The Complete History Of The Field Watch

In this world, you’re either wasting time or using it to progress. In both instances, you should enjoy how you use your time because its value reigns supreme over everything else. Sporting the right timepiece is what keeps you sharp and on track, pushing you further into the future and inspiring you to give your utmost effort every single time. Sometimes you can rock a refined dress watch to match a sharp suit and other times you retreat to your more rugged, casual watches, such as a dive or a pilot watch. However, there is no denying the field watch is the perfect timepiece for a variety of activities outside of a black-tie event.

When you need something tough, yet dashing, the field watch (or officer’s watch) fits the bill. Many fashion staples have functional military roots and the field watch falls into that category. It’s no wonder the timepiece is perfect for the great outdoors, as it’s able to handle rain, sleet, snow, and the rough terrain you encounter while backpacking or hiking. Its classic aesthetics and superior functionality make it a timeless timepiece every man should own. It also has a rich history every man should know, which is why we’re taking some of our precious time to delve right into it. The field watch has served our country well and continues to serve civilians with the same steadfast reliability while inspiring other watches with its simple, striking design.

Photo: Girard-Perregaux

The First Wristwatch

Military Roots

Looking back to who created the first wristwatch, there are a few raised hands on our historical timeline. In the late 1500s, the Earl of Leicester gave Queen Elizabeth I a bejeweled watch mounted on an armlet — it resembled something close to a contemporary watch. Then there’s the bracelet-watch made by Capt & Freundler à Genève in 1813. However, it looks more like a piece of jewelry than a functional timepiece. Although these items may have been influential, they were referred to as ‘wristlets’ so none of them are deserving of the credit for the first wristwatch made.

Constant Girard seems to be the most deserving for the invention of the first watch. When Constant Girard and Marie Perregaux married, they created the Girard-Perregaux Company in 1856. In 1880, Kaiser Wilhelm I came to Girard-Perregaux and ordered watches for German naval officers. Girard-Perregaux created the wristwatch so a naval officer could check the time and keep his hands free for other duties. The company also built a steel mesh grill to protect the fragile glass from bumps on the rocky sea. This made it hard to see the watch face, as the metal grid obscured the sailor’s view. Some parts of the wristwatch were made of 14K gold so they wouldn’t rust, and chain straps were used instead of leather or fabric, which we imagine didn’t make them very comfortable. The concept was spot on, but the execution left something to be desired.

Although this was a significant advancement in timepiece technology, the wristwatch didn’t catch fire with military personnel. The design wasn’t refined to be a replacement for the trusty pocket watch. As with the introduction of new technologies, people tend to hold onto what’s tried-and-true. It took a few more decades for the soldiers to warm up to the wristwatch. However, in our search for the proper beginning to the story of the field watch, this is the best place to start.

World War I: Trench Warfare

Pocket Watches Become Obsolete

In the early days of WWI, officers were given pocket watches. However, the functionality of pocket watches proved to be obsolete given the realities of trench warfare. Fighting lines called military trenches were dug because mobility in The Great War didn’t keep up with the upgrades in firepower. Trench warfare was a grueling nightmare where both armies built elaborate trench systems on opposite sides divided by “no man’s land.” True to its intimidating name, “no man’s land” was the area between opposing trench lines where artillery fire rained down from each side. If that wasn’t difficult enough, there was also barbed wire and landmines waiting to catch soldiers off guard. Now, imagine fumbling for your pocket watch for a coordinated attack while bullets are spraying everywhere and powerful bombs going off nearby are causing dirt and debris to engulf your trench. In the civilian world, time is money, but in war, timing is survival.

In The Great War, wristwatches were used to time the firing of gun batteries and to attack and go “over the top” at the right instance.Initially, soldiers thought field watches were feminine, yet cramped and hellish conditions of trench warfare convinced many trench officers to retire their pocket watches and buy wristwatches instead. Before deployment, military officers would buy their own wristwatches based on prior experience or word of mouth that the pocket watch had no place in the trenches. In 1915, trench watches were being advertised for their functionality and reliability, coming in silver cases with leather straps. Wristwatches were also being advertised as a symbol of status and recognition.

By 1916, wristwatches were so crucial that an officer’s kit included a book called Knowledge for War: Every Officer’s Handbook for the Front and “luminous wristwatch with unbreakable glass” was the first entry, topping a handgun and field glasses. Wristwatches became very convenient in battle, as they were used to time and coordinate crucial maneuvers to prevail. In The Great War, wristwatches were used to time the firing of gun batteries and to attack and go “over the top” at the right instance. Shortly after WWI, in 1919, Hamilton produced the first wristwatch designed for Army and Navy officers. After a heinous war, the trench watch had successfully paved the way for the field watch.

