Just as 19th-century railroads pushed the development of the pocket watch to higher standards of performance, so the wars of the 20th century influenced the development of the wristwatch. A wide variety of watches were designed for and used by military aviators, divers, spies, and other personnel.

These military watches, from makers like Hamilton, Omega, Rolex, Breitling, Doxa, Fortis, Elgin, Gruen, Glycine, Zenith, and others, tended to be strong and rugged, with advanced features such as luminescent dials and extra navigation aids. In general, most military watches were what are known as hacks, which means that the second hands ticked forward in distinct increments instead of continuously, so that it was easier to synchronize watches.

During World War I, Omega made wristwatches for British Royal Flying Corps, as well as for communications troops in the U.S. Army. These military wristwatches had white enamel dials, Arabic numerals, radium skeleton hands, and either silver or chrome-plated metal cases. Some versions featured tempered-steel grids over the watch face to protect it from shocks.

Breitling was another favorite supplier to British forces. In 1923, Breitling developed the first chronograph with an independent pushpiece, making start and return-to-zero functions (known as flyback) simpler and more intuitive. The addition of a second return-to-zero pushpiece improved the wristwatch’s functionality for pilots, which is one of the reasons why the Royal Air Force made Breitling its official supplier in 1936.

Even during World War II, Breitling continued to innovate. In 1942, the company debuted its Chronomat, the first chronograph wristwatch to be fitted with a circular slide rule on the bezel. These watches proved popular with the non-military public after the war, and vintage Chronomats are highly collectible today.

Other World War II suppliers included Bulova, Elgin, and Waltham, all of whom produced the Type A-11 for the U.S. Army Air Force and the British RAF. Hamilton also made watches during World War II (more than 110,000 for the Army alone), but not the A-11. One of the rarest Hamilton watches from this period is the R88-W-800. Only about 15,000 were made—watches for the Navy had a black face, watches for the Marine Corps had a white face.

In addition to A-11s, Elgin made one of the most collectible vintage wristwatches of the World War II era, the Navy Canteen Military Dive Watch. These watches are distinctive because of their smaller face. This was not a style decision but a requirement to compensate for the extra-large size of the waterproof seal on the crown, which extended the overall width of the watch...

The Glycine Airman was one of many popular wristwatches from the Vietnam era, even though it was not the standard issue. One of its simplest (but most useful) features was the crown at 8 o’clock, which could be tightened down so that the 24-hour indicator on the bezel would not rotate accidentally. But perhaps the best thing about the watch from an airman’s point of view was the ability to stop the second hand so that watches could be synchronized precisely.

Even though the world was a relatively peaceful place during the 1970s, watch makers continued to supply military forces with their wares. One of the most collectible vintage military wristwatches from that decade is unquestionably the Rolex 5517 Submariner, which Rolex made for the British Royal Navy. It is believed that only about 1,200 of these watches were produced and that perhaps only a few hundred have survived. The "T" on the dial indicated the presence of a luminous isotope of hydrogen called tritium, which was used to illuminate the wristwatch’s sword-shaped hands. For serious watch collectors, a 5517 is often the centerpiece of a collection.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

National Watch and Clock Museum

National Watch and Clock Museum

This virtual museum, created by the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors, lets you stroll through tim… [read review or visit site]



This resource for historic arms and armour collectors provides exhaustive information on modern reproductions (cust… [read review or visit site]

The Civil War

The Civil War

Paul McWhorter’s amazing reference site tells the story of the Civil War through high resolution scans of Harpers… [read review or visit site]

Mikes Tanks

Mikes Tanks

Mike Seeber’s extensive collection of over 500 diecast tanks and military vehicles, dating back to WWII. Browse b… [read review or visit site]

