The field watch is among our favorite wristwatch styles. You can wear them with nearly any outfit, they’ll survive anything your noncombatant life can throw at them, and they follow in a long tradition of civilian style people adopted from the military. Their dials are designed to be as easy-to-read as possible, their straps don’t stretch out after a day or two, and their movements are so simple they’re nearly impossible to break. The field watch might be the closest we’re ever going to get to a perfect wristwatch. Here’s a little of its story.
The Original Military Watch
The original wristwatch may have been invented anywhere between 1571 and 1868, but no matter the source, all agree that those were close to three centuries of nearly exclusively female clientele. These watches were seen more as jewelry than functional timepieces and early names for them, like wristlet, montre watch, and bracelet watch, were more suited for delicate accessories than rugged equipment. If a man was wearing a wristwatch, he’d better be demonstrating 19th century appropriate masculinity elsewhere, through bicycling or maybe ballooning. And they were switching back to their perfectly manly pocket watch almost as soon as they were off their bike.
The first wristwatch designed with men in mind that we could find comes from an order by Kaiser Wilhelm I in 1879. He bought two series of a thousand watches for his naval officers from Girard-Perregaux, making it the first time the military and wristwatches had officially mixed, though they were still a long shot from the field watches modern men are so proud of.
Parts of the watch were made of 14k gold so they wouldn’t rust, something we can accomplish today with simple stainless steel. And since more durable forms of casings had yet to be invented, these watches protected their dials with metal grids over glass, obscuring quite a bit of the watch face. Finally, these watches didn’t come with the leather, fabric, or rubber bands so many modern watches use. They used chains, much like their pocket counterparts. In fact, from the descriptions we’ve read, if you were a late 19th century gentleman and wrapped your pocket watch’s chain around your wrist, you’d also have invented the wristwatch.
But that single order didn’t guarantee every military was on board with wristwatches. It took another few decades before other countries started outfitting their troops with similar devices. In the meantime, wristwatches remained a woman’s toy.
World War 1 Makes Watches Cool While It Kills a Lot of People
Traditionally macho pocket watches were not an ideal way to tell time in the trenches. They might be convenient for a stroll in turn-of-the-century London, but a trench in France is cramped, dirty, and fast moving. An officer can’t be fumbling with the pockets on his trench coat while his men are supposed to be going over the top. Granted, this wasn’t something the British military knew going into the war in 1914, so the pocket watch was still standard issue.
Since militaries always seem to learn from the bottom up, the trench officers themselves are the ones who pioneered the switch from pocket watches to wristwatches, or trench or service watches, as they were initially known. Officers would buy trench watches in anticipation of their deployment, either knowing from previous personal experience or from talk amongst comrades that a trench watch was an invaluable tool in the war. Advertisements from 1915 and 1916 took different paths, with the first simply advertising function, while the second attempts to turn the service watch into a symbol of status.
While telling people a product is a status symbol might be an effective way to get the public to buy your product, officers in the trenches found a much more basic use for their watches. Namely, not having themselves blown to kingdom come by friendly fire. During any sort of operation, officers carefully synchronized their watches to those of the artillerymen behind them. This meant they could time their movements down to the second. Men could know the exact time the big guns were going to shift fire, making it theoretically impossible to skip a beat.
But all this wristwatch coordination happened outside the realm of standard issue equipment. The reason the field watch wasn’t invented in the First World War is because everyone was so busy making personal wristwatch purchases that no nation needed to commission one. There isn’t a watch from World War One, because everyone bought what they liked or whatever was on sale. It wasn’t until the tail end of the war when the British were finally looking into creating a standard issue wristwatch.
World War Two Goes Standard Issue
It’s a good thing world militaries took a few of the right lessons from the Great War, because World War Two was on its way to finish off whatever bits of Europe thought themselves untouched. And it was going to do so thanks, in part, to the precision accuracy of brand new standard issue wristwatches.
The American A-11 is easily the most widespread of the field watches to come from the Second World War, manufactured by four separate companies—Elgin, Bulova, Waltham, and Hamilton. The A-11 is what still sets the production standard for American military watches and where the distinctive style gained popularity. It was sturdy, accurate, dust and waterproof, and was the perfect illustration of function over form (though where the form was still pretty nice). Air and ground forces synchronized their watches much like the artillerymen and trench forces of World War One, allowing the Western Front Allies to exercise near total air superiority later in the war. Some call it the “watch that won the war,” and we’ll point that out to you, but take it with a grain of salt. Nearly everything America fielded during that period has been called the “____ that won the war,” so the phrase has started to lose a bit of its punch.
