What is a Field Watch?

You’ve probably come across a Seiko field watch, maybe without knowing it’s a field watch and much less. You’re not alone, though. Also called military watches, field watches are not always well defined because their one defining characteristic is that they tell time. That’s it! Well, that and protect the watch against elements such as water, dirt, and shock that impede telling time. Let’s take a closer look at this basic yet important part of timepiece heritage.

War Changed Watches Forever

Had it not been for one of the worst conflicts the planet has ever seen, men might not wear watches on their wrists today. Wristwatches were thought of as fashion accessories for women up until the early part of the 20th century. Men more often carried pocket watches instead. It was something that was considered jewelry on the wrist and was seen as effeminate and unbecoming for a gentleman.

Here is where the “trench watch” makes its entrance. The watches were named accordingly as some of the very first military watches were issued to soldiers. One of the earliest and best-known examples of a trench watch comes from German ruler Kaiser Wilhelm I. He bought two thousand Swiss watches from Girard-Perregaux for his Naval officers. Wilhelm readied the timepieces for battle in a somewhat barbaric fashion. He outfitted the watches with heavy wrist chains and thick metal grids over the dials.

front view of black dial field watch

The Look

The military watches that were to follow got much less Medieval looking. Gone were the grates. Rust-proof gold cases were replaced by stainless steel casings, which were made waterproof and dustproof. Wrist chains were replaced by heavy-duty leather and canvas NATO straps. One of the most famous of the early military watches is the A-11 that was widely issued to U.S. soldiers in World War Two. With a round silver or nickel case and a basic black dial and white or orange indices for maximum visibility, the watch became an iconic symbol of the conflict. If you get a field watch with a vintage vibe today, chances are it draws design inspiration from the A-11.

As military conflicts continued, so did the evolution of military watches. That was increasingly called “field watches.” In the 1950s, the U.S. military commissioned the A-17, a watch geared toward aviators with radium-coated indices and a 24-hour indicator for tracking military time. In the Vietnam War era, there was some experimentation with plastic models, but the U.S. Armed Forces eventually went back to basics with watches based on the tried-and-true A-11.

front view of black dial field watch with green strap

The Field Watches of Today

True, most of the watches in this category are durable, often waterproof, and somewhat shock-resistant. But they’re not built for extreme conditions like, say the most durable shock-absorbing G-Shocks or the magnetism-resistant Omega Seamaster Aqua Terra. More likely, you will pick up a field watch for its retro charm and military-inspired stylings. With that in mind, let’s look at some of the field watches on the market today that pay homage to the original military watches.

The Hamilton Khaki is one of the most popular field watches that carry on the tradition of the A-11. Interestingly, Hamilton was making watches during World War Two, though not field watches but rather marine chronographs for the U.S. Navy. But today, the Hamilton Khaki exudes military aesthetics with a dark dial, white indices, and a round case that looks absolutely perfect on an olive-green canvas strap.

Seiko offers nearly a dozen field watches and it’s hard to go wrong with any of them. One standout is the Seiko 5 SNK807. It’s a self-winding field offering that’s available with a gorgeous Prussian-blue dial and matching blue strap. The dial has stark white Arabic minute and hour markers housed in a round stainless steel case with a matte finish.

Field Watches to Know 

The Citizen Eco-Drive BM8180-03E has a similar style to the Seiko. It employs the same black and white military-style dial we first met with the A-11. But Citizen updated a few things. Like luminous hands, a day and date window,  and a Japanese quartz movement. It also has a stainless steel case with a water resistance of up to 30 meters.

Along with the famed Swiss Army Knife, Victorinox has a great reputation for making Swiss Army watches. Their Infantry collection has a number of really nice military-inspired watches. Victorinox’s recent Field Force collection continues the military theme with a somewhat dressier feel. While the Field Force’s charcoal black dial and silver indices reflect traditional field-watch style, the 42mm case with a slim aluminum bezel gives it a sleeker vibe. A Field Force pairs well enough with a canvas strap for weekend wear but does just as nicely on a fine leather strap for around the office.


Conclusion of Field Watches

So, not all field watches are made for the field nor do all adhere to the utilitarian style we met when trench warfare was raging and kaisers were welding metal grates over watches. Today’s field watches are more subtle creations that pay homage to their battle-tested predecessors. They’re for weekend wear and casual get-togethers with friends and family, for Millennials who want to go retro, and for Baby Boomers who want some of their own history on their wrists. Dressed up and down by both the young and the old, field watches are some of the most versatile timepieces you can find.

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