This Affordable New Military Watch Is Even Better Than the Vintage Original
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During wrist-testing for this review, just about everyone who saw the new Hamilton Khaki Pilot Pioneer Mechanical reacted with the same wide-eyed “wow” enthusiasm. How does such a small, simple watch do that? Originally built by Hamilton in the early 1970s for the British military, this is a faithful and remarkably well-executed reissue of a vintage watch commonly called the W10 — and if these experiences are any indication, it’s sure to be a hit.
Case Size: 33mm wide, 36mm lug-to-lug
Water Resistance: 100m
Movement: Manually wound Hamilton H-50
Power Reserve: 80 hours
Price: $845 (nylon), $895 (leather)
Notable: The Khaki Pilot Pioneer recreates the historic Hamilton and CWC W10, (albeit in a smaller case size), but it also serves to generally reference Hamilton’s extensive history of military watches. On paper, 33mm or 34mm sounds small to those familiar with modern watch specifications — but measurements can be deceiving, as this watch proves by wearing exceptionally well. Without a screw-down crown, a water-resistance of 100m is pretty darn good and is consistent with the watch’s rugged backstory.
Who It’s For: The Hamilton Khaki Pilot Pioneer Mechanical will easily appeal to a wide audience. Arguably intended for enthusiasts and vintage fans, it’s equally attractive to those who appreciate it for its sturdy build and military pedigree — or just its stylish looks on the NATO strap. Its quality, specs, and price make the Khaki Pilot Pioneer easy to recommend to any of them, as long as an oversized wrist-presence isn’t a strict requirement.
Alternatives: Two watches in particular beg direct comparison to the Hamilton Khaki Pilot Pioneer. The first is from Hamilton itself with the Khaki Field Mechanical. It’s also based on a military-issued watch, uses the same hand-wound movement, and is moderately sized (38mm). A big difference, however, is that the Khaki Field in its most basic form doesn’t feel as refined, but it also costs significantly less than the Pilot Pioneer.
The other watch that’s notably comparable is from a lesser-known brand, CWC, which shares the W10 history with Hamilton. It produces a modern W10 of its own using an ETA 2824 automatic movement, measuring a bit larger at 38mm in a tonneau shape, and also costing a little less than Hamilton’s version.
The story, in brief, goes that Hamilton was long a major supplier of watches to various militaries, from the time of its American origins right into its later era of Swiss production. The Khaki Pilot Pioneer’s background is rooted in watches made for the British from the late 1960s called the W10, and specifically one for the Royal Air Force. Like many other watches produced for governments and armed forces, they were ordered as military equipment with exact specifications dictating design traits, as well as durability, legibility, and accuracy features.
The W10 was first produced by a British company called Smiths until financial issues forced the government to begin procuring W10 watches from abroad. Along with CWC, Hamilton made the W10 from 1973 to 1976, and they featured the quite ’70s-looking tonneau case shape the brand has brought back in the 2019 Khaki Pilot Pioneer. With a very similar dial design, it is interesting that the earlier Smiths W10 watches were round — so the specs may have changed over time, or may not have specified a case shape.
The new Hamilton Khaki Pilot Pioneer has maintained many features of the original W10s, from their case profile and raised mineral crystals to the use of manually wound movements. For 2019, the brand has used a similar font for its logo as the 1970s models, but left out the circled “T” beneath it (denoting the dial’s use of luminescent tritium) and the “broad arrow” symbol above 6 o’clock (which designated an item as British government property). It’s probably good they can be easily distinguished from exact replicas, after all.
At first glance, the beige (often called faux-aged) lume color makes this reissue look even more like a vintage model — and that’s no accident, as it’s clearly also leaning on that nostalgic retro charm that seems to drive much of the watch industry nowadays. Those beige elements on the dial all glow a crisp green in low light, though not quite as bright or as long as one would ideally hope for, while the Arabic numerals in white don’t. Straightforward readability is key to good watch design, and the textured black dial and anti-reflective-coated crystal are part of that.
The movement, of course, is updated as well, but the use of a manually wound option also seems intended to remain true to the vintage model, as well as to keep the finely brushed steel case nice and thin. Behind a solid case back, the H-50 is a basic version of the Swatch Group’s updated 80-hour-power-reserve movement family based on ETA calibers, but this one was apparently developed specially for Hamilton. The winding experience is notably solid, smooth, and pleasant.
The pragmatic dial design with its matte finish and excellent legibility go a long way in helping the Hamilton Khaki Pilot Pioneer Mechanical stand out, but its vintage sizing is really what makes it look and feel special. While you can’t find many watches made today and marketed for men at this size, serious military looks don’t leave its masculinity in question (though it can also work well on women’s wrists). Anyway, the soldiers that wore 33mm watches in the 20th century wars were anything but sissies.
Verdict: It’s easy to name the Khaki Pilot Pioneer Mechanical as one of the best watches of 2019 under $1,000, though it will be interesting to see enthusiasts’ reactions, particularly to its size. While not representing an original design, the watch does offer something distinctive on the modern watch market, and maintaining the original size is arguably what makes it work so well.
Some might expect sapphire crystal and the convenience of an automatic movement at this price level, but the lack of these features can each be justified as appropriate for the vintage theme. The same could be said for an exhibition case back. You could get a vintage original, sure, but the new version offers a similar wearing experience, only improved with modern production and without the hassle of vintage maintenance. At a retail price at launch of $845 on grey textile NATO-style strap or $895 with a brown leather NATO, Hamilton has hit it out of the park with the Khaki Pilot Pioneer Mechanical.
The affordable end of the mechanical-watch spectrum can feel lacking in captivating pieces, but the Hamilton Field Khaki has so much to bring to the table.