproduction of the auction-sold B-Uhr introduced above. This timepiece is part of the German brand's standard offering.

laco-fliegeruhr-type-b-replika-861930It features a 55mm large and 21mm thick sandblasted steel case. It adopts a heavily modified ETA 6497.1 hand-wind mechanical movement featuring Hacking Seconds, swan-neck regulating system, Glucydur balance wheel, and Incabloc shockproof device. There are countless replicas out there, but the Laco is the B-Uhr re-issue par excellence.

Military watch type W.W.W.

It is hard to find a modern successor to the so-called "Combat Field Watch." None of the brands belonging to the "Dirty Dozen" has offered a contemporary sibling to a W.W.W. timepiece so far, except one.

timor-heritage-field-watchSome mainstream brands offered something similar (Hamilton, Longines), but no product can rival what Timor watches did. With the Timor Heritage Field (the photo above belongs to Timor watches), the brand has released a timepiece replicating the original one inside and out. It comes with either a manual or an automatic movement.

Modern aviator or pilot's watches

When looking for a modern aviator's watch, no product is more iconic than the IWC Big Pilot's Watch. The Schaffhausen brand also introduced a hand-wound option paying tribute to the original IWC 52 T.S.C., which stands as the brand's first pilot's watch and belongs to the league of products a Laco watch also belonged.

IWC-Big-Pilots-Watch-IW500912-dueThe Big Pilot's Watch by IWC is an exquisitely crafted self-winding timepiece featuring IWC proprietary Pellaton winding system and offering an outstanding seven days of power reserve. It is available in countless options, the one with a steel case and black dial being the one to go, in my opinion.

Unbreakable military watch

When a military willingly wears a specific watch, while in action, it means that watch is up to the task. If an entire military corp willingly wears watches from that particular brand, it is no mistake; it is a choice. The brand called into question is Casio, and the collection we're referring to is the G-Shock. No watch can withstand modern warfare better than a G-Shock, the quintessential sturdy watch.

british-army-x-g-shock-mudmaster-gg-b100ba-1aIf you are into military news and activities, you'll have spotted that most American and British soldiers belonging to special forces (Delta Force, Navy Seals, S.A.S.) wear G-Shock watches. Designed to be virtually indestructible, they are nowadays very refined and offer tons of functions. The unofficial relationship between the Japanese brand and the military corps turned to be official when the brand finally released a new timepiece carrying the British Army insignia, earlier this year. That timepiece is the British Army X G-SHOCK MUDMASTER (photo source: Casio).


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