WWII: A-11 Field Watch

Timing Is Everything

There were plenty of pivotal lessons to learn from The Great War and one of those was the necessity of the wristwatch, leading them to be standard issue by the time the Allied and Axis powers clashed in WWII. Although there were a variety of wristwatches produced in the United States and issued to the military during WWII, the A-11 Field Watch is the most iconic. The field watch had a clean black dial, legible white indices, a nickel or silver case, and a one-piece strap, making it a horological masterpiece. Referred to as “the watch that won the war,” the A-11 Field Watch was manufactured by four companies: Bulova, Elgin, Hamilton, and Waltham.

A-11 Design

In need of a watch capable of flawless precision under the conditions of battle, the A-11 field watch came to fruition. The timepiece was designed with a hand-wound hacking movement with center seconds, a minute track with 10-minute demarcations, and minute and hour hands. A-11 field watches varied slightly, depending on the manufacturer. Some A-11 field watches had flat bezels, some had coin-edge bezels, others had waterproof and rustproof cases. In addition, there were glowing versions, as the U.S. Navy Bureau of Aeronautics requested a luminous iteration which was given the FSSC 99-W-800 classification. Although the A-11 field watch was an American production, it also served the Royal Air Force (RAF) under the 6B/234 designation, the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), and the Soviet Air Force.

With more stringent and specific production guidelines than what’s outlined in the TM 9-1575 War Department Technical Manual for Wrist Watches, the A-11 was the epitome of precision. The initial A-11 design had a 15-jewel sub-second movement, which is featured in many of the Ordnance watches. But, a second hand-pinion and extra jewel were added to refine the design. Many heroic souls depended on this military field watch, which is why it featured a hacking movement, allowing the second hand to come to a complete stop when you pull out the crown. The hacking movement made it easy to synchronize the watches on the battlefield with exact precision. Every grain of time counts when your life is on the line, and the A-11 was made for perfect timing in every instant.

What looks like a simple and dapper casual watch design is a timepiece birthed for war.Most manufacturers made the A-11 with a chromium-plated brass case. However, silver was used in some instances while dust-proof cases came later, featuring a magnetic cover made of Invar, which is an iron-nickel-carbon-chromium alloy. Not including the crown, the A-11 field watches were usually 32mm across and 39mm lug-to-lug. According to the A-11 instruction handbook and parts catalog, the straps were either made of one or two-piece canvas in a classic olive drab. The crowns were notched for an effortless grip and crystals were made from unbreakable acrylic. What looks like a simple and dapper casual watch design is a timepiece birthed for war.

British W.W.W.

The British also needed a massive supply of standard-issue wristwatches for its embarking armies. British watchmakers were set on building naval and aviation instruments, leading the British Ministry of Defense to seek the help of neutral Swiss watchmakers to fulfill their enormous need for timepieces. A group of 12 companies responded to the request for British field watches, including Buren, Cyma, Eterna, Grana, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Longines, IWC, Omega, Record, Timor, and Vertex. These watchmakers came to be known as the “Dirty Dozen.”

The production standard mil-spec field watch for British troops was called ‘Wrist.Watch.Waterproof’ or simply W.W.W. The watch had similar specs to the A-11, including luminous hands, chronometer grade movements, and waterproof cases. Both the A-11 and the W.W.W. were rugged timepieces built to win battles, as there’s nothing more important than timing in war. Unlike the A-11 field watch, which you could still dig up online, the majority of the British field watches were destroyed in the early ‘70s due to fear of radioactive Radium-226, which was found in the luminescent material on the dials. Although these W.W.W. watches are elusive, savvy watch collectors seek out a watch from each manufacturer to complete the “Dirty Dozen.”

Vietnam War Upgrade

Seiko 6105-8110 Wristwatch

During the Vietnam War, field watches had a few minor changes, along with some disposable construction, but they followed most of the same specs as the A-11 original. It’s apparent that every other casual timepiece evolved from the A-11, including the Seiko 6105-8110 Wristwatch.

Of course, the Seiko 6105 is considered a dive watch, but it shares a common air of importance with field watches because it was a piece of gear deemed necessary to survive guerrilla warfare. The 6105 is the definitive Seiko diver and is water-resistant up to 150 meters. Seiko made the movement for the watch in-house and also made their own oils, crystals, and cases, creating a reliable timepiece fit for the harsh conditions of the humid jungle. Although it was competing with the Omega Seamaster 300 and the Rolex Submariner, the 6105 was quite popular with U.S. military servicemen during the Vietnam War. It was available at PX stores, which were retail stores located on military installations. The classic war movie Apocalypse Now by Francis Ford Coppola featured the Seiko 6105, as Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard wore the timepiece, boosting its presence in the pop culture world.

