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Marathon MSAR Review - Authentic Swiss-Made Military Watch

Posted on April 21 2022

Marathon MSAR Watch Review

There are a lot of valuable lessons to be learned when you train in martial arts. Of all those that I learned, there's one that stands out.

It was taught to me this way.

Imagine there are two bouncers on a nightclub door - one a big imposing guy and one half his size - what can you assume about their abilities?

The big guy can scare people off with a look. If things get physical he has a size and weight advantage over the average punter. But given his menacing appearance, he probably won't be challenged regularly. Often he's there as a deterrent not as a fighter.

But what about the little guy?

He's not scary looking. And he's no bigger than you. So why's he there?

He's there because he can do the job.

Countless people will have confronted him. Yet he's still there. Despite his small stature, he's on the door every week.

Why?

Because size doesn't matter when you have enough skill. Performance and a proven track record are more important than appearance.

And I find that this holds true in the world of watches too. There are a lot of watches that look the part. They give the impression that they could hold their own in challenging environments.

Then you feel the cheap construction. You note the low water rating. There's the poor lume and the loose bezel. That's when you appreciate a brand with a proven track record.

Marathon's Search and Rescue range is a great example of a proven watch design. They're built to military specifications and have been issued to US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So when I noticed that Marathon had released a smaller version I had to get my hands on one. I wanted to know if this medium-sized piece could perform as well as its bigger siblings - the Large and Jumbo models.

Let's find out.

Marathon MSAR Automatic watch review

Marathon MSAR Automatic WW194026SS-0130

  • 36mm Diameter
  • 14mm Thick
  • 18mm Lug Width
  • Stainless Steel
  • Swiss Automatic Movement
  • Sapphire Crystal
  • 300M Water Resistance
  • RRP - £965

Marathon MSAR Automatic Watch Review


Marathon Search and Rescue Watch Review

Wrists don't come in one size. Understandably, watch companies have been moving away from the large models that many of us found cumbersome. This is more evident among the brands that build functional pieces or vintage-inspired designs.

Recently I reviewed Timor's Heritage Field. It has the same 36.5mm case as the World War 2 original. This sounded small on paper but once on my wrist wore surprisingly well. The same was true of my 38mm Bulova Hack.

The Marathon MSAR has a similar ethos to these classic designs. It's a military watch that unashamedly prioritises function over aesthetics. Like the Timor and the Bulova, this focus on purpose produces its own handsome style.

So the sizing makes sense.

Marathon has a military divers watch that is built to do a specific job. And to do the job well they've acknowledged that the users won't all be the same. Their Search and Rescue watch, therefore, comes in three sizes - small, medium and large. Or in Marathon's terminology, Medium, Large and Jumbo.

I have the medium on my wrist. The MSAR (Medium Search and Rescue).

Marathon Watch Review

My first impression?

Despite the modest diameter, this is a substantial watch. It's reasonably thick, with a very chunky bezel. It's also heavier than I thought it would be - the weight is deceptive but reassuring.

I have slim wrists so the medium-sized variant works better for me than a 46mm Jumbo would. That might not be the case for you.

In my previous piece on Marathon Watch, I suggested that the Search and Rescue models best represented the brand. I stand by this. Whilst the Navigator (Air) is a nice pilot's watch, and the General Purpose (Land) is battle-tested - it's this watch (Sea) that feels both the most versatile and durable.

The basics of the watch are impressive, as they should be to justify the £1000 price tag (more on this later).

It's Swiss-made. And when reliability is essential, that's important. It has a Swiss automatic movement, GTLS illumination and is an ISO 6425 certified diver's watch. The dial is clear and legible and the case and bezel are designed to work well with gloves. Overall, the build quality is excellent.

There's a lot to unpack here. And even more when we take a closer look at the brand. First, let's see the details.

The Marathon MSAR Watch in Detail


There's something important to note about the design of the MSAR. It was built to US Government Specification. The dial and the case adhere to these military requirements. The simplicity of the watch - in terms of design - is a product of its authenticity.

This is a watch that has been issued to soldiers. Unlike many other watches, the functionality isn't theoretical. This is a watch tested in combat.

To give you a sense of how important that is to the brand, I have a simple statistic. 90% of Marathon's watches are built for government contracts. You won't find their watches in malls or boutiques.

This focus on a specific role - Search and Rescue - gives the watch a distinct look. Most noticeably, the rugged case and heavy-duty bezel.

You'd be forgiven for thinking that a 36mm watch could be a dainty piece, but that's certainly not true here. What the MSAR gives away in diameter, it takes back in depth. At 14mm thick the watch has a rugged appearance. And you'll not be surprised to hear that there's a functional reason for this.

The thick case, with a prominent and heavily knurled bezel, is a practical consideration. That bezel is easy to turn in the wet or when you're wearing gloves. The finishing is great too.

Marathon GSAR Watch Review

The same applies to the crown. It is oversized and easy to operate in challenging situations. And of course, to maintain that 300M of water resistance, it screws down. As you'd expect from a watch designed to withstand more than average knocks, the crown is protected by some hefty crown guards.

It's a tough case. Spartan in appearance, but also clean and functional. It gives the impression that this is a small watch designed for a big job.

