Let's explore the military chronograph, concentrating on chronograph wristwatches used for military purposes by ground forces...
From researching this article, it's clear that trying to categorise military chronographs intended specifically for ground troops is hard. Much harder, in fact, than categorising, say, aviation or motorsport chronographs by their primary purpose. Try it! Omega Speedmaster? A motor racing watch that became the ultimate pilot chronograph when it flew to the moon. No doubt there. Another example? The Breguet Type 20 Flyback Chronograph? Primarily a pilot's watch – no argument there either. Now try this with any chronograph wristwatch that you've historically associated with land forces? It's not easy, so please read on...
The purest military chronographs for ground forces?
At the time of the First World War, wrist chronographs with telemeter scales were mainly for ground use. Even then, standalone telemeters and pocket watch chronographs were widely used by artillerymen. Wristwatch chronographs weren't the sole artillery rangefinder's timepiece – they were simply too new. Maybe then, the WW1-era telemeter wrist chronographs were the purest chronograph wristwatches for ground forces. Perhaps everything after that was just an adaptation of a motoring or aviation chronograph? Let's see...
Aviation timekeeping has clearly been the main role of military chronographs since the early twentieth-century. Furthermore, many wrist chronographs used by ground forces were primarily conceived for aviation. In Dr Konrad Knirim's Militäruhren (an excellent German military watch resource), there aren't many military chronograph wristwatches for ground troops amid the pocket watches and aviation chronographs. Examples quoted include the sidereal time Heuers and Tutima's 5100 BWL 2 used by Bundeswehr ground forces since the 1950s. But then again, these were chiefly aviation chronographs bought for Germany's post-war air force...
Defining and identifying military chronographs that primarily used by land forces is difficult – maybe impossible. Often, 'military chronographs' of this type are just wrist chronographs (often procured primarily for aviation use) used by ground forces rather than dedicated 'army watches'. What's more, a century after WW1 many military (tactical) watches are simple three-handers with 24-hour numbering. Nowadays, it's also much rarer for governments to source military watches. In fact, it's generally left to individuals.
The story begins with the First World War
The result is a pool of increasingly rare and valuable vintage chronographs that were (or may have been) used by ground troops in the past. They sit alongside modern watches that draw on land-based military heritage to some extent – but rarely in the way their military diving and aviation contemporaries draw on operational use. Thirdly, the modern marketplace is rich with chronograph watches combining real or perceived military functionality with characteristics desired for general-purpose sports or outdoor-activity. Identifying military chronographs with genuine ground warfare history, or that were specifically designed for this, is difficult. The story, as for men's wristwatches and military wristwatches in general, begins with World War 1...
The wristwatch we know today emerged from late nineteenth-century wars where troops adapted pocket watches into 'wristlets'. By WW1, wristwatches were slowly gaining credibility with men – largely due to military and aviation use. If one event cemented the acceptability of wristwatches for men, it was this war. The Great War also drove innovation in watch design. Developments in practical functions such as luminosity, bezels, chronograph mechanisms, waterproofing and synchronisation determined the wristwatch aesthetic that remains today.
The modern chronograph wristwatch is born
Though wrist chronographs with telemeter scales existed during WW1, pocket watches were still widely used, but change was afoot. In Wristwatches: History of a Century's Development, Kahler, Mühe and Brunner say: 'A Belgian watchmaker had written as early as 1912 that the wristwatch, being so practical and useful, would undoubtedly become more popular among men as well as women. A German colleague, under the influence of [WW1] came to the conclusion that: "Nobody can still doubt that all those who did not want to believe that the wristwatch had a future, including all the experts in the watchmakers' shops, have been proved wrong." '
Increased adoption of wristwatches, including chronograph watches, had established the value of such timepieces for future military and civilian use.
Use of military chronograph watches in WW1 helped establish such watches for future sports, industrial and military roles. It also contributed to a new, defining identity for wristwatches that took them beyond merely being smaller, wrist-worn pocket watches.
Kahlert, Mühe and Brunner again:...'wrist chronographs had places of honor in many displays and outdid each other in watertightness, resistance to magnetic fields and refinements of their measuring abilities...'
When Gaston Breitling took over Breitling in 1914, he quickly appreciated the advantages of wristwatch chronographs for military personnel. A year later he introduced the first chronograph wristwatch with a separate pusher. This innovation, standing alone at 2 o'clock instead of within the main crown, transformed chronograph watches. To quote the contemporary Revue internationale de l'horlogerie et des branches annexes, '...[the pusher] is more easily reached and so makes the observation more practical and reliable.' The modern military chronograph wristwatch was born.
