In this magazine, we’ve already dedicated a few articles to the beloved chronograph, from the basic function of this complication and what distinguishes it from the chronometerto the origin stories of some prominent models. But the stopwatch function is not only very popular; it also comes in many varieties. For newcomers to the watch scene, it’s not always easy to keep it all straight. The two most important special types are flyback and rattrapante chronographs. Up to now, we’ve only dedicated a few lines to these two categories. To fill you in, this article explores the technical and historical background of these chronograph types, as well as the most important terminology and a few notable examples.
Why are there different types of chronographs?
Imagine a time when the mechanical watch was still a precision instrument for the majority of its wearers and its functionality was subject to high demands in quite a few professions, particularly military aviation. In order to prove itself, a chronograph had to be not only precise and robust, but also suited to efficient operation in the cockpit, which wasn’t very comfortable at the time. The pressurized and heated cabins of today were still a faraway dream. Pilots wore heavy clothing – and thick gloves. Moreover, the cumbersome operation of chronographs with only one pusher for the start, stop, and reset functions was too time-consuming. Breitling improved the situation in 1932 with the introduction of a second pusher, dedicated to the reset function. The optimization of user-friendliness didn’t stop there, however.
The Flyback Function and Its Technical Background
In 1936, Longines introduced what is now known as the flyback function with the movement 13ZN: The second pusher at 4 o’clock, which normally only activates the reset function after the chronograph has been stopped via the pusher at 2 o’clock, could now be activated at any time. If this pusher is activated when the chronograph is stopped, everything works as usual and the stopwatch returns to zero. However, if the chronograph is running and the reset pusher is pressed and held, then there is an initial reset, and the chronograph begins again immediately upon release. This ingenious functionality allows a new period of measurement to begin within a fraction of a second. The next measurement can be synchronized with an event or signal very precisely and without a large potential for error; it’s a simple matter of lifting one’s finger from the reset pusher.
Of course, the movement must be modified in order to implement the flyback function. With standard chronographs, there is a good reason why the reset cannot be activated while the chronograph is running: The hammers that hit the heart-shaped cams on the hands to activate the reset could potentially cause damage if the chronograph is not decoupled. In the case of the flyback chronograph, this decoupling occurs upon reset – albeit only for a brief moment – via a separate lever.
Alternative Names and Important Brands
The origin of the name “flyback” is easily explained through the speedy return of the hand, as if in flight. An alternative designation for this function is “retour en vol,” which is French for “return in flight.” Because flyback chronographs are usually rare and pricey today, the word “flyback” is often printed on the dial in order to make the exclusivity of the timepiece clear to potential buyers. “Retour en vol” is much less common, but you will find it emblazoned, for example, on some models of the iconic Breguet Type XX, which was originally conceived for the French military. The German “permanente Nullstellung” highlights the permanent readiness of the second pusher. However, this term is rather bulky and seldom used. You’ll more frequently come across “Tempostopp,” which was used during the Second World War by Glashütte manufacturer Urofa for the Tutima pilot’s chronograph. Today the revived brand Tutima once again offers a Tempostopp model with an in-house movement.
Historical models from Longines, Breguet, Tutima, and Hanhart clearly show the military roots of this function. Today you can find flyback chronographs by A. Lange & Söhne, Chopard, Hublot, Patek Philippe, Frederique Constant, and countless other brands, whereby the lowest prices lie around $5,500, significantly more costly than “normal” chronographs.
The Rattrapante Chronograph – Usage and Variations
The rattrapante or double chronograph allows you to time intermediate events. This feature can be used in myriad ways, but timing a race serves as an ideal example. Imagine a race between two runners whose times you would like to document. With a normal chronograph, you can only stop the time when the winner reaches the finish. The time of the second-place runner sadly falls by the wayside. Of course, one could let a second chronograph run alongside, but it would have to be started at the exact same time as the first one, plus someone would have to operate it.
That’s where the rattrapante chronograph comes into play. Just by looking at the face, you can’t see anything different at first. However, when you press a separate pusher, often located at 10 o’clock, this complication reveals its secret: The second hand stops where it is, while another second hand, previously hidden underneath the first one, keeps on going. Pressing this pusher again causes the stationary hand to immediately catch up with the moving hand. The term “rattrapante” comes from the French “rattraper,” which means “to catch up.” This function allows intermediate times to be noted easily, without interrupting the measurement or having to rely on imprecise estimations of the running chronograph’s position. As long as the intervals being recorded are not too close together and somebody can keep track of them, then this function can in fact be used to document far more than just two individual times.
It gets difficult, however, when you need to time intervals that are more than a minute apart. In order to make this possible, there would have to be minute or even also hour counters with the same function. These very rare functions are called double and triple split, both of which are specialties of A. Lange & Söhne.
The Delicate Technology Behind Rattrapante Chronographs
Whether triple split or the “regular” rattrapante chronograph – the technical wizardry is the same for each pair of hands. The only difference is the amount of space required and the increasing complexity of the movement. But how do you teach a hand to stand still for a while and then immediately jump to the position of the moving hand, wherever it may be?
It’s clear that during regular operation, a fixed connection must exist between the two hands, which can be separated at the press of a button. The connection is maintained by a notched heart-shaped cam, which is firmly attached to the hand which continues forward. The rattrapante hand orients itself parallel to the other one via a spring that forces it back into the notch of the cam. If the rattrapante feature is not engaged, then the watch behaves like a normal chronograph, and one hand remains hidden underneath the other.
When the rattrapante pusher is activated, a pair of pincers, which is usually visible when observing the movement from below, grabs the upper hand. This forces it to stand still, while the spring and the heart-shaped cam on the moving hand beneath it allow the measurement of time to continue. Renewed activation of the pusher releases the pincers and the rattrapante hand springs back into position with the other one – and the game can start anew.
Though highly sought-after, the rattrapante chronograph is not considered a Grand Complication. It is, however, a masterpiece of sophisticated design and precise implementation. Potential buyers will have to reach deep into their pockets for a rattrapante chronograph from the likes of IWC Schaffhausen (who call theirs a double chronograph), Patek Philippe, A. Lange und Söhne, or Breitling.