For the British, they went with the W.W.W., which stood for Wrist. Watch. Waterproof. and it took every bit of creativity British High Command could muster. It was less common than the A-11, but still very similar. It was a watch built to withstand battlefield punishment while maintaining accuracy and integrity, though it did have a leg up on the American watch in at least one aspect. Namely, the W.W.W. came with luminous hands, meaning no more risking life and limb to try to get your watch hand into a little bit of light. Though, since it was Radium-226 that made the watch glow, people started destroying them for fear of radioactivity, making these watches much more rare than other Second World War field watches.
Germany and Japan both built respectable field watches as well, but since few people are enthusiastic about wearing standard issue Rising Sun or Nazi gear, their designs didn’t do much to influence the modern field watch. Most field watches you’ll find today follow the Allied designs more than anything else.
The Vietnam War saw a few tweaks and introductions, as well as some disposable plastic construction, but the war’s field watches mostly followed the same specs as the A-11. It had the same production standard to follow, the same general display format, and the same need to stand up to demanding battlefield conditions.
A Few Options for the Modern Civilian
As with virtually every product any military ever uses, field watches are plentiful on the civilian market at almost every price point. If you want to drop $500 on what your uncle wore in the jungles of Vietnam, you can do that. If you have a handful of loose change and love the look of the W.W.W., you can probably find yourself a knockoff. These designs are so ubiquitous we wouldn’t be surprised if McDonald’s started handing out A-11’s with Happy Meals this Veteran’s Day.
Remember last paragraph where we said loose change could buy you a great field watch? We kind of wrote that with Timex in mind. They might be making the most faithful modernization of the field watch, because they’re cheap, reliable, and they’d probably be able to shrug off a bullet. And looking at their selection, you could probably buy one of each and wear them all for years before anyone noticed you only had one model of watch. For a field watch, we like to keep it traditional, so our first pick has to be the Green/Gray model, but Blue and Red Buffalo Check adds some nice color, and the straight up Blue would be a great weekend watch. $39
1960s US Vietnam Military Watch
Vietnam didn’t get a whole lot of copy space up in the main body of the article, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t look into getting yourself a watch from the era. Vietnam designs improved a lot of what came before, so you can get yourself a WWII-looking watch with a clearer dial or more functional layout. You can pick between Olive and Black, either of which works well as an accompaniment to anything from nudity to business casual (which, if Vietnam movies are anything to believe, is pretty much what those guys wore anyway). $60
For not being one of the original manufacturers of a World War Two field watch, Victorinox has a great handle on why we like them. Giant numbers, a bright face, clear calendar window, and large but unobtrusive hands make this one of the easiest to read watches we’ve ever seen. They’ve also held close to that original case shape, which is one of the most attractive we’ve ever worn on our wrists. It’s a solid watch from a solid company, so we don’t mind shelling out a bit extra if it means we’ll get a watch that’ll last us through whatever personal conflicts we might have. $199
We skipped over this in the main part of the article, but the G10 has an interesting history that we’ll try to make brief. If a soldier in the United Kingdom’s military wants a watch, they’d have to fill out form G1098. Since everyone is lazy, regardless of profession, soldiers started referring to the watches as G10s. At this point, G10 describes a style and strap more than a specific form or watch, since the official manufacturers for the British military have changed so frequently.
All that’s a long way to say, if you’re particularly taken with the W.W.W., look into getting yourself a CWC G10. They were the official supplier of the British forces for a considerable amount of time and the influence of the Second World War watch design can still be seen in their model, while most of the other watches look more toward the American A-11. $222
Hamilton Watch Field Line
Hamilton was one of the original manufacturers of the A-11 and their designs haven’t strayed much from that first production standard, at least in a big picture way. They still have the big clear dials and distinctive case shape, though when they brought the design into the civilian market, they started adding metal and leather straps, along with calendar windows, automatic movements, and some serious internal upgrades. Of their offerings, our favorite is their upcoming Officer Mechanical with olive drab canvas strap. It’s the perfect mix of old and new design and a great watch to wear everyday. The price tag is admittedly high, but to get a military watch from Hamilton, you used to have to freeze your ass off in a European foxhole, so maybe it’s not that bad. $395