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A complete guide to field watches by Extropian

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Mitch Mason
Circula
Swiss Watch Company (SWC)
A complete guide to field watches by Extropian

If you’re heading for the great outdoors, or even if you just want something casual to wear on a daily basis – something simple, durable, and instantly legible – it might be time to think about a field watch!

Compared to other types of tool watches (such as Pilot’s or Diver’s watches) they may seem on the simple side, with no specific purpose except to tell the time as accurately and clearly as possible. But that simplicity is all part of their unique charm! And they also happen to look great, with a classic design combining both ruggedness and elegance. They may have been created for military use, but their iconic style makes them incredibly versatile, giving them an enduring appeal for those of us who aren’t quite so action orientated!  So let’s take a close look at what makes field watches so special!

 Origins of the field watch

The origins of the field watch go back to WWI, a time when wrist watches were still a novelty for most people. But the military quickly realized that fumbling around for a pocket watch while trying to stay alive in the trenches wasn’t exactly ideal. They needed a new kind of timepiece that could deal with the dangers of modern warfare. These “trench watches” as they were then known had leather straps, luminous dials, and unbreakable glass. Pretty soon they were recognized as a vital piece of kit for every soldier. They were also extremely accurate which was vitally important for coordinating attacks along the whole length of a trench.

The A-11 field watch

By the time of WWII wrist watches were standard issue for all soldiers, and it was around this time that the field watch as we know and love it today was developed, with its specifications standardized by government order. The most iconic example from the era was the American A-11 field watch with its black dial, large white arabic numerals, luminous hands and indexes, shock-proof case, and one-piece strap. Now known as “the watch that won the war”, which is a pretty impressive moniker you have to admit, it’s basically the blueprint for the field watches we still buy today.

SWC (Swiss Watch Company) - Bunker

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❤️ Extropian loves the vintage feel of this classical field watch.

 

The W.W.W. and the “Dirty Dozen”

Another iconic model was the British W.W.W. (or Wrist.Watch.Waterproof), which was commissioned by the British Ministry of Defense and made by a group of twelve watchmakers from neutral Switzerland. Well, the country may have been neutral but it would be nice to think the watchmakers weren’t if they were designing for the Brits! Those involved included famous names like Jaeger LeCoultre, Longines, and Omega, who became known collectively as the “Dirty Dozen” - a perfect nickname considering the kind of rugged timepieces they were turning out!  These were, quite literally, watches built for battle, and men’s lives could depend on them.

Unfortunately, very few of the original “Dirty Dozen” watches survive today as most were destroyed in the 1970s because of the radioactive Radium-226 used in the lume. Back in the forties no one realized quite how dangerous that could be…. But their iconic style lives on, reflected in many of the field watches being made by modern brands.

What makes a field watch?

Given its military origins, it’s not too surprising that the field watch was pretty standardized from the beginning. They were part of every soldier’s kit, so they had to be as uniform as possible. Field watches were (and still are) generally quite small in size, with a simple design featuring a plain black dial and large white markers (with plenty of lume) for easy legibility. Some models had standard 12-hour indices combined with smaller 24-hour markings nearer the center to show military time. 

Circula - Protrail 

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❤️ Extropian adores the modernist detailing and robust charms of this model.

They had to be high precision instruments with great accuracy, but durable enough to function under battle conditions. So they needed very precise movements (often regulated to chronometer standards), and were protected by water resistant, shockproof cases and shatterproof plexiglass. One of the most important features was the “hacking movement”, which allowed the second hand to come to a complete stop when the crown was pulled out. This made it easier for soldiers to synchronize their watches on the battlefield. Other common features included a one-piece canvas strap and a notched crown to make it easier to grip in wet conditions or while wearing gloves. They really thought of everything!

How to wear a field watch

As we can see, field watches are great for the military, but don’t worry – you don’t have to join the Marines to wear one! Their simple, classic design has made them a go-to choice for many civilian watch lovers over the years, and an essential addition to any collection. Their ruggedness and basic finishing make them ideal for any kind of outdoors activity, from hiking and backpacking to mountaineering and quad biking. But if the idea of all that adventure is just too much to bear, no problem – you don’t even have to break a sweat to wear one! Modern field watches can also look super cool with everyday casual wear or can be a unique addition to more formal wear. There’s always the option to upgrade them with a leather strap if you want to make them look a little more polished!

Mitch Mason - Chronicle on leather straps 

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❤️ Here at Extropian we’re loving this modern twist on a classic field watch.

 

NATO style straps

There’s something about the basic, functional design of NATO style straps that makes them a perfect combination for any field watch. These one-piece nylon straps have been around since the ‘70s, although to begin with you had to be a soldier to get hold of one! Back then they were only available in one color, the somewhat dour Admiralty Grey. Thankfully, nowadays they’re available to everyone, and come in a huge range of colors. Their one-piece design means that they slip under the watch so that the metal case never comes into contact with your wrist, while the nylon gently wicks moisture away from the skin – ideal for those baking hot days when you’re off climbing a mountain. Or, y’know, just lounging by the pool. When it comes down to it NATO style straps are simple, classic and durable – just like a field watch!

