I have always been a great fan of the tritium vials used on many United States military watches (and of course the plethora of civilian versions on the market during the last few years). For me, there has always been something almost magical about the glow that these tubes give off during the hours of darkness. The general interest in genuine military watches continues unabated; indeed, various versions of previously issued and current issue United States military timepieces are available via various online sources so it is not particularly difficult to find either a military or military inspired watch using this innovative lighting source.
United States military issued watches are an interesting and far reaching area of horology in itself and I wouldn’t begin to try and explain the history of tritium tube equipped watches here. Suffice to say, that the tube equipped ‘Navigator’ perhaps came to prominence after Desert Shield and Desert Storm. I learned of the existence of these watches via a UK watch wholesaler who had previously supplied the UK Ministry of Defence with watches branded ‘Precista’ – indeed, in their catalogues of 1993-1995 there was what was essentially the USA issued Navigator watch but signed Precista on the dial. Only later did I discover that the watch behind the Precista was the USA issue one. This was the watch which whet my appetite for a timepiece I could truly read in the dark (and give me two time zones to boot) though there were shortcomings (for example the quartz movement) as far as I was concerned so I moved on.
Since the mid 1990s I have kept my eye open for a tritium vial equipped timepiece which came up to the specification I need in an everyday wearer. Thus, in addition to the all important tubes I required a watch of 40mm or less in diameter made of steel, a 12 hour bezel, water resistance of 100 meters or more (in conjunction with a screw down crown), a dial free from what I consider to be unnecessary verbiage and what has thus far proven quite elusive – an automatic movement. One or two pieces came close to what I required but were in my opinion somewhat overpriced and didn’t have the utilitarian look to the dial which I prefer.
It would seem that the supply and use of the tritium equipped vials is closely regulated in addition to being linked (in terms of supply) to one particular company in Switzerland, namely Mb Microtec whose name can be found on the reverse of many civilian marketed products such as the H3 and Traser watch brands. Due to this narrow supply it appears that many of the wristwatches on the market have shared more than the tubes used on the hands and dials. In this respect, for some time the cases and dials used by the likes of Luminox, Traser and more recently Ball Watch Company were all but identical on some models. I always appreciated that due to the tubular nature of the lighting elements, then there was some restriction on how they could be used practically on the dial and hands of a watch; however, in my view there was no reason why casework could not be more traditional thus I continued to wait for the elusive to come along.
In early 2004 a watch came on the market which it seemed was all I required in a tritium vial equipped watch. Furthermore, it was made available by a fellow watch enthusiast and respected internet watch and accessory dealer, Howard Marx of Westcoastime in the USA. I recently became the proud owner of the Westcoastime M-16 II.
The Westcoastime (WCT) M-16 II is derived from a combination of the popular Ollech and Wajs M series dive watch and the current issue USA field watch. It is this melding of two watches that makes the WCT that little bit different from the other offerings currently available commercially which employ tritium vials. It is no secret that watch enthusiasts will attempt to combine elements of different timepieces in order to attain something that meets their requirements. Often however, this requires the purchase of two, even three watches if parts are not available and obviously, great care in the disassembly and reassembly of the desired watch. Specialist tools may be needed which would be beyond the reach of many.
What Westcoastime have done in this case is to take this ‘frankenwatch’ concept and turn it into a commercial reality. That is not to say that the M-16 II will appeal to all, but for those who require military austerity of design coupled with certain practicalities for everyday wear then it may be just the answer.
In this respect then, we have an unbranded automatic watch which is rated to 200 meters water resistance, employs a steel case and combines this with hands and dial which use perhaps the best self-powered illumination system currently available.
There are two versions of this watch available, the first employs a standard 60 minute diver bezel and the second is equipped with a 12 hour bezel. It is the latter which is the subject of this review.
The M-16 comes packaged in an aluminium flight case type box with black lining and a black padded pillow onto which the watch is strapped. For those readers who appreciate the packaging of a watch then the M-16 should meet expectations in this regard. The use of the aluminium box should ensure that the watch arrives safely wherever the purchaser might be based and of course befits the tool watch or utility watch nature of the beast.
In my case, I specifically asked for no aluminium box when I ordered from Westcoastime; this was simply to save on shipping a little and as strange as it may seem to other watch enthusiasts, I am not really interested in packaging! However, Westcoastime packed my watch in a small rigid plastic container surrounded by plenty of protective bubble wrap and in three days from date of order the watch arrived safely in Thailand.
