What are field watches? Warfare in the 1900s looked something like this: artillery bombardment lasts for specifically eight minutes. Before the final round lands, the infantry assault has already started. The cavalry regiment, at almost exactly the same time, charges toward the enemy’s flank.
You might be wondering why an article about watches is talking about war? Well, simple. None of that would’ve been possible without the use of a wristwatch.
In the middle of the 1800s it was only ever women who sported a wristwatch. Along came a German entrepreneur who spotted a market opportunity. He changed what was originally an accessory into a practical and reliable companion for your wrist.
Officers had been using pocket watches, but the wristwatch proved to be wildly more practical, quicker and lighter.
There was an almost instant surge in popularity of these with the military around the globe. There were some features that came out which would end up creating a specific category of watch for use in the field. The style of field watches has persisted and are now generally categorised as being a masculine design.
So what makes a field watch, a field watch?
Above all, a field watch must be rugged. A decent field watch worth its salt will be made of stainless steel. Models these days might even be made of titanium or ceramics and/or offer a PVD coating.
It must be readable. This includes decent readability in low lighting or nighttime. It should, therefore, have a face that has a lot of contrast between a white or black dial with opposite colour numbering.
It has polished golden markers for the hour, giving it a more formal look. This could be detrimental to reading in bright lights and even cause a glare.
The wristband is a more traditional leather or canvas. These can be changed if needed (or wanted for a different look). It’s arguable that a metal bracelet would offer better durability, but they get scratched very easily and they’re expensive to replace.
Most field watches all have a link to the original two designs which came from WWII. The difference being the movement and size. Originally, watches had 36mm cases and the movement was hand-wound. More modern versions range between 38mm and 44mm and will be automatic or quartz.
Field watches today
The design and style of field watches changed from practical use in the military into fashion for civilians. It started between world wars and has stood the test of time since. You can easily find a field watch for every budget. If you like a masculine-looking timepiece, a field watch could be an inexpensive option to add to your collection.
Let’s look into some of the most well-regarded brands making field watches.
Timex offers a superb range of watches for less than $100. The Weekender and Expedition, for example, are two wonderful examples of a fully-functional budget field watch.
At this price, you can expect a brass finish and mineral glass crystal coating the dial, but that shouldn’t be a surprise and it’s not a criticism, either. Military officers have been sporting cheap Timex field watches for decades.
This Expedition Scout is one timepiece that comes in a plethora of finishes so you can pick one that reflects your unique style.
Wenger was one of the original makers of the Swiss Army Knife and now offers a few field watches in their range.
The Triumph collection features an iconic dial that has tiny second markers as well as both 12hr and 24hr markers. This is a nod to its two original WWII watches.
They come with Swiss-made quartz movement on the inside and sapphire crystal on the outside. For something that typically costs under $100, this is a total steal.
You can also pick up a Terragraph which offers all of the above, plus a little more retro style. It has a date window, which is down to the increased case size to 43mm.
This is another brand offering reliable Swiss Army timepieces. If you like the functionality of the Wenger but need a little more gusto, a Victorinox might be to your taste.
Expect to pay for it, though – quartz watches range from $200 to $500 and automatics are between $300 and $800. The field watches are in the Infantry collection.
You can use a nylon NATO wristband on any of the Infantry line, which means you can change it for something more formal (leather, if you like) depending on the occasion).
Hamilton has proved itself to be one to keep an eye on in the watch industry. It made chronographs specifically for marine use during World War II and began making field watches after winning a Government contract later on.
Hamilton was bought by Swatch, the group which owned Omega, and experienced a surge in popularity, even being seen in films from Men in Black to Pearl Harbor.
The most predominant colour they come in is khaki and this is a homage to the past. You get a modern watch with a distinctly retro feel. Watches range from 38mm cases to 44mm and have ETA movements inside.
On the whole, they’re great quality. Read more about Hamilton watches in our review here.
Marathon is possibly one of the sole watchmakers under contract to supply to today’s US military. Better known for its dive watch range, Marathon has recently released a field watch which is a development on those original two WWII models.
The style of which has gone through some changes over the years (and through various designers having input). The last version was made for aviators in the 80s.
The best example is the General Purpose Mechanical ($245 / £218), a modern twist on the original timepieces and a good balance of old and new. It has excellent illumination, which is an improvement on the predecessors, but then it’s also hand-wound. It’s not too big, coming in at 36mm.
A field watch is timeless. It’s also reliable and rugged. The affordability of such watches mean there’s no excuse to ignore it in any masculine collection.