Echo Neutra - Averau 39 on NATO Style strap 

Averau 3 H Nero Nato

❤️ The minimalist detailing of this model is really floating Extropian’s boat.

 

Modern field watches

Despite (or perhaps even because of) their military origins, field watches have an enduring appeal that crossed over into the mainstream market a long time ago. As we’ve already noted, their simple design and durable construction give them a timeless appeal and make them highly adaptable for almost any purpose. So it’s no surprise that modern brands continue to make them in enormous quantities!

If you like the “authentic” feel of the iconic designs, with manual movements and little in the way of decoration, you’re well covered by the many reissues of (and homages to) classic models that can be found today. But some brands have played with the formula in interesting ways, giving a contemporary twist to a classic formula. Quartz and automatic movements are increasingly common, as are metal bracelets, titanium cases, sapphire crystals, and all manner of intriguing design quirks. Brands are also having fun playing with color. Fancy a bright purple field watch? You got one!

RZE - Valour 

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❤️ Looking for a modern field watch with a flash of color? Then look no further!

 

Zelos - Aurora Ti 38mm Field 

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❤️ At Extropian we adore the mix of rugged style and hyper-modern detailing on this titanium-cased beauty.

 

Classic field watches

Many modern brands still make field watches based on the classic designs established in the early 20th Century. And this is great news if the iconic look of the A-11 or the W.W.W. is your thing, as you don’t have to resort to the vintage market to find your perfect watch. 

The Vario 1914 Trench

Looking all the way back to WWI the Vario 1918 Trench pays direct homage to the original Trench watch but upgrades it with a marine grade stainless steel case, sapphire crystals, and (thankfully!) non-radioactive lume. It even has a hacking movement so you can coordinate your life with other military watch lovers. How cool is that?

Vario -1918 Trench 

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❤️ Extropian loves the retro styling of this model. Perhaps the perfect upgrade of a classic design? 

The Hamilton Khaki field

The Hamilton Khaki field is pretty much the archetypal example of its kind, and it’s even made by one of the companies which manufactured the original A-11. Based on a model which was introduced during the Vietnam War, it has all the features you’d expect from a classic field watch, including the military-style 24-hour markings on the dial, but subtly updated for the 21st Century. 

British W.W.W watches

If the British W.W.W. watches are your thing, then look no further than the Vaer A-12 Dirty Dozen, which pays tribute to them with this classic homage. Even more authentic is the Timor Heritage field, made by one of the original “Dirty Dozen” and replicating their distinctive Broad Arrow design on the dial. Available with automatic or manual movements, it’s a hugely cool update of a true icon!

Vaer A12 Dirty Dozen 

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❤️ Extropian loves this bold homage to an iconic design. An absolute modern classic.

The CWC British Military G-10

Moving a little closer to the 21st century, the CWC British Military G-10 was the first ever quartz watch issued to British troops. It was first introduced in 1980, and is still being made today, virtually unchanged from the original, with its beautifully minimal black and white aesthetic still intact. The only difference is that you can now buy an automatic version as well.

The Weiss Standard Issue field watch

And if you want something a little bit special, The Weiss Standard Issue field watch has a totally classic look, but is largely handmade. Its automatic movement, hand-painted brass dial, and hand-polished surgical steel case take it beyond the level of basic functionality to another level altogether.

Weiss Standard Issue Field Watch 

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❤️ Extropian adores the blend of vintage features and hand-finished detailing on this model.

Field watches with a twist

With the classics covered, let’s turn to contemporary models!  They stray a little from the original formula but retain all the features (and sometimes more!) of the classic field watch, offering a modern twist to a vintage aesthetic, and finished off with the very best in modern engineering. Models like the Traska Summiteer or the Nodus Sector add a stainless steel case and bracelet to the mix, giving them a very different look to the classic field watch.

Traska Summiteer

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❤️ At Extropian we’re knocked out by the bold look of this one - bringing the field watch into the 21st Century!

Nodus Sector Field 

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❤️ Check out the cool dial design and stainless steel case on this absolute stunner!  

The Boldr Venture comes in many different versions, all with the same cushion-shaped titanium case and NATO style strap, but with a wide range of colors and features to choose from. And lastly, something like the Cincinnati field watch even has a full display caseback so you can see the movement working. It may not be something a soldier would ever really need, but it’s absolutely beautiful, so who’s complaining?!

Boldr Venture 

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❤️ This classic looking field watch comes in so many different versions you’ll be spoilt for choice!

 Conclusion

As we can see, the humble field watch is actually anything but! Straightforward and functional, sure, but also versatile enough to let brands play with the formula. It’s an iconic style which is constantly evolving for the modern age while keeping one foot firmly rooted in the past. And you don’t have to be a military history buff to appreciate them! They may have been designed for war but, luckily for us, they can serve just as well - or even better - in peacetime.

Created the 2022-12-27

Modified the 2024-06-17

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