If you have looked at one Marathon, you could be forgiven that you have seen them all.
All of their modern lineup have mil-spec Arabics, and almost all have Tritium tubes on their syringed handsets. None of them have see-through casebacks because instead, that real estate is taken up by the sort of details you would have no idea about, unless your professional dress code is camouflage and your bed is made by 0515 hours.
For a brand that operates in the two most crowded market segments, the field watch and the diver, you can never mistake a Marathon for anything else. They don’t really look Swiss, but Swiss-ish, though they are made there. They are Canada’s most famous watch export and their raison d'être is military orders, which means that, really, they’re not playing in any “market” segment at all.
The Origins of Mil-Spec and the Dirty Dozen
From a design perspective, a military issue watch is a fascinating beast. The watchmaker doesn’t get to design the watch. Quite literally, it is a watch designed by a committee - a procurement committee inside a defense ministry. The mil-specs they conceive dictate the case material, movement dimensions (“lignes”) and the level of shock, dust and water resistance.
Before we get to the Marathon, let’s doff our collective cap to perhaps the most famous field watches of all time: twelve WWII era watches built to the WWW (Wrist Watch Waterproof) spec issued by the British Ministry of Defense, “The Dirty Dozen”.
Pictured: “The Dirty Dozen”. Courtesy: Hodinkee.
Specifically, I’d like you to have a geez at the handsets. Whereas Longines and JLC chose the cathedral hands - no doubt, a nod to the trench watches of The Great War - for their interpretation, IWC chose a super skinny set of syringes whereas Timor went for slightly thicker ones. The Buren Grand Prix’ set of skeletonised stubby arrows almost looks like it belongs in another series.
Which tells us that the WWW spec was firm on some things: black dial, petite seconds, Arabics, luminous hour markers and hands, a minute track in the railroad style and a 15-jewel movement housed in a stainless steel case with a shatterproof crystal, yet also left room for interpretation: handset choices, how far the minute track could be brought in-board, the length of the lugs, the angle of the bezel and the width of the case.
The WWW specified case diameter could be anywhere between 35 mm and 38 mm. This matters, because the watch I present today, the Marathon General Purpose Mechanical Reissue, comes in at 36 mm. That’s proof that on either side of the Atlantic, watch sizes for the armed forces, history's symbol for masculine courage, stayed comfortably under 40 mm.
The 6433 Lineage
The dial design of this Marathon can be traced back to a specification issued by the Americans, the “MIL-W-6433”, published in 1960. This was a watershed moment for mil-spec field watches in general, and, as it would turn out, also for fans of the “modern” field watch. That 24-hour inner ring on your Hamilton Khakis, Marathons and Seiko 5 SRPG? Born from that document.
It also ensured that for the first time American GIs could expect Radium as standard on the dial.
The 6433 also kept the door open for watchmakers to add their own little twists. Broadly, watches that came out of these specs are known as A-17 watches.
[Quick sidenote, the predecessor to the A-17 watches were the glorious A-11 watches, patriotically mandated to be built solely by American watchmakers (Elgin, Waltham and Bulova). The minute track is crystal clear and the Arabics have a dressy elegance to them, with Arabics in increments of 10 on the outer edge. If you want the most interesting modern interpretation of the A-11, I recommend checking out the AnOrdain Model 1.
The eagle eyed amongst you will also have noticed the leaf style handset of the A-11s. You are right. These were designed to be primarily used by airmen. The A-17s, by comparison, were a dual purpose air-and-ground spec.]
From the 6433 to the 113: Field to Pilot
Fast forward to 1984. By now, Marathon is a part of the mil-spec furniture having supplied the US and Canadian armed forces since 1941. The mil-spec GG-W-113 had been out since June 6, 1967, and Benrus and Hamilton had already started producing their versions of it.
The dial layout was similar to the 6433 with the upgrades being in the build and technical department: A mechanical hacking movement with an accuracy of +/- 30 seconds per day (and we complain about the Seiko 4R series!) with a minimum power reserve of 36 hours and 15 Jewels, and a waterproof, antimagnetic case that “must survive a fall from 4 feet onto a wooden block”.
