Welcome to Watches You Should Know, a biweekly column highlighting little-known watches with interesting backstories and unexpected influence. This week: the Type 20.
Originally made by a handful of watch companies for France’s air force between the 1950s and 1980s, the Type 20 and Type 21 pilot watches from the likes of Breguet and Dodane are some of the coolest military chronograph watches you can find today — be they vintage or modern reissues. As military watches, they exhibit the irresistible traits that make the genre so popular with current buyers — purpose-built with resulting no-nonsense design, tough specs, and an exciting backstory — but also feature a complication considered exotic in modern watches: the flyback chronograph.
Recall for a moment that there was a time when wristwatches were tools and critical military equipment. In the all-analog cockpits of mid-century aircraft, they were used for important calculations like navigation, fuel consumption, and more. They had to be legible, tough, resistant to things like shocks, pressure changes, and extreme temperatures, and they had to remain reliably accurate through it all. That durability alone requires a lot of R&D for a watch company, but the French government also felt the complicated flyback feature was necessary for pilots.
A modern reissue of the Dodane Type 21
The flyback allows a chronograph to restart from zero with a single button-push — that is, instead of the three pushes (to stop, return, and start) required to perform the same task on a regular chronograph. That might not sound like a big difference or worth the significant mechanical complication a flyback feature adds to a chronograph movement, but imagine you’re a pilot trying to time different legs of a flight while navigating — you need the ability to instantly begin a new timing interval without stopping. Hence the utility of the flyback chronograph in the cockpit.
As with many military watches, the original Type 20 and Type 21 were built to government specifications, resulting in a generally consistent look regardless of the brand producing them. A number of French watchmakers are known to have supplied the air force with the Type 20 and Type 21 watches — and it’s a slightly murky picture, but sources have named Airain, Auricoste, Boullier, Breguet, Dodane, Mathey Tissot, Seliva, and Vixa. Some featured sterile dials without even the maker’s name (again, common for military-issued watches).
Not at all completely uniform, however, the range of variations among these watches include different bezel designs, hand styles, and other details. Interestingly, some early versions by Breguet had a 15-minute register for the 3 o’clock sub-dial rather than the more usual 30-minutes totalizer. An evolution of German Luftwaffe watches such as those by Tutima and Hanhart, they are generally found to have black dials with large, lumed Arabic numerals, rotating bezels with a fluted edge, and cases measuring around 38mm wide and 14mm thick. The movements needed to have a minimum power reserve of 35 hours and be accurate to within eight seconds per day.
Both vintage and modern Type 20/21 watches are available today. The best known of the brands to produce the Type 20 and Type 21 watches are Breguet and Dodane, and both brands offer a current version of it. Breguet’s modern Type XX and Type XXI stand out from the brand’s haute horology and otherwise very formally-styled pieces, but they are also notable as the brand’s most affordable watches. Modern Dodane, on the other hand, is a brand more or less based on the heritage of its Type 21, with a catalog including a nicely done reissue and more iterations on the concept. Auricoste and Mathey Tissot also produces a modern Type 20/21.