Image courtesy of Fratello Watches / www.fratellowatches.com
How does a watch telemeter scale work?
That 1915 Breitling was advertised as a Bracelet Chronographe-Compteur. But without the telemeter that would soon be a defining characteristic of wrist chronographs.
In The Wristwatch Handbook, Ryan Schmidt writes, '...the telemeter was a key tool for calculating firing ranges.' As we've seen, both sides in WW1 used standalone and hand-held optical telemeters for range finding. However, though optical rangefinders had existed for decades, telemeters on military pocket watches, and to a lesser degree wrist chronographs, were still widely used.
So what is the acoustic telemeter that's a characteristic of so many chronographs? It deserves a brief explanation.
Until WW1, various standalone and hand-held optical rangefinders were used by infantry, cavalry and artillery. From 1892 when Theodore Schaedeli invented the telemetric chronograph, so were pocket watches. Later, though not replacing telemeters, the wrist-worn telemeter watch brought new convenience to range finding. It was a microcosm of the overall changes brought to all military timing by the new acceptance of men wearing wristwatches.
Whether a telemetric chronograph is a pocket or wristwatch, a central chronograph hand indicates on a calibrated scale on the dial or rehaut. Unlike optical devices, telemetric chronographs work because sound and light travel at different speeds. To discover range, the chronograph is started when a gun flash is seen. When the corresponding report is heard, the chronograph is stopped and its hand shows the distance.
Nowadays, microwaves, lasers and other technology has replaced traditional optical or acoustic telemeters. Telemetric chronographs primarily remain as interesting legacy features.
We're not covering chronographs specifically designed for pilots here. But we were curious about the appearance of telemeters on aviation chronographs. When we asked Dr Konrad Knirim, an authority on German military watches and author of Militäruhren, about this, he wasn't aware of aviation applications for telemeter chronographs.
Other sources suggest that before modern onboard weather instrumentation, pilots on the ground may have occasionally used telemeter functions for calculating distances to thunderstorms storms.
Maybe the reason lies in estimating storm distances or reflects a feature originally intended for ground warfare. Either way, it's perplexing that most military chronographs used by ground forces – for instance the Heuer Bundeswehr – were designed primarily for flyers.
Image courtesy of Fratello Watches / www.fratellowatches.com
What defines ground forces' military chronographs?
By WW2, wrist chronographs, with their now-characteristic design language, were available from many companies. Single ('mono') and double pusher watches were available from companies whose names have now disappeared (such as Tronador and Gander) as well as others that remain familiar. For single-pusher chronos, two o' clock positioning was usual. However, there are interesting exceptions, such as a Pierce wrist chronograph with its mono pusher at four o' clock!
During our research, it became clear that military chronographs have long been more focused on aviation than ground forces. You need only search Google to see the predominance of aviation-related results. It's not surprising given the importance of timing tasks for navigation.
So what defines ground troops' military chronographs? During WW1, a telemeter scale would have been a key differentiator. Soon, with less military importance on this function, any differentiation between specifically ground and aviation watches was disappearing. The temptingly simple answer is that a military chronograph for ground forces is any chronograph watch used by them.
Another approach to defining ground troops' military chronographs is as watches issued to them by the military. Or how about a watch meeting military standards, such as UK DEF STANs?
Maybe 40 years ago, but by the late twentieth-century, armed forces were less likely to source and issue any watches, let alone expensive chronographs. In fact, stories abound of British preference for issuing a non-chrono wristwatch and a stopwatch rather than a chronograph. This is a reason British WW2 military chronographs, such as Army Air Observation crews' and artillery rangefinders' Orator watches, are so rare.
Image courtesy of classicheuers / classicheuers.blogspot.co.uk
Along with other similar standards, Britain's DEFSTAN 66-004 - 'watches, chronograph, wrist' was withdrawn in 1990. Nowadays, troops usually source their own watches, unless specialised timepieces are required for a specific mission.
Since WW2, as well as predominance of pilot and dive watches, ground forces' military watches have increasingly been simple, tactical watches. By the 1970s, four manufacturers dominated supply of British military chronograph wristwatches. So-called 'British military asymmetrical chronographs' were simple, reliable, black chronos with Valjoux 7733 movements. The vast majority were for air force and naval use. Around the world, the same aviation focus is apparent. Chronograph wristwatches simply aren't usually essential equipment for most soldiers.
Another reason in the demise of mechanical military chronographs is the emergence of cheap, reliable, digital watches. Brands include Casio (G-Shock), Traser, Luminox and Cabot Watch Company (CWC). Yet, though Cabot's website offers a CWC military chronograph, their general service watch collection doesn't.
Share this post