Welcome to Watches You Should Know, a biweekly column highlighting important or little-known watches with interesting backstories and unexpected influence. This week: military monopusher chronographs.
Soldiers' issued gear regularly included a watch for much of the 20th century, and it was often as basic and utilitarian as possible. Chronographs, on the other hand, are complicated — but sometimes their integrated stopwatch functionality is what the military called for. With a simple, usually white dial and only a single pusher, one of the earliest such watches made specifically for military use was a bit different than what you might expect of a military chronograph: today, it's often known to collectors nondescriptly as a "military monopusher chronograph."
They were intended purely as tools, and could mostly be found on the wrists of air force and navy personnel of a couple countries over several decades. Though there were variations of this type of watch and it was produced by different companies, the basic design was that of a 38.5mm case with a spare, white dial and chronograph functions controlled only by a single pusher.
The monopusher chronograph predates Breitling's invention of the now common two-pusher system, and is generally a simpler solution that lacks some of the functionality two pushers offer: Whereas a more conventional two-button chronograph has one button for stop and start and a second for rest, a monopusher features just one button for start, stop and reset. By the time these monopusher chronographs were purchased for the military, the two-button system is already well established — if not as ubiquitous as today — with examples being produced for military use.
So, it begs the question: why did militaries consistently contract these exact specifications when a more "modern" solution was also available? It may have been that the extra mechanical complexity and vulnerability of one more hole in the case weren't deemed worthwhile — or it may be that two-button chronographs were significantly more expensive — but we don't know the exact answer. What we do know is that such examples appeared as early as the 1930s and that they were ordered and produced into the 1970s.
Monopushers like the Heuer Flieger Reference 358 (1935) and Hanhart Caliber 40 (1938) preceded those which collectors most associate with the phrase "military monopusher," but in the late 1940s (or early '50s) the look we know today was established. The British Ministry of Defense ordered watches that would set the standard with a series made by companies like Lemania, Rodania, Breitling and Omega.
The defunct company Lemania, however, is the name to take note of here, even though Breitling and Omega are far more widely recognized today. When most watch enthusiasts think of Lemania, they think of the excellent chronograph movements that powered some of the most notable watches in history — mostly with the names of other watch companies (such as Omega, Patek Philippe, and Vacheron Constantin) on their dials. The brand did, however, make its own complete watches in addition to movements, and many of the military monopusher chronographs you'll find on the vintage market today say Lemania on the dial and are powered by manually wound Lemania caliber 15 movements.
They were most notably made for the British Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, and as vintage models, these are some of the coolest because of the iconic "broad arrow" symbol — which denotes British government property — that they include on the dials and case backs. (There are also "sterile" dials with no manufacturer's markings visible unless you open the case back, and there are more variants still.) Those with white dials are most common — and particularly striking since this is rare for military watches — but there are also black-dial examples.
There's naturally some variation among models from different makers and for different services over the years, and you'll even find movements inside such as the Valjoux 23 or Lemania 2220. Collectors typically segment these watches into three series, with the later Series 3 (also known as "6BB") being the most distinctive due to its 40mm asymmetrical case that provided for the crown and pusher to be recessed and better protected.
What's broadly consistent across the different series is the watches' monopusher nature, basic dial design and intended use. If military watches are your thing, these are some of the most distinctive and versatile for modern daily wear, and they can often be found on the vintage market for a few grand. If you like the look and history but want a modern watch with its whole life ahead of it, also check out the Vertex MP45.