Hands-On: The Benrus Type 1 Limited Edition
You’re in the army now
Originally published by Jack Forster on HODINKEE, February 5th 2021
When I was a kid, growing up first in rural central Pennsylvania and then equally rural upstate New York, a staple of afternoons and weekends with the rotating cast of characters that constituted my gang was something we just called “playing army.” The rules were simple. You picked your favorite toy gun (toy companies in those days tried to make them as reasonably realistic as they could, consistent with also making them as cheaply as possible), picked sides, and then tramped off into the woods, heedless of ticks and mosquitos, to hunt down the opposition. Cap guns were generally not in favor thanks to their entirely too realistic propensity for running out of ammunition, and so the quiet of a fall afternoon would be broken not by the unconvincing popgun-report of minute amounts of black powder going off, but by variations on the enthusiastic, and enshrined in custom and tradition, pew pew pew.
It has been written that no plan survives first contact with the enemy, and so it was in our long-ago mock battles. Even then, I was both a budding armchair general and fond of argument for its own sake, and once the battle had been joined, it invariably lapsed at first into Talmudic arguments about tactics and whose pretend firearm would have conferred the advantage in a real battle, and then, inevitably, deteriorated into exchanges of, “I got you! No you didn’t! Yes I did! No you didn’t!” (Why, it was just like reading the comments).
I bring this up because those recollections came flooding vividly back when I got my first shot at wearing the new(ish) Benrus Type 1 Limited Edition. Whomever the baker was who made Proust’s madeleines, he or she undoubtedly did not think, “You know what? Today, I’m going to bake a cookie that will trigger a reverie which, in turn, is going to result in a book so vastly respected and so nearly impossible to finish that it will go unchallenged until Infinite Jest comes out!” They were just trying to make a cookie. By the same token, I’m pretty sure Benrus wasn’t trying to launch the wave of childhood memories that came crashing upon me with the force of a hallucination, but that’s what happened.
Now, the Type 1 LE is based on the original Benrus Type 1, and the driving motivation behind its design, materials, and executions was obviously to make as meticulously faithful a reproduction of the original as possible while, at the same time, using more modern materials and construction techniques. This means that while the Type 1 LE is similar, bordering on identical, to the original, it’s actually more durable and reliable. The Shop did a great breakdown of the differences between the original and the LE a while back. Some of the more notable differences are the acrylic bezel insert and acrylic crystal on the original, as opposed to a sapphire crystal and anodized aluminum bezel insert on the LE; a top-loading case with glued-in caseback on the original, as opposed to a screw-down caseback on the LE; and a Parkerized non-stainless steel case on the original, as opposed to bead-blasted stainless steel on the LE. Both watches are 300M water resistant; although, I wouldn’t want to test that on the original without replacing the caseback seal and other gaskets.
The LE has both the sterile dial and sterile crown of the original, and it really feels like a watch that wants to be rode hard and put away wet. Even with my so-called beater dive watches, I tend to be a little conscious of not putting them in harm’s way any more than necessary, but the Type 1 LE feels ready to get out there and get down and dirty – if there ever was a watch that was an anti-safe queen, this is it.
When Benrus got this whole project off the ground, I’m sure they knew what they were getting into. Not only is the original Type 1 a watch with a pretty big following (the thread discussing the Type 1 LE on the Military Watch Forum is a perfect case in point, if you’re looking for a hardcore military watch enthusiast take on pros and cons), but it’s also one whose popularity and cult-watch status guaranteed that every single detail was going to be scrutinized with all the side-eyed suspicion of a bunch of Inquisitors evaluating a wart. This is an uphill battle at the best of times. To take an example from a wildly different watch, Cartier’s latest version of the Tank Cintrée is attracting similarly impassioned criticisms and defenses of some of the choices Cartier made.
On top of that, this isn’t the first Benrus Type 1-inspired new watch; both Marathon and Mk II have made Type 1 derived designs (albeit with some notable differences between those and the Benrus LE). High-fidelity modern remakes of classic watches with cult followings are a real minefield and, on a certain level, a no-win situation. Inevitably, you’re going to have two extremes of criticism: folks who think you’re just showing lack of imagination on the one hand, and folks who think you’re not showing enough lack of imagination on the other.
