February 13, 2023
Among all the different types of watches that exist, arguably none are better suited for the average person’s life than the classic field watch. While the underlying concept behind the field was created by the military to be a simple and straightforward timepiece that could be supplied to infantry troops, this practical and function-forward style has become incredibly popular with the general public simply because nearly everyone can appreciate a durable and easy-to-read wristwatch. Regardless of whether it assumes the role of the “beater” for the person who typically wears more luxurious designs or is simply someone’s everyday timekeeping companion, the classic field watch seems to effortlessly be able to work its way into any possible lifestyle, and it has continuously done so for numerous decades. Inherently humble and utilitarian by design, field watches represent the epitome of understated functional simplicity, offering everything you need and nothing you don’t, with zero superfluous features, whatsoever. And best of all? These days, we are absolutely spoiled for choices within this category.
The watch that is often considered to be the benchmark within this genre is the 38mm Hamilton Khaki Field Mechanical, which starts out at $575 USD and increases from there, depending on materials, case finishing, and strap choices. While Hamilton is well deserving of its place as the de facto benchmark, I’d argue that it’s possible to spend even less within this category, while also getting yourself something that offers superior functionality when it comes to serving as a carefree timekeeping companion. Although I love how the Hamilton uses a traditional manual-wind movement, this also leads to one of its greatest drawbacks. Due to the fact that you will need to manually wind the watch each day, the gaskets located at the crown and stem will inevitably receive more wear than with a quartz or automatic timepiece, and maintaining its 50 meters of water resistance will be more challenging. Additionally, while a manual-wind movement is most true to the spirit of the classic field watch, not needing to remember to wind your watch each day is undeniably convenient when you are out camping or hitting the trails on the weekend.
Affordability has always been one of the cornerstone features of field watches, and simple battery-powered quartz options are in abundance, these days. If you’re really strapped for cash, the Timex Expedition series is a treasure trove of ultra-affordable offerings, many of them priced well below a hundred dollars. That said, batteries seem to die at the absolute least convenient times, and the additional autonomy provided by either a solar or automatic movement can go a long way toward giving you additional peace of mind. Again, this category of timepieces is packed full of highly viable options, but here is a closer look at two affordable standouts: the solar-powered Citizen Garrison BM8180-03E, and the self-winding Boldr Venture Automatic.
Citizen is the market leader when it comes to producing affordable solar timepieces, and the brand has decades’ worth of experience perfecting its light-powered technology. The Citizen Garrison lineup consists of a wide variety of different military-inspired field watch models, including both time-and-date watches and chronographs. I previously wrote about the Citizen Garrison BM8560-53E, which might be the most value-driven option within the collection, but with a case diameter of 42mm, it is undeniably a bit larger than what most people are looking for in a classic easy-wearing field watch. With that in mind, the Citizen Garrison BM8180-03E (often called the “Chandler” in various region-specific marketing materials), could be seen as the smaller and more affordable alternative that sacrifices some of its larger sibling’s premium materials for a significantly lower price and a more compact case profile.
Crafted from stainless steel, the case of the Citizen Garrison BM8180-03E measures 37mm in diameter by just 9mm-thick, with 18mm lugs and an overall lug-to-lug profile of approximately 43.5mm. A simple push/pull style crown protected by two square guards sits at the 3 o’clock location, while a solid screw-down caseback helps create 100 meters of water resistance. While I very much enjoy the overall design of the case, I would have preferred to see a screw-down crown for additional (albeit unnecessary) security, and I would have really loved to see sapphire used for the crystal instead of mineral glass. Similarly, drilled lug holes would have also been a nice touch, although none of these minor gripes really come into play during actual wear and use, with the additional scratch resistance offered by a sapphire crystal being the only real tangible benefit that might become a factor over the course of long-term ownership.