Photo: Franck J

NATO Straps And Military Watches

The Perfect Duo

If you cruise through the various field watches on the market these days, you’ll notice some of them come with something called a NATO strap. These military-inspired straps partner well with sport, dive, and field watches. In 1973, the British Ministry of Defence Standard (DefStan) introduced their military to the G10 watch strap, which was the original name for the NATO. In order for soldiers to grab a G10 watch strap, they had to fill out a form called the G1098 referred to as G10 for short. The strap was made from nylon, was 20mm wide, had a chrome-plated brass buckle and keepers, and came only in Admiralty Grey. Later on, the G10 watch strap was nicknamed the NATO watch strap because of its stock number.

Since its debut, the NATO strap has only undergone minor changes, as it’s now 18mm wide and comes with stainless steel parts in addition to being available in a plethora of colors. The one-piece strap slides underneath the case for comfort so your skin never touches the metal case of the watch. It’s perfect for hot days when you’re climbing a mountain or backpacking, since the nylon wicks moisture away from the skin. The simplicity and functionality of the NATO strap upgrades the comfort and performance of any field watch you decide to pick up.

Modern Field Watches

Contemporary Timepieces For Every Occasion

The military field watch is a piece of timeless everyday gear every man should own. It stood up to the rigors of war and is capable of surviving anything you throw at it. However, if you’re looking for original A-11 field watches, which are several decades old, it might be difficult to find one in stellar condition because they were made with chromium-plated base metal famous for wearing off. If you’re looking for a field watch to wear on your daily adventures, there are several to choose from thanks to the popularity of the timepiece style. We’ve gathered a handful of exquisite field watches with slight upgrades to fit the modern world.

Timex Expedition Field Watch

Although this watch is affordable, it’s worth much more than its monetary value. The Timex Expedition Field Watch is water-resistant up to 100 meters, making it suitable for snorkeling and swimming. It comes with a genuine leather strap for a vintage look, an INDIGO light-up watch dial, and a quartz movement with an analog display. In addition, it has three sub-dials to track minutes, seconds, and 1/20 of a second for up to 30 minutes. Not to mention, it features International Organization for Standardization (ISO) shock resistance. This watch is able to endure hiking in the great outdoors but is stylish enough to complement your business wardrobe.

Purchase: $43

Seiko 5 Sports Automatic Field Watch

Seiko’s 5 Sports Automatic field watch has a Japanese 23 jewel self-winding movement, stainless steel case, and a black nylon strap. The ‘5’ in the watches name means the timepiece follows five attributes. It is automatic, water-resistant, shock-resistant, displays the date, and shows you the day. The watch’s day and date display come with an Arabic option, which is protected with a durable mineral crystal. It also has a screw down transparent case back and is water-resistant up to 100 meters. As expected with all quality field watches, this Seiko 5 timepiece has luminous hands and markers.

Purchase: $131

The Runwell 47mm Watch

Despite being a young watchmaking company, Shinola quickly made a name for themselves in the watch world. Their Runwell 47mm field watch projects their flagship style of simplicity mixed with sophistication. Created with longevity in mind, the Runwell was engineered to stay true to its name. The two hands and remote second-hand sweep are driven by Shinola’s Aragonite 1069 high-precision quartz movement. Its clean green dial is accented with white Arabic numerals for easy viewing. It’s protected by a solid stainless steel case with a vintage pumpkin crown, featuring a double domed sapphire crystal to protect the timepiece from scratches during your adventures in the wild.

Purchase: $550

Hamilton Khaki Field Black Dial Watch

Made in the USA, this stealthy 42mm field watch features a sharp Swiss Automatic movement, a black PVD titanium case, and a black textile bracelet. It also has a fixed black PVD titanium bezel with luminous hands and Arabic numeral hour markers for efficient use no matter where you are. The watch has a skeleton case back, a robust sapphire crystal for scratch protection, and water-resistance up to 100 meters. Hamilton’s versatile, classic field watch can go with just about anything in your wardrobe.

Purchase: $712

Weiss Automatic Issue Field Watch

Designed for everyday wear, the Weiss Automatic Issued Field Watch is a reliable self-winding automatic timepiece. It has more than 150 Swiss parts mixed with American-made components which are hand-finished and assembled in California. Both the case and caseback are machined from one piece of stainless steel and polished by hand to ensure unrivaled quality. Sapphire crystals are used on the front and back of the case for durability, protecting the Caliber 2100 automatic movement within. The hands are made with black oxide treated steel and luminescent ‘Super-Luminova’ paint for excellent legibility if you find yourself in the dark. Finally, it has a durable waterproof olive green Cordura canvas strap.

Purchase: $1,850

The History Of The Iconic M-65 Field Jacket

WWII gave birth to the field watch and now it’s a pivotal piece of gear for the modern man. The Vietnam War also contributed rugged attire to the fashion world that’s stood the test of time. Learn about the history of the iconic M-65 Field Jacket and further upgrade your military fashion.