That ethos continues with the dial. Each element has a purpose. As indicated by the military specifications, the dial is a straightforward black with contrasting white text. The outer numerals cover the 12hr clock and the inner has the 24hr scale.

Each number has corresponding indices, marked with a small tritium tube (radioactive gas that glows without charging for 25 years - more here). Those tritium tubes are also used on the three hands. The bezel has Maraglo lume on the triangle.

Marathon Watch Review Lume

The dial's text is kept to a minimum and there's a neat date window tucked away between 4 and 5 o'clock. It's a small detail, but helps keep the numerals symmetrical and easy to read.

There's also a large steel chapter ring and both this and the dial are protected by a sapphire crystal. It's all fairly predictable if you're familiar with this style of military divers watch. Predictable because it's proven to work.

No doubt you'll have noticed the Swiss-Made wording at the foot of the dial. The MSAR was produced in Marathon's Swiss factory in La Chaux de Fonds. 

The automatic movement inside is also Swiss-made.

It's an interesting collaboration between Marathon and movement producer Sellita. Based on Sellita's SW200 calibre, the M2 movement has been upgraded and includes an Incabloc shock-absorbing system and other improvements. This Swiss workmanship, along with the ISO certification, explains the £1000 RRP. 

The case back features, among other engraved text, the watch's unique serial number.

Marathon MSAR Case back

Finishing off this impressive compact package is a rubber strap. Rubber wouldn't be my first choice, but it is very comfortable and practical if you're likely to use the watch in water. If not, a distressed leather strap would be a great match for the MSAR.

The rubber strap does have a nice buckle. It's angular with an industrial feel. Again, reinforcing the functional aesthetic.

Marathon Watches Rubber Strap

Taken altogether, the MSAR is an impressive watch. As I’ve tried to stress, there’s a lot of functionality in a relatively small package. Importantly, each element of the watch has been pressure tested and the overall design has been built to a specification dictated by the military.

Yes, it’s not a cheap watch. But then, nothing on the MSAR feels cheap or ill-thought-out. £965 for a high-spec Swiss-made mechanical watch feels about right.

A little about the company back story would also be helpful.

A Brief History of Marathon Watch


Marathon Watch are now over 80 years old. The brand is headed by Mitchell Wein, grandson of the company's founder Morris Wein. Morris launched the company in 1939 and by 1941 Marathon was supplying clocks and watches to the Allied forces.

These government contracts have remained the core business of Marathon watches.

A version of Marathon Watch had existed in Switzerland, but when Wein founded the Canadian company the focus changed.

They were initially housed in the same building as a restaurant frequented by military staff. The company was ideally placed to supply the Canadian military with watches.

To begin with, only military personnel could wear Marathon watches. Only later did the brand begin to sell watches to civilians. Still, it's for their military contracts that the brand is renowned. As much as 90% of their sales are still to governments.

A typical example is their clocks. These can currently be seen in Canada's Customs offices.

I've mentioned the process of creating military watches before and two elements are worth pointing out.

Firstly, governments specify exactly what features and specifications they require. Brands then compete to win the contract to build watches to these specifications. The MSAR is an example of this.

Marathon Military Watch review

Secondly, and most importantly, a brand like Marathon is audited by the Canadian government. The government confirms that the watches that they're buying are fairly priced. So the grand that you're paying for the MSAR is related to this auditing process.

Marathon has a transparency that you may not see with other watch manufacturers. I like that.

Despite being founded in Canada, Marathon has historic links to Switzerland. And as noted above, it now has its own Swiss factory in La Chaux-de-Fonds.

That has meant Marathon is able to present governments with a compelling offer. Watches that are designed in Canada but produced in an independent factory in Switzerland. All with full transparency.

By the 1970s they had begun supplying the US military with watches.

Both American and Canadian troops wore Marathon watches - the new General Purpose and Navigator models - during the invasion of Iraq in 1991. At the risk of repeating myself, Marathon watches are the result of feedback from real combat use.

Since then Marathon has also supplied other military units. This has included the Israel Defense Forces and the Taiwanese Navy.


Where are Marathon Watches Made?


Marathon watches, including the MSAR, are Swiss-Made.

Marathon has its own factory in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland. You can see on the dial of the MSAR watch two important words - Swiss-Made.

While the company is Canadian, they have a long-established history of Swiss watchmaking.

Marathon Divers Watch Review

Conclusion


The Marathon MSAR military diver's watch won't be for everyone. The 36mm case is small by modern standards. That's why the brand also does the same watch in 41mm and 46mm variations.

But if you're after a tough, smaller diver's watch?

Then the MSAR ticks a lot of boxes.

The Swiss workmanship is excellent and the upgraded Sellita movement is a great addition. It's also ISO certified and has 300M of water resistance. The lume features tritium tubes on both the indices and hands. As a rugged and functional watch, you can't ask for much more.

But it will cost you. This isn't a budget watch. It's the best part of £1000.

Remember, the Canadian government audits Marathon to confirm that their watches are fairly priced. Because these are watches to be worn in the field by military personnel.

If you need that level of functionality in a military diver's watch, then the MSAR has to be a contender. It all comes down to how much you value the high specs and the authenticity.

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