The dial fitted to the Citizen Garrison BM8180-03E isn’t an exact recreation of the original mil-spec style field watch style dial, although it offers much of the same utilitarian aesthetic while still having its own unique identity. Like all Citizen watches that are powered by Eco-Drive solar movements (in this case, the Caliber E101), the gloss black dial fitted to the Garrison BM8180-03E is actually semi-transparent so that light can pass through its surface and reach the solar panels that are mounted below it. At the 3 o’clock location is a rectangular aperture for the dual date and day display, while all of the hour markers and dial text are done in crisp white printing for maximum contrast and legibility.
The time is displayed by a trio of centrally mounted hands, with the hour and minute hands appearing as partially skeletonized swords, while the seconds hand is finished bright red and features a large counterweight with a luminous triangular point near its tip. The finishing on the hands is slightly rough around the edges, and while the difference in size between the hour and minute hands is more than enough to prevent you from accidentally mixing them up when quickly referencing the time, I would have personally preferred the minute hand to be a bit longer so that the tip would reach all the way to the hash markers of the minute track. An undersized minute hand is one of the most common nitpicks that I have with modern watches, and, while sometimes it is unavoidable due to the minute track being printed on an angled chapter ring, this particular instance is one in which I feel that a slightly more proportional hand could have easily been implemented and would have ultimately improved the overall design.
All three of the hands on the Citizen Garrison BM8180-03E, along with the Arabic numeral hour markers on its dial and even the small triangles located next to them are luminous, and they emit a gentle blue glow to help with visibility in the dark. The lume itself isn’t the brightest, and this is likely due to the fact that only so much luminous material can be applied to the surface of the dial with a printed marker design. While some luminous material is undeniably brighter than others, the number one factor that often impacts how bright a watch will glow is the amount of lume that is used, and this means that printed dials are typically at a disadvantage in this category. With that in mind, the strong contrast offered by the design of the dial and hands still makes the watch easy to read in low-light settings, despite the fact that the blue-glowing lume does offer the same torch-levels of brightness like you will find on many Citizen dive watches.
Arguably the single least appealing feature about the Citizen Garrison BM8180-03E is its included strap, and my recommendation is to ditch the stock option and replace it with a simple NATO or any other strap of your choosing. Crafted from olive green nylon with a black leather (or more likely faux leather) lining, the included strap actually looks quite nice, although it is incredibly stiff out of the box and takes a decent amount of time to fully relax and conform to the shape of your wrist. Once it does break in a bit, the strap is actually rather serviceable, although the metal reinforcements for the sizing holes are a bit large and chunky for its modest 18mm width, and while they may add to its longevity, they also further detract from its flexibility. For the nominal cost of an inexpensive third-party NATO, you ultimately end up with a superior overall package, and the simple aesthetic of the watch itself works well on a fairly wide variety of different strap options, even the fun and colorful ones.
No watch is perfect, and while I may sound slightly critical of the Citizen Garrison BM8180-03E, it still ultimately represents an incredibly compelling overall package within the realm of affordable carefree field watches. A solar-powered movement offers the absolute highest levels of autonomy (unless you live or work in an environment that does not receive any light), and it also benefits from the durability and accuracy that is inherent to any movement that relies on quartz timekeeping technology. Provided that you keep it somewhere that it receives some type of light exposure (either natural or artificial), the Citizen Garrison BM8180-03E will continuously stay running and displaying the correct time, making it ideally suited to be a grab-and-go timekeeping companion for any kind of outdoor weekend adventures.
There will naturally be some watch enthusiasts who immediately write off the Citizen Garrison BM8180-03E, either because it doesn’t have a mechanical movement or because it doesn’t have a sapphire crystal and screw-down crown (despite the fact that these same people may openly admit that none of these things are actually essential). Therefore, for those who are looking for a field watch that checks all of the typical enthusiast-driven boxes, small-scale independent brands will typically offer the most compelling options. There are countless microbrands selling very good mechanical field watches these days, but one of the better-known names within this space is Boldr, with its go-to model in this category being the Venture Automatic.