Pictured: The GG-W-113 military specification. Courtesy: 60Clicks
[Another side note: GG-W-113 watches were issued to military pilots while watches built with the previous mil-spec, the MIL-W-3818B, were issued to ground troops. MIL-W-3818B movements had a lower jewel count and some versions lacked hacking seconds.]
Although all GG-W-113 watches had Tritium hands, Benrus and Hamilton kept their dials completely sterile, sans any brand or spec details. Marathon added “Marathon” and “U.S. Government” below the 12 and “H3” and the radioactive symbol next to the 9 and 3 to symbolize Tritium's radioactive nature.
Staying True to the Original
I thought it was important that we went through that little journey to truly appreciate what Marathon is giving us here with the General Purpose Mechanical Reissue, which stays very true to its GG-W-113 forefather. It keeps the 36 mm diameter, but narrows the lug width from the original 17.6 mm to an even more “is it really there?” 16 mm. The dial retains all the markings, including “17 Jewels”.
On specs alone, no one can accuse the Canadian watchmaker of playing to the crowd. If it did, it wouldn't have installed fixed spring bars. Nor would it have supplied a stock, period-correct single pass Ballistic Nylon strap instead of a “classy, baby” leather.
And what a case.
The first Marathons I ever came across were the GSARs and MSARs. My wife and closest “watch-friend” will tell you it was an obsession. I wanted one, nay, I needed one. I had a spreadsheet with a savings plan that would get me to one.
And then I saw this reissue on a YouTube video. It was all the Marathon with none of the brawn. And it was a manual-wind. I dreamt sepia toned montages of myself, winding the ETA 2801 before work - in my beige Bisley drill shirt - all the way till I felt that resistance that told you, “Son, it’s okay, the battery is at 100. We are ready to roll.”
So when the review unit came in, I won’t lie. I did get a bit emotional. That solid piece of brushed stainless steel with its uber organic curves just oozes intentionality. The extremely nerdy and affectionate in-joke in the community is that from the side, it looks like a comic Edwardian mustache. And it does, and it makes me love it more.
The height of the integrated bezel - a requirement to make vertical room for the Tritium tubes on each of the hands - adds the signature Marathon depth, in this case, 11 mm. The flat sapphire, flush, doesn’t need the AR it doesn’t have. Clarity is king. The idea of this watch is not to be seen.
The dial diverges slightly from the original GG-W-113. And when speaking about them, it is important we acknowledge this piece’s most unique and modern upgrades: the tubes.
The OG sported the spec’s simple hash minute marks between the inward pointing triangles above the Arabics. On the reissue we get the contemporary Marathon treatment: long Tritium tubes at every hour. This means the rings of Arabics has been brought further inwards, and the typeface has been made cleaner, less “Hamilton-y”, in keeping with the brand’s GSAR, MSAR, Navigator and the base General Purpose line.
Between each of the hour tubes we get the customary minute markers, but also something a little bit extra. I am guessing this was a design choice to accentuate the efficacy of the hacking movement, as between each minute there are smaller marks to indicate a fifth of a second.
What this all adds up to is the perfect everyday watch for both men and women, and everyone in between. If the daytime legibility is an easy A+, then nocturnal time telling is a Summa Cum Laude. In total darkness, I would argue Marathon’s execution of Tritium is industry-leading. They won’t burn your eyes out, and their length differentiation is spot-on. “Just enough” is more, with a well thought out orange tube for the 12 to help with orientation.
A Labour of Love
I imagine this caters to a specific intersection in the watch collecting Venn Diagram.
It is perfect for collectors who want the charm of a manual wind but with all the unique mod-cons and tolerances of a modern watch. Unless you are going swimming, the water resistance of 30 m is really not a factor. The case ensures it will take a beating.
It also makes for a great everyday watch for someone who appreciates the evolution of functional watchmaking, because the Marathon Reissue General Purpose Mechanical is a time capsule which quietly, efficiently and quite visibly, tells only the time.