A Brief History of Military Watches
Unlike most websites you visit this one is not going to try and sell you something which probably makes a change! As far as myself and my friends go we are purely collectors and enthusiasts, we figured back in 2003 it was worth putting something together so that other people with an interest in military watches can get a general background to the various models favoured by the military, police, security industry and special forces. For me personally (Ian) I have a tendency to buy either military watches or something which is not actually military but has the pedigree and looks of a military watch, for example my IWC MK XVI which definitely has the right heritage or alternatively a simple G-Shock which I own which is ideal for heavy duty use and can survive almost anything I subject it to. Most of the watches which enthusiasts and collectors own frequently tend to live in display cases but my colleagues and myself tend to prefer using our watches periodically. The only consideration of course (especially with pre 1980 models) is that many older watches are about as water resistant as a teabag so whilst nice to look at they are pretty impractical for day to day use.
One important thing to keep in mind is that few armed forces today could afford to issue a watch such as the Rolex, Omega, Heuer and IWC models of the past, even CWC is becoming too costly for most UK MOD contracts, as a point of interest in many countries they tend to leave the troops to source their own watches and hopefully this site will be helpful to them and ensure they get something which is fit for purpose. Something else that needs to be kept in mind is that even if governments could afford the leading brands issued in the by countries such as the UK, USA and Germany it would not make economic sense when the models from Citizen, MWC, Pulsar, Seiko, Military Industries, NITE and Marathon are just as suitable and vastly cheaper.
Of course the watches are one thing but the straps are another area of interest to military watch enthusiasts, it is also an area which is seeing an ever increasing variety of variants. Personally I have a tendency to use NATO straps and one of the first things I did with my own IWC XVI was put it on a NATO strap which I have favoured since my time in the military! I recall back in 1985 it was a case of admiralty grey or admiralty grey because that was all there was! Now there are endless colour combinations, regimental straps, school colours and even LGBGT NATO straps. I tend to think NATO straps always look good on any tactical type of watch but my wife favours the original calf leather strap on my IWC but to me it makes little sense when I tend to spend a lot of time swimming in the sea where we live because leather and water don't go together well.
For my friends and myself it’s a simple case that when we buy a watch it's often an item that pops up in a sale room or sometimes something offered to us here via the site. An example was two German WW2 Dienstuhr watches offered to me by a German guy we know in Augsburg, one watch was a Wehrmacht Aeschbach and the other a Luftwaffe Schätzle & Tschudin these were unusual and quite rare. My colleague recently got a Grana at a watch fair which was one of the Dirty Dozen watches, whatever we find to add it to our collections we tend to spend the next two weeks arguing over the merits and drawbacks of the particular model in the local bar! I really still can’t figure why I have 27 watches when I always wear either the IWC, Breitling Cockpit B50 or the MWC classic Aviator which is very robust and a damn site cheaper than the IWC which it resembles to a degree but is larger at 46mm excluding the crown whereas the IWC is only 39mm. I use the MWC day to day and it has proven pretty robust which is the primary consideration, the Breitling Cockpit gets a lot of use too and the dual time function is a plus, I totally recommend this watch.
The other watch I use in extreme situations which would not suit any of the others is the Casio G-Shock DW6900MS which although not a military watch as such is certainly fit for purpose and popular with serving military. I think the attraction my friends and myself have to military watches is because the look is very distinctive and striking, most having black dials and luminescent numerals and hands with either Tritium light sources or Super Luminova. Another factor is we are all ex military or in some way connected to the military or police and again this pushes us towards our interests not just in the watches but other military kit such as image intensifiers and vehicles.
I am often asked which military watch is my all time favourite. I tend to think that it has to be the IWC MK XI below. To me this embodies everything from looking right to being a high end well made product with a leading brand name. It is generally accepted as the most desirable military watch of all time but you will certainly need deep pockets to buy one these days although 20 years ago $600 would have secured a nice one now you can reckon with $6500 / £5000 or €5600.
Returning to the historical models some of the most collectible military watch are British, German and American issue although many are actually Swiss made. The British army/navy/RAF models from IWC, Record, Cyma, Omega, Jaeger le Coultre, Lemania and Rolex are especially collectable and from the US, Elgin, Waltham and Bulova. Among other watches I have become aware of recently which are in huge demand is the Heuer (now Tag Heuer) German Luftwaffe Chronograph from the 1970s. Something that really caught my eye at an auction in Los Angeles a few years back was a Breitling Navitimer which was Iraqi Air Force issue this watch was a 1980’s Navitimer that Saddam Hussein issued to his pilots. The watch was engraved on the case back with the air force insignia. I don't know what it went for? Whatever it was it was certainly not going to have been cheap!
The history of Military watches, as their name implies lies in the fact they were specifically developed for use by the armed forces. The first military watches were made for use on warships. It was the WWII that really moved things along with various high quality cockpit clocks (Borduhren in German) emerging from companies such as IWC and Junghans this site is worth a look it has cockpit clocks and all sorts of odds and ends In the case of Navigator watch design timing was critical, the seconds bezel allowed the pilot to synchronize the second hand with correct and exact reference time before takeoff, and to make manual corrections to radio time signals while in flight, thus eliminating any "chronometer error" and the navigational errors that could result.
Split second timing and high degrees of accuracy continued to be vital in both military technology and military watches. The hack feature was developed enabling two or more military watches to be synchronised hence you will often hear the words in military films “synchronise watches”
Strangely the US tended to opt for smaller watches which were often as small as 30mm where Germany went for face sizes of 55mm or more, in fact the current IWC Pilots model The IWC Big Pilot watch is perhaps the ultimate mans sport watch on the market today. In fact to call it a sports watch is an injustice since the Big Pilot Watch is really a genuine Pilots timepiece. IWC first developed Pilot’s Watches in the 1930’s, launching the initial model in 1936. Early aviation pioneers all faced the same problem when it came to measuring the time. Pilots relied on oversized pocket watches to track their flight time and fuel consumption, but these pocket watches were cumbersome and difficult to access meaning they frequently worked on guesstimates – far from ideal but compare it with today’s nightmare of finding your cellphone when its ringing in a pocket when you are driving at 100mph (160kph) plus (only where laws allow of course!) and you get the idea.
IWC attacked the problem by taking the pocket watch and designing a version that would fit on the pilot’s wrist over his flight suit. The first version of the Pilot watch was massive as we saw above. IWC designed a 55mm case with a black dial, high-contrast luminous hands, and a rotating glass bezel. This glass bezel had an arrow which the pilot used to measure flight time. Pilots attached the watch to their wrist using an oversized long leather strap.
Today the Big Pilot’s watch is smaller than the original version but still massive compared to other large sport or pilot watches on the market. Measuring 46.2 mm IWC’s Big Pilot watch is similar to the original in appearance with the original black dial design but they have added a date window at six o’clock and a power reserve indicator at three o’clock. With a seven day power reserve the Big Pilot Watch is in a class of its own.
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