Vintage Watch Wednesday: Military A-11 G1 Watches

Mar 17, 2014

Each year on the 4th of July, we are reminded of the freedoms that Americans so often take for granted. We owe so much to the Greatest Generation, the brave American men and women who fought in all corners of the world to preserve our liberty.

In the early 1940s, America – and the world – faced a threat, the likes of which had never before been seen on Earth, from the Axis powers of Germany and Japan. Countries were falling like dominoes across Europe and Asia and the United States joined the fight against fascism, tyranny, and genocide. A mobilization of American military might, on an unprecedented scale, followed the attack on Pearl Harbor as millions of Americans joined the fight as soldiers, sailors, and airmen. The American Industrial Machine sprang to life, cranking out military equipment, vehicles, arms, and ammunition, as well as supplying our troops with everything from boots to bayonets in mass quantity.

Military GI A11 Watch

As our troops mobilized to the frontlines of Europe, Africa, and the Pacific, they brought with them the first wristwatches to be mass-produced for military use. Watches had been worn on the wrist since the 1860s, but it wasn’t until WWII that the wristwatch became a staple of men’s attire, albeit initially from a purely utilitarian standpoint. These pieces were manufactured by several notable American watch brands under contract to the US Government.

Known to collectors by the contract specification, A-11, they were more commonly referred to as “GI Watches” (General Issue). Supplied by Waltham, Elgin, Bulova, the A-11 GI’s were manufactured in chromium plated nickel alloy, brass, or other “lesser” materials to save stainless steel and aluminum for other war effort priorities such as tanks and aircraft. Each brand had subtle variations to their design, but featured a sterile, non-branded dial with easy to read hour and minute markings, perfect for field use. The movements were a simple manual-winding unit required to keep at least 30 hours power reserve. They were effective tools primarily due to their overt simplicity.

Considered small by today’s standards (the case size of an A-11 is about 32mm), there is nothing minimal about their contribution to the war effort. Today, A-11s are among the most affordable collector timepieces on the market, due primarily to their massive production volumes, and the fact that many soldiers kept them after the war ended. In fact, it was really in peacetime after the end of the war that the wristwatch became a commonly worn piece of men’s kit, and launched the fashion and tool watch trends that we still enjoy today.

Despite their affordability, simplicity, and relative abundance, the A-11 is a timepiece that every vintage enthusiast should have in their collection. The importance of the watch is perhaps unmatched in the entire history of timekeeping. While they haven’t earned any world records for having been taken to the moon or to the bottom of the ocean, they were worn by the men who saved the world from the greatest evils the world had ever known, allowing us the freedom to conquer the sea and stars in peace.

Words by: James Lamdin – A vintage watch connoisseur and founder of analog/shift, an online boutique for a curated selection of exceptional wristwatches.

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