Clubs & Associations

Discussion Forums

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Near Mint Vintage 1968 Twin Jet Breitling Steel Military Navitimer 806 Venus 178Vintage 1946 Breitling Chronomat 769 Chronograph Military Venus 175 No ReserveExtremely Rare Vintage Rolex Military Officer Solid 9k Gold Swiss Watch C1930Rare Military Iwc Schaffhausen Chronometer Cal 73 Circa 1928 Unique Marriage !Vintage Omega Seamaster 30 Black Military Style Dial Calibre 286 Dress Watch Citizen Chronograph Military Dial Eco Drive With Box Good Blue Lumibrite Vgc Vintage Gents Hamilton Military Chronograph Wrist Watch.Vintage Omega Seamaster Automatic Cal 471 Black Military Dial Glows Watch 1961Vintage Omega Seamaster Manual Winder 600 Cal 601 Military Dial Glows Watch 1966Superb Rare Vintage Rolex Military Officer Stainless Men's Swiss Made Watchc1930British Military Smiths W10 Raf Mechanical Hack Watch...running.40's Ww2 Era Vintage Lip Military Style Cal.r25 Waterproof WatchRare Big Military Longines Swiss Wristwatch In Steel Case Aviator Pilots WwiiGallet Multichron 30m “clamshell” Chronograph, Wwii Military TimepieceRussian Military Scuba Diver Watch Vostok Amphibia Ussr Soviet Cccp 80 AmphibianMen's Superb Vintage Timex Military Date Watch Gb 1974 #25 Fwo Serviced L2Pulsar By Seiko Military Dial Chronograph White Dial Vd53-x117 Vgc BoxedSteinhart Ocean One Vintage Military (ovm)Bell & Ross Br03-92 Aviation Military Green Ceramic Mens Watch With 2 Bands Rare~vintage 70s Bulova-caravelle Military 666ft Cushion Diver$groovy 2-tone DialVintage Tissot Omega 27 Calibre Military Style Nice Gray Dial Wristwatch 1940Rare Military Swiss Watch Iwc Schaffhausen Steel Case Aviator Pilots WwiiAntique Early Girard Perregaux Sea Hawk Swiss Military Trench Ww2 Era Mens WatchVintage 1942 Longines Military Wwii Wrist Watch 12lHamilton Khaki Field Automatic - 42mm Military Watch, Lumi Hands And MarkersLegendary Stowa Airman (flieger) Limited 2801 Watch (#96/100) "a Special Watch"Vintage 1948 Post Ww2 Hamilton 747 17j Military Mens Watch - Good TimekeeperBreitling Military Colt Aeromarine Quartz Diver Watch Black Rare Dial A57035Lemania Military Watch Vintage Cwc Manual Winder Royal Military T Issued Steel Watch 100% Genuine Ww1 Military Silver Trench Watch. Dimier Freres & Co. S.d. Neill Belfast WorkingVintage Nos Timex Military Date Very Nice Red Secs Hand Very Cool In V/g/cMilitary Swiss Watch Ulysse Nardin Rectangular Exaggerated NumbersCitizen Eco Drive Bm6400 MilitaryPulsar G10 By Seiko Military Dial It Has A Pulsar Back Case But Is A G10 Army Marvellous~60's Vintage Zodiac Seawolf~vietnam Era 20 Atm Military Skin Diver!!Vintage 1944 Ww2 Omega Military Wristwatch. Cal 30t2. Massive!! No Reserve!!!!Antique Genuine British 1940's Ww2 Vertex W.w.w Military Black Dial Wrist WatchCitizen Eco Drive Military ChronographSuunto Core All Black Military Wrist Watch Ss014279010 Mint Condition!Original Early Antique Silver Tavannes Mens Wrist Watch Ww1 Era Military TrenchPulsar Military Style Men’s Quartz Chronograph Watch (v657-x063)Rare Big Military Omega Swiss Wristwatch In Steel Case Aviator Pilots WwiiRare Aged 1924 Swiss Classy Omega Wrist Watch Chrome-plated Case Military StyleMen's Awesome Vintage Timex Military Date Watch Gb 1971 #25 Fwo ServicedLemania Military Watch, Dial Hands And Part MovementVintage 60's Zodiac Seawolf Automatic Men's Military Divers Watch Vietnam WarVintage Ebel 6b / 159 Military Model Watch Calibre 101 Genuine Unrestored 1940sGent's Vintage 1950s Mechanical Black Dial Military Timex Wristwatch.Military Iwc - Schaffhausen Stainless Steel Cal 97 !! Casio G Shock Ga100c-1a3 Matte Black And Green Military Aviation Style WatchMilitary West End Watch Co. Secundus Trench Watch - Working OrderSuunto Core All Black Military WatchElgin Type A-11 Wwii Vintage Military Watch RunsOmega Stainless Steel Mens Ww2 Military Named 1944 Screw Back Running WristwatchVintage Gold Fd Large Antique Art Deco Gruen 24 Hour Dial Military Mens Watch NrCitizen Military Pilot Calculator Navihawk Wr100 Blue Angels Ss Mens Watch C300Mens Vintage Military Timex 24hr B Dial 1978 Stunning Working Order & ConditionMen's Great Vintage Sekonda Military Watch Ussr C 70's 17 Jewels Fwo ServicedMen's Watch 60's Vintage Zodiac Seawolf~vietnam Era 20 Atm Military Skin Diver!!