Posted on October 18 2017
US Military Watches
Military watches are an interesting niche for watch enthusiasts. For many the appeal is to collect used examples of watches that have seen active service. These collectors want a vintage piece that can be proven, usually through it's case markings, to have been used during a particular conflict.
For others the appeal is in the functionality and simplicity of the design. The military watch by it's very nature has been developed to be used in life and death situations. There's no bling, needless sub-dials or colourful touches. It's all about the watch as a tool.
In Britain this has meant anything from the Rolex Submariner to the legendary G10 Infantry watch and it's Royal Navy equivalent the W10. As expected, the American's with their own unique watchmaking history and differing armed conflicts have produced their own unique designs.
For those watch enthusiasts who want a modern military watch to wear, rather than a vintage example to squirrel away in a collection, there's the option to purchase a modern remake. A watch built to the original, or higher, specifications set out by the military. A watch that comes boxed, with instructions and a warranty. In other words, a watch with the classic military design produced to modern standards. The best of both worlds.
Here we will have a look at some of the history of American military watches and highlight Swiss manufacturer MWC's (Military Watch Company) modern remakes.
History of American Military Watches
If you've looked into buying a vintage US military watch then you'll have noticed similar designs from multiple well known watch companies. You'll have compared watches made by Hamilton, Waltham, Elgin, Benrus and others. That's because of how the government purchases their watches.
The government doesn't shop for watches the way you do.
When the US government requires a watch it releases it's detailed specifications for how the watch must function and what it should look like. Watch manufacturers can submit their designs and bid for the contract. Therefore, over the decades numerous companies can end up supplying watches to the military. What that also means for us is that other companies are free to produce watches to those same specifications.
For infantry watches the US government originally released a specification called 55-1B. The instructions required watches that would have luminous hands and markers, a seven jewel movement, an olive drab cotton strap, and a stainless steel case. These watches were produced by a number of manufacturers.
This specification was updated in 1956 to MIL-W-3818A with the aim of increasing the uniformity of the watches. In 1962 it was again updated, this time to MIL-W-3818B, where the emphasis was more on the quality of the finished watch. Of the numerous companies that submitted sample watches only Benrus was deemed to have produced a watch to this required standard. They were to later release a civilian version that Steve McQueen would wear in the film Bullitt.
Around the same time the government also introduced the GG-W-113 specification which was almost identical to the MIL-W-3818A but applied to all government watches and not just the military. This classic design is the first of our modern remakes.
MWC have produced this watch in two versions. A quartz and an automatic version. The original specification called for a handwinding movement with a minimum of 15 jewels. With this watch MWC have have added a quartz model, but in a nice touch, have used a battery powered movement with a sweeping second hand to mimic a mechanical movement. Outwardly the watch looks like a mechanical timepiece but internally there is a reliable quartz engine.
The second version is the more expensive mechanical model. Rather than having a handwinding movement they have opted for an upgrade to a 24 jewel automatic movement. This removes the need for daily winding and is much more in keeping with modern watch tastes.
Both watches have a reasonably modest diameter measurement of 36mm without the crown. This is a little smaller than the average modern watch and slightly larger than the originals. Very much a move to produce a remake that gives a slight nod to contemporary watch tastes. The idea is to make the watch authentic in appearance but still practical as a modern day to day timepiece. With lugs at 18mm the watch takes a standard sized strap.
In 1964 a new specification was issued for a low cost alternative to MIL-W-3818A. This release was known as MIL-W-46374. This watch was essentially designed to be disposable. The case could be plastic, sealed and the movement of lower quality. Original watches haven't survived well.
MWC's version of the watch used by American GI's during the 1960's-70's is a sympathetic reproduction. However, after initially releasing the watches with a plastic case they have now moved to an all metal construction. These smaller sized watches have a diameter of 36mm and a quartz movement. Normally available in black or olive, MWC currently also have a limited edition desert pattern for sale.
A-11 Navigation Watch
The A-11 US Army Air force watch was produced from the early 1940's for use in WWII. Variations of this watch were produced by Bulova, Waltham and Elgin. A simple watch, the specification called for a 15 jewel hacking movement, black or white dial, dull steel case and black or olive strap. This design wasn't superseded until the Korean war.
MWC have based their remake on the Elgin 539 which was produced for the USAAF up until the mid 1940's. The original watch had a handwinding movement and again MWC have upgraded to a 24 jewel automatic. Modestly sized at 36mm the watch certainly appears authentic and retains the simplistic dial design of the Elgin.