Coming from a family in which someone from each generation has served in the army, I’ve used and handled quite a bit of military equipment over the years, but the vintage, issued military watch holds a special place in my heart.
What could be cooler than a mechanical object designed with absolutely no eye toward aesthetics that manages somehow to be aesthetically pleasing nonetheless? There is a type of magnetic pull toward no-nonsense military tool watches that even the civilian feels (or perhaps, feels especially) — it doesn’t necessarily take a soldier to recognize the beauty in something designed to do one thing only, and do it well and until failure.
While prices on many issued military watches from the storied Swiss brands have crept into stratospheric territory recently, there is a small crop of distinctly wearable timepieces that have thus far managed for one reason or another to escape this upward trajectory: the 1950s-1990s American military watch. Perhaps it’s their small case sizes, or perhaps it’s the fact that they were produced for so many years and often in such large quantities and are thus readily available –- whatever it is, these watches are cheap, and they’re awesome.
Without delving too deeply down the rabbit hole (as this has been done before elsewhere), military requisitioning in the USA is done via a spec and a tender: the military comes up with a specification for a particular item that details what features it should have, at which point various manufacturers are invited to submit proposals and samples, and the military then decides which company (or companies) will be chosen to produce the finished product.
Three specs in particular, the MIL-W-6433A and MIL-W3818A of the late 1950s/early 1960s, and the MIL-W-3818B spec of 1962 are of note (you should get used to having to commit these obscure spec and reference numbers to memory if you’re going to be searching for American military wristwatches; you should also probably refrain from waxing poetic about them in front of non-watch people if, you know, you don’t want to be stared at in public). From the MIL-W-6433A spec the A-17A watch was born (the MIL-W-3818A is a very similar watch — more on this below), and from the MIL-W-3818B, several companies designed watches either in accordance with (or that were derivative of) this specification. Several updates of MIL-W-3818B have been published since 1962, each of which features more or less small tweaks or changes to the original design, and as a result, there are innumerable iterations and variations of a mass-produced watch to collect.
The A-17A and the MIL-W-3818A
Though there were several military watches produced in the 10-15 years immediately following World War II, the MIL-W-3818A and A-17A were particularly well-made, and nearly identical to one another in their specs. Both watches feature parkerized steel cases, screw-down case backs, oversized crowns, drilled lugs and black 24-hour dials with luminescent numerals and handsets. The handsets themselves differ slightly (as do the movements — while the A-17A uses a 15-jewel hacking movement, there is some confusion as to whether the MIL-W-3818A was originally meant to be fitted with a 15 or 17-jewel version), but these were otherwise nearly identical watches.
As MIL-W-3818A and A-17A watches used many of the same parts, and the military supply chain’s chief directive regarding these watches was to get non-functioning ones back into the field as soon as possible, many of these can be found on eBay with a hand or case back that is technically “incorrect” (i.e. not “born” with the watch), but that was in fact affixed to the watch during its military service (the watch in the lead image to this article features a MIL-W-3818A case back, for instance, but A-17A minute and hour hands). Despite a case size that is downright diminutive by today’s standards (roughly 31.5mm without the crown), these models can be had for between $100 and $200 in great condition (often with either an original or NOS canvas strap), and if you can pull off a small watch with confidence, they’re an incredible bargain and worth pursuing.
The DTU-2A/P and MIL-W-46374D
Though there have been countless variations of the Vietnam-through-Gulf-era American military watch produced during a 40-year period, there are several specific references that stand out with regard to price and reliability, the first of which is the DTU-2A/P from Benrus.
The DTU-2A/P, produced in the mid- to late-1960s, was the first manifestation of the MIL-W-3818B spec, which called for a 17-jewel, hacking wristwatch with a parkerized steel case, a black dial with numerals and indices in white and an inner ring with military time, hands filled with green luminescent paint (tritium), an acrylic crystal, and an orange-tipped second hand also painted with tritium. The movement featured 17 jewels, hacking, a 36-hour power reserve, and accuracy of +/- 30 seconds per day. These are well-made, reliable watches that were meant to be serviceable (albeit via the crystal, as they utilized a monobloc case), and many abound in good condition today, frequently with awesome patina.
Another collectible reference and one of my personal favorites is the MIL-W-46374D Type 1, produced (to the best of my knowledge) only in 1988. This is a steel-cased, screw-back watch made by Hamilton with a 17-jewel, hand-winding ETA movement, a thin dial font, and the “H3” and radioactive symbols on the dial, indicating the presence of tritium. Because these were only produced for one year, their quantities are slightly more scarce, but they can still be had for a bargain and they’re accurate, serviceable watches.
Both of the aforementioned references are roughly 34mm in diameter (the DTU-2A/P is slightly wider) and feature 18mm lug widths, so you have to be able to pull off a smaller watch, but if you can do it, the results are well worth it. They look great on single-pass or Nato straps, of course, but look equally good on thin, two-piece leather straps, and they’re perfectly at home in the field (there are watches with better, more modern feature sets that are admittedly better choices for field watches today, but these references will still do nicely). What’s more, if you’re particularly diligent and willing to pay a bit more (think $300-$500), you can sometimes find one of these with its original 1-piece nylon strap and cardboard box as delivered to the military, adorned with nothing but spec numbers, date, and other military markings.
At any given time, even a cursory search on eBay for MIL-W-3818A, A-17A, DTU-2A/P or MIL-W-46374D will yield myriad results of used American military watches from the Korean War era through the Gulf War era, many of which are in functional condition, and most of which sell or hammer for less than $300 (you can widen the search further and type in “MIL-W-46374” or “GG-W-113” to check out some other references not mentioned here — just be sure to do some research as to the particular watch’s feature set and condition). Many of these watches feature mechanical movements, radium or tritium illumination, parkerized or brushed steel cases and plastic crystals — all the hallmarks of a Classic Tool Watch. Some featured single-piece plastic cases and cheap movements that were meant to be disposed of once broken, while others featured steel screw-back cases with 17-jewel ETA movements and still function perfectly well today — all it takes is a bit of research as to what it is you’re looking at, and you can make an informed decision and buy a functional piece of military history for a couple hundred bucks. What’s not to like?
So the next time you’re perusing eBay on one of those late-night watch-recon binges, do yourself a favor — provided the watch checks all the boxes, hit the “Buy It Now” button or place a bid on one of these bad boys. They’re pieces of American military history, they’re all “form-follows-function,” they’re made in a timeless size, they look great, they’re a bargain…
…oh, and they tell the time, too.