Crafted from matte bead-blasted titanium, the case of the Boldr Venture Automatic field watch measures 38mm in diameter by 12mm-thick, with a solid screw-down titanium caseback and an overall lug-to-lug profile of 44mm. Unlike most traditional field watches, the Boldr Venture offers a thoroughly modern case profile, with a compact geometric shape and short angular lugs that are set 20mm apart and turn sharply down from the middle of the case. Much to the delight of spec-focused watch enthusiasts, the lugs feature drilled holes, the flat crystal above the dial is made from sapphire with an anti-reflective coating, and the signed crown at 4 o’clock screws down to the case to help create a rather generous 200 meters of water resistance.
While the case of the Boldr Venture Automatic represents a significant departure from most traditional field watches, the dial and hands offer a very classic overall appearance. The matte black dial features white printed Arabic numeral hour markers with a smaller secondary scale located along the inner perimeter to assist with reading the time in a 24-hour format. The syringe-shaped hands are also very much in the spirit of a traditional mil-spec field watch, and the tip of the minute hand extends all the way to reach the minute track at the periphery of the dial. The one significant aesthetic departure is the seconds hand, which features a rectangular luminous section near the tip with a surrounding area that is finished orange for added contrast. Along with the three hands, the Arabic numeral hour markers and the five-minute indicators within the minute track are all finished with green-glowing luminous material for added visibility in the dark.
Powering the Boldr Venture Automatic is the venerable Seiko NH35A automatic, which is very much a known quantity within the industry and runs at a rate of 21,600vph (3 Hz) with a power reserve of approximately 41 hours. While the Seiko NH35 is a date-displaying movement, the Boldr Venture is a time-only watch, and this means that the crown has the irksome “ghost position” that is inherent to this type of mismatched pairing. While you will only ever notice this when you go to set the time, it is still always a reminder that some small corner was cut in the production process. With that in mind, the silver lining here is that the Seiko NH35 is one of the most commonly used automatic movements within the industry, and you can source an entire replacement for less than the cost of serving your damaged movement, should significant repairs ever be necessary.
Fitted to the drilled 20mm lugs is a black nylon NATO strap that features bead-blasted titanium hardware to match the case of the watch. While a NATO is one of the most basic styles of straps that exists, the material used for this particular one is fairly soft and flexible right out of the box, and it can be comfortably worn with zero break-in period required. Additionally, the signed titanium buckle is secured by a spring bar (rather than being sewn into the material itself), which means that you can always transplant it onto a different 20mm strap once the included NATO gets worn out or otherwise becomes too funky to use any longer. Beyond its titanium hardware, the strap itself is nothing special, yet it suits the utilitarian ethos of a field watch, and it doesn’t require immediate replacement.
When it comes to comparative value, both of these models sell for roughly half of what Hamilton charges for the Khaki Field Automatic, with the Citizen Garrison BM8180-03E coming in at $250 USD, and the Boldr Venture Automatic priced at $299 USD. That said, the Garrison is one of Citizen’s entry-level collections, and you can typically find this particular model on sale at various different points throughout the year, so you should realistically be able to buy one for less than $200 with a small amount of searching. Additionally, it’s worth noting that I’m not saying that these two watches are even the absolute best within their respective categories (as that is entirely subjective), but rather that they are proof that you can get yourself a great field watch for significantly less than what is often considered to be the benchmark standard within the modern enthusiast space.
Lastly, while both the Citizen Garrison BM8180-03E and Boldr Venture Automatic are standouts within the greater field watch category, there are also countless other brands that each produce their own equally compelling offerings. Hamilton’s rich history will likely always make it the benchmark standard when it comes to field watches, yet there are many other options that arguably offer superior functionality for a significantly lower price. Regardless of whether you want a solar-powered quartz watch from one of the world’s largest manufacturers or something on the complete opposite end of the spectrum like a mechanical model from an enthusiast-driven microbrand, plentiful options exist for less than a few hundred dollars. For more information on the Garrison BM8180-03E or Venture Automatic, please visit either the Citizen website or Boldr website, respectively.