The case of the M-16 certainly has a familiar style to it and I have no doubt that many readers would agree that at first glance, the watch is reminiscent of perhaps the most famous sports watch in existence. Whether or not this is a negative point is I think totally subjective – however, on closer inspection the case is certainly not a clone of the ubiquitous Submariner or GMT Master. Profile and cut are quite different when one examines things a little more closely.
Across the bezel the diameter is 37.5 mm with the case itself adding another 1 mm to this dimension. The bezel is available in either a 60 minute diver configuration or in a 12 hour version as being reviewed here. From a personal perspective, I find the 12 hour bezel eminently more useful on an everyday basis – I can keep track of two time zones by glancing quickly at the watch. This configuration is as used on USA issued Navigator watches and from a cost perspective, negates the need for a ‘complicated’ movement; as an aside on this issue, the most oft used automatic calibre for a second time zone is the ETA 2893 which employs an adjustable 24 hour hand – for me, I would prefer an extra 12 hour hand which I find more intuitive but both the 24 and 12 hour extra hands come at a price, with the latter being somewhat of a rarity on non chronograph timepieces.
So, the 12 hour bezel it is and I have had no problems at all in determining quickly the time in the second zone. The bezel is unidirectional and ratchets at 60 clicks per full revolution. I assume that the unidirectional nature of the bezel is simply due to the fact that the M-16 is derived from a dive watch. I don’t find this a problem personally and believe that the same is true of other 12 hour bezel equipped watches. The reader will notice that the bezel is marked at the half hour intervals with luminous dots – I presume these to be Luminova of some variety and they do add to the aesthetics of the bezel which I feel might look a little austere without them. The insert itself appears to be anodised aluminium and is replaceable.
The bezel is very firm in its attachment and action with the ratchets being precise. There is little danger of accidentally turning the bezel with the M-16.
The case itself is of traditional design with particularly fine brushing to the top. This gives a pleasing satin effect which should be easy enough to refinish should the lug tops become scratched. The remainder of the case is polished with the case sides being finished to a high standard with good sheen; one aspect of the case which deserves attention is the thickness – the M-16 measures 11.5 mm to the top of the crystal. In itself this is not an excessive thickness for an automatic sports watch, however, the construction of the watch is such that it manages to hide much of what thickness there is.
The other watch which springs to mind which accomplishes this is the Omega Speedmaster Professional. In a similar fashion to the Omega, the M-16 manages to hide some of its thickness through a relatively narrow case band (i.e. case side); thus, when on the wrist, the watch does not appear to be as thick as it truly is, particularly when worn with a standard NATO strap as pictured right.
As mentioned earlier, the M-16 is water resistant to 200 meters (each watch is individually pressure tested prior to despatch), more than enough for most people and this is achieved through both screw down crown and case back. The crown is fully protected by case shoulders and there is a generous amount of thread on the tube. The turns necessary (approximately four) to fully screw the crown down inspire confidence.
The case back is concentrically machined and with Ollech and Wajs model number, water resistance rating, original country of manufacture, case material and movement type. A standard six slot arrangement is used to open the back.
The lug width of the M-16 is 20 mm; thus a variety of easily available straps can be used along with bracelets if required as the bars are not fixed but spring equipped.
Dial, Hands and Crystal
The dial and hands of the M-16 are really what this watch is all about. In short, both come from the aforementioned USA field watch and are designed to be legible under all conditions – day or night. What we have is a combination of a traditional Arabic numeral dial coupled with the tritium vials referred to thus far in this review.
So, what exactly are the tritium vials? In brief and very basic terms: tritium vials (gaseous tritium light sources) are sealed glass tubes, the inner surface of which are coated with phosphor. The sealed tubes are filled with gaseous tritium which emits electrons which in turn excite the phosphor, causing it to glow. Thus, no external light source is required to charge the tubes and they will continue to glow constantly. For how long? Tritium in this form has a half life of 12.3 years which basically means that half the existing glow will be lost after a further 12.3 years. For all intents and purposes, one could expect a useable glow from the tubes for 12 to 15 years from new/fresh.
Firstly to the dial: as can be seen, the M-16 employs Arabic numerals in a 12 hour layout with a military 13:00 to 24:00 hour layout on a smaller inner scale. These are painted in white on a matt black background and are standard fare for current and previously issued USA military watches. Legible and straightforward, there is no mistake when reading the dial and with the bezel numerals in close proximity, no mistake when reading another time zone. The only other markings on the dial are the H3 symbol (denoting the use of tritium) and the radioactive ‘propeller’ symbol. For my tastes the less script on a watch dial the better and the M-16 excels in this respect.
Each of the 12 hour numerals is equipped with a tritium vial at its extremity; these are coloured green (which, incidentally is the easiest colour for the human eye to define at night) save for the 12 hour vial which is orange. The reason for the one orange vial is no doubt self explanatory in terms of orienting the watch correctly if complete darkness surrounds the user and for example the watch is not being worn on the wrist.
