Vintage: Vietnam War Era U.S. Military Field Watches

Several readers have asked me how they might get started collecting vintage watches. The world of new watches is already fairly vast, but when you add all the watches that were ever built to the mix, it can be overwhelming. Certainly, there are plenty of nice pieces out there in the $1000 and up range, but what if a Bum like myself wanted to just dip a toe into the antique watch waters? What is the best vintage watch for a modern cheapskate? To find out, I sat down with Zaf Basha of ClassicWatch.com. Zaf has bought and sold thousands of vintage watches over the years and knows a thing or two about watches at all points of the price spectrum. He recommended the humble field watch issued to American servicemen from the 1950s through the 1970s. They have the right look, quality mechanical movements, loads of history, and can be easily found in good condition in the decidedly Bum-friendly $250-350 range. 
1969 Benrus GG-W-113
1969 Benrus
To understand military issued watches, you first need to understand a bit about government purchasing. When the government contracts for goods, it does not shop like the rest of us. Instead of surveying the market and choosing from what is available, it publishes detailed criteria for exactly what it needs, and private companies submit proposals for how they will meet that need, and at what cost. As a result, a number of different companies produced US military issue watches under different contracts at different times. For the sake of simplicity, I will focus on those watches most likely to have been issued at the time of the Vietnam War, 1964-1975. 

Our story begins with specification MIL-W-3818B, issued by the Department of Defense for a general purpose watch. The contract was first awarded in February 1964. The specs required a 17 jewel hand wound movement, with accuracy of +/- 30 seconds per day, and a second hand setting feature ("hacking"). The steel case was a mere 34-35mm wide, antimagnetic, and water resistant. Many were made with fixed lugs instead of spring bars, requiring a pass through strap. The crystal was domed acrylic. The dial established the template for the American "field watch": a black dial with 12 hours in Arabic numerals, an inner ring marking 24 hour time with smaller Arabic numerals, and a 60 increment index with darts at each hour marker. 
ETA 2750

In the same time period, GG-W-113 was issued by the General Services Administration (GSA). It was a general federal specification that was nearly identical to the  MIL-W-3818B. The most significant difference was that it required a minimum 15 jewels movement, as opposed to the DOD specification 17 jewels. The GSA specification applied to watch contracts across the federal government, including the armed services.

MIL-W-46374 was issued in October 1964 to procure a low cost, disposable alternative to the MIL-W-3818B. The spec provided for either metal or plastic cased watches with minimal shock or water protections, and a lower accuracy, non-hacking movement. The cases were sealed, so any maintenance must be done by accessing the movement through the front. Remember, these were designed to be used until destroyed and replaced, but their hardy mechanical movements will respond to servicing. The MIL-W-46374 entered service in September 1968 and production continued with various revisions through the late 1980's when quartz movements became the norm.

These watches were made by Benrus, Belforte, Westclox, Hamilton, Timex, and Stocker and Yale. All of these watches will bear case back markings with contract type, federal stock number, manufacturing part number, contract number, manufacture month and year, and serial number. 
1979 Hamilton GG-W-113 case back
1979 Hamilton case back
Zaf provided two GG-W-113 watches for a test drive: a Benrus from September 1969, and a Hamilton from October 1979. Both use the hacking, hand winding, 17 jewel ETA caliber 2750 movement. The round cases are a matte frosted finish stainless steel that has held up nicely. The dials are standard field watch spec and uncluttered by brand name or other text. The luminous darts and hands still light up nicely under an ultraviolet light, but fade quickly. Like all of the watches in this specification, they used illumination paint that included tritium, which is a radioactive material. It is unlikely to be dangerous to the wearer, particularly after a few decades of decay (the real risk was borne by the workers who handled the material). Of course, by now the illumination has long since faded. You can only ask so much of 30 to 40 year old material. It was nice to see that all three hands are luminous – or at least they once were. 
1969 Benrus and 1979 Hamilton GG-W-113
1969 Benrus (left), 1979 Hamilton (right)
The dial layout is identical on the two watches and the hands extend right into their respective markers, making for easy and accurate readability.  Of the two, the older Benrus looks much better, with sharp printing on the numerals and crisp edges on the darts. The later Hamilton dial is less defined. While it is still quite legible, the numerals have softer edges and the darts looked slightly blobby. 

They are rather small by today's standards, measuring only 34mm; however, their broad dials and domed acrylic crystals create ample wrist presence. That dome, along with the long tapered lugs, lend the watches a certain old school formality you would not expect in a tool watch. On a smaller wrist like mine, the proportions are just right. In spite of their diminutive size, they have a tough, purposeful look. They have an appealing patina, showing the signs of years of use, but not abuse. You have to admire their utilitarian simplicity. 

Lug width is interesting. I had assumed they would be 18mm but when I tried to fit a nylon NATO, it proved to be too tight a squeeze. I whisked them off to Time Bum Laboratories where my state-of-the-art $12 calipers showed they measured between 17.65mm and 17.8mm. I tried fitting a 1950's vintage, 16mm canvas strap, but that proved unsatisfactory, displaying far too much spring bar. I dug around the strap drawer and finally found a soft leather 18mm NATO that was pliable enough to fit. Thin nylon NATOs should work as well. The Hamilton has fixed lugs, while the earlier Benrus has a conventional spring bar with drilled lugs. Personally, I prefer spring bars as they allow you to fit a two-piece strap, which would be a nice look on this watch, elevating it from the field to the office.

When buying vintage, you must remember that these watches are not factory fresh. Watch movements tend to be fairly hardy, but even the most pampered watch will succumb to ravages of age and wear. In addition, every watch has an Achilles Heel, and on these it is the two-piece design of the crown stem. By now, many a stem has split for good, so it is not uncommon to find these watches with missing or damaged crowns. I would recommend purchasing your first vintage piece from a reputable seller like ClassicWatch.com that services the watches before sale. This will not guarantee a lifetime of trouble free service, but it will keep you from spending good money on a dud. If you decide to buy from a classified ad or eBay, consider the cost of an overhaul when making your offer.

US military watches from this era are not as common as they once were, but there are more than enough out there to warrant careful shopping. There is no reason to settle for a damaged watch or an unsympathetic restoration. Better to hold out for a properly serviced survivor. In fact if you are, shall we say, of a certain age, you can use the manufacture date on the back to hunt down a watch that shares your birthday. Whatever you choose, a good mil-spec hand winder like these will be a fine addition to your collection, with a rich history and decades of service still ahead. 

GG-W-113 1969 Benrus
1969 Benrus (detail)

1969 Benrus (left), 1979 Hamilton (right) GG-W-113
1969 Benrus (left), 1979 Hamilton (right)
1969 Benrus GG-W-113 wrist shot
1969 Benrus on leather NATO strap

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