Military watches are not really my beat (“Sir, I’ve met Cole Pennington. I’ve worked with Cole Pennington. And you, sir, are no Cole Pennington.”), so I’m coming at the whole thing from a slightly different direction. The Benrus Type 1 LE wowed me right out of the box – partly thanks to the nostalgia rush, sure, but also thanks to the fact that it just looks and feels more like a solidly built field watch than most of the other field watches I’ve taken for test drives. It’s got a kind of Indiana Jones-esque low-key tough guy vibe; it’s a watch that says, “I don’t want to start no trouble, but if it starts, well, I aim to finish it.” The crown screws down with the precision of a submarine hatch, the bezel rotates like it’s sitting in a pool of grass-fed Irish butter, and the lume is bright enough to make you want to go out and squat in the brush at the dark of the moon, listening to the silence under the stars.
I’m trying to figure out what it is about the watch that makes it such a powerful exercise in nostalgia for me, and I think it’s got a lot to do with that pseudo-Parkerized case. The bead blasting looks quite a lot like actual Parkerizing. Although the process was invented in England, one Clark W. Parker got the rights to the U.S. patent and went on to set up the Parker Rust-Proof Phosphating Company Of America in 1915 in Detroit, and it’s been called Parkerizing ever since. The process is simple enough that you can Parkerize at home, if you’re so inclined – basically, you immerse the part into a phosphoric acid solution and heat it. The resulting chemical reaction leaves a metal phosphate surface coating highly resistant to wear and corrosion, and for military applications, the matte, non-reflective surface Parkerizing produces is an added benefit.
Anyway, I somehow got it into my head as a kid that Parkerizing was synonymous with an object meant to both endure extremes and strike fear into the hearts of the foe. That plus the general blunt-instrument vibe of the watch gives it a certain brutti ma buoni appeal – it’s a sort of A-10 Warthog of watches (an ugly-as-hell airframe beloved not for its looks, but because when it shows up, you know it’s there to do the jay-oh-bee).
Watches connected to the military are also connected to the ugly reality of armed conflict, and it’s always been a source of wonder to me that while no sane person would ever say war is a good thing, it exerts a grim fascination. We celebrate war in story and song going right back to the Ancient Greeks and the Iliad, and it’s been a centerpiece of innumerable cultures and their perceived identities ever since. I don’t think, however, that we love military watches because we love or celebrate war. Like myself and my comrades on those long-ago golden afternoons, when we hadn’t the slightest notion of the suffering and horror that war actually entails, what we find fascinating about these watches is not the turmoil of war they evoke, but their sense of purpose, their clarity of design, and their elevation of substance over style. It’s been rightly noted that you can get a hell of a lot elsewhere for the $1,695 you’ll spend on a Benrus Type 1, but the LE to me is set apart from the competition. It represents an American-assembled product built from the ground up by a team who clearly intended to honor the spirit and purpose of the original as much as possible.
There’s a kind of false memory called the Mandela Effect. You think you remember – no, you’re convinced you remember – something happening that didn’t. The Effect is named after the widespread false memory some folks had of Nelson Mandela dying in prison in the 1980s (he didn’t pass away until 2013), but it can be a false memory of the mundane as well. Some people will swear on their deathbeds that the Berenstain Bears kids’ books were about the Berenstein Bears, for instance. I said that the Benrus Type 1 was a Proustian madeleine for me, but there is no Type 1 in my childhood past. I never actually owned a Type 1, nor could I have; they were issued to special operations units, not to an exasperated kid waving around a plastic toy gun and trying to explain to his fellow eight-year-olds what enfilade fire means. No, I think what I’m experiencing is more of a Mandela Effect – I never had a Type 1, but the LE is so convincing, it makes me eerily suspicious that I must have, and it connects me to a past where being a soldier ended with nothing worse than going home for dinner.
The Benrus Type I Limited Edition: Case, 41.5mm x 15mm, bead-blasted stainless steel, with screw-down crown; 300M water resistant. Movement, ETA caliber 2681, 19.4mm in diameter, with 38-hour power reserve, running at 28,800 vph in 25 jewels. Mil-spec engraved caseback; two-piece nylon strap. Assembled and adjusted in the USA. Limited edition of 1,000 pieces worldwide; price, $1,695 with a portion of the proceeds benefitting the Boulder Crest Foundation.
As you may know, the HODINKEE Shop is an Authorized Dealer for the Benrus Type I Limited Edition, so if you’re looking to pick up this particular watch, don’t forget to check The Shop.