By night, the dial of the M-16 is a sight to behold and in my experience, nothing comes close in terms of instant and bright glow. Wake up in the early hours and there is no doubt as to the superiority of this system over both traditional tritium painted and the more modern Luminova dials.
Even under partial light conditions such as in the confines of an aircraft cockpit (or a car!), the tritium vial system certainly gives great visibility as the images demonstrate.
All timekeeping hands are painted in matt white and are again lifted directly from the USA issued watch. The shape of the hands is not unique to this style of watch and I believe I have seen this design on British military chronographs of many decades ago. The difference in this case is of course that the hours and minutes hands are equipped with an appropriately dimensioned tritium vial each. The vials are attached to the hands via fold down tabs and in each case approximately 75 percent of the vial diameter stands proud of the hand. The seconds hand is not equipped with a vial.
In brief, during low light and darkness, the dial/hands combination used here is extraordinarily legible and will continue to be so for a minimum of 12 years.
I believe that the standard Ollech and Wajs watch upon which the M-16 is based comes with a flat mineral crystal with cyclops lens. Westcoastime have changed this to a tastefully domed mineral which would seem to be very thick (flicking the crystal with one’s fingernail gives a satisfying thud). The dome in this case is subtle and suits the watch very well. Reflections are minimal so the dome does not detract from legibility at all. I feel that a flat crystal would look out of place and the domed profile reflects the military line which forms part of the ‘heritage’ of this piece.
Most reasonably priced tritium vial equipped watches use some form of quartz movement, many are specified with a service life of 5 years and could almost be designated as ‘disposable’. The M-16 is an exception in that it utilises an industry standard Swiss automatic in the form of the ETA 2824-2. Most watch lovers will have heard of the 2824, however for those readers who are unfamiliar, here are the basic specifications:
Beats Per Hour: 28,800
Diameter: 25.6 mm
Height: 4.8 mm
Power Reserve: approximately 40 hours
Winding by central rotor in both directions
Incabloc shock resistance (other systems sometimes employed)
Hacking (seconds stop)
Date indication (quickset)
The ETA 2824-2 is available with various options and in various stages of finish. Westcoastime informed me that in this case, the movement used, whilst undecorated is of a higher grade and perfectly capable of Chronometer accuracy; indeed, apparently all watches are timed and adjusted during assembly.
A good choice of movement for the M-16 I feel as service can be performed almost anywhere and the 2824 has a reputation for solid, accurate performance with great reliability. As standard, the 2824 comes with a date feature; in terms of the dial of the M-16 this has been omitted though the date work is still present – I have found this to be the case with many non date dial 2824 equipped watches and I do not feel that this detracts from the selection of movement.
In terms of accuracy, I have worn my example (24 hours per day) for exactly one week and it has been averaging plus 4 seconds per day thus far. I would expect it to slow a little as it breaks in so I am more than happy with the performance to date and of course, it is well within Chronometer accuracy as it stands.
The M-16 is supplied as standard on a very heavy duty Rhino BR-2 strap; however, I asked if I could opt for a standard NATO instead and that was no problem. The watch would appear to suit any colour of NATO strap and is eminently versatile in that respect. I have had the standard Rhino straps before and I have to say that they are the most rugged watch strap I have ever worn; they would appear to be practically unbreakable. Given the relatively thin stature of the M-16, I felt that for my use a NATO would be more suitable; however for larger wrists the Rhino would be no problem at all.
Westcoastime offer an optional ‘Oyster’ styled bracelet for the M-16 featuring solid links with adjustment via screws as opposed to split pins. This, I feel would give the watch a more dressy yet still sporty appearance (the bracelet has a double folding safety clasp and diver’s extension link) and I am sure that it would look fine with more formal attire thus making this watch suitable for just about any occasion.
As a project undertaken to satisfy an apparent demand for a steel cased sports automatic with tritium vials I think that Westcoastime have performed a most satisfactory job.
In the case of my example, execution, fit/finish and performance are all extremely good. As a watch enthusiast I have seen many watches and often thought that a combination of two or even three of them would be a good idea. In this case, one such combination has been brought to market on a small scale but with thought and care.
The M-16 is certainly versatile and should any reader be in the market for an automatic with superb luminosity and a military ‘feel’ then I would certainly advise them to give consideration to this watch. It is priced at US$398.00 and is exclusively available from Westcoastime. I personally like to own watches with something ‘different’ about them – the WCT M-16 gives me a light show every night and I never need to change the battery!
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