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]

myArmoury.com

myArmoury.com

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    

Rare Authentic Pvd Issued Cwc W10 British Army Divers / Sas Military WatchVintage Enicar Sherpa Super - Dive Polish Military Divers 60sRare 1943 Military Omega 30t2 Sc Hs8 Royal Air Force Pilot Watch Ref 2292Iwc Schaffhausen Stainlees Steel Cal.73 Watch Military Dial High Grade MovementChromatic Gmt Vintage Military Styled Automatic Stainless Military Divers WatchOmega 1953 Fat Arrow Military Watch No Reserve1940 Gents Mid Size Military Style Rolex Oyster Ref 2280 Excellent Condition.Antique Rare 1920 Rolex Unicom Silver Marconi Military Swiss Men WatchMens Military Style 1903 Iwc International Watch Co Schaffhausen Vintage WatchRare Military Longines Swiss Wristwatch In Steel Case Aviator Pilots Wwii Vintage Swiss Watch Breitling Military Style Hand Winding Just ServicedVintage 1916 Ww1 Period Solid Silver Military Trench Watch.Vintage Swiss Watch Tissot Military Style Hand Winding 31659 Poljot Navigator Russian Ussr Military Chronograph WatchRare 1943 Military Omega 30t2 Sc Hs8 Royal Air Force Pilot Watch Ref 2292Iwc Schaffhausen Stainlees Steel Cal.73 Watch Military Dial High Grade MovementHamilton H3 Military Wrist Watch 1983 Runs No ReserveVintage Ww Ii Era Omega Ref 2179 Men's Military Style Wrist Watch1940s Gents Steel Mid Size Military Style Piaget Excellent Condition.Suunto Core All Black Military WatchSuunto Core All Black Military Intelligent Smart Watch (ss014279010)Vintage Hamilton Automatic Watch Military Style With DateHuge Omega 38mm Military Style Ref. 2505 Cal. 265 Vintage Swiss Mans WatchCasio G-shock Gw9400-3 Rangeman Military Green Triple Sensor Atomic Watch Poljot Navigator Russian Ussr Military Chronograph WatchVintage W10 G Falkands Era Issued Precista Army Military Watch Tritium Hack Fte Mens Vintage Ingersoll 5j Great Britain, Military Style Great W Order/condition.Vintage Rare Rolex 6694 Special Military Arms Of Oman Dial All Steel Men WatchVintage 1930s Swiss Amazing Mens Watch Rolex Aviator Military Style Wwii Cal.532Top Rare Military Swiss Vintage Omega Full Ssteel Shock Resist Wrist Watch SuperGenuine 1990 Cwc G10 Wrist Watch Genuine Issued British MilitaryVintage Lot 1 Rare Mens Timex Manual Wind Military Watch Clean And Running!!!!!!Traser P6500 Military Army Surplus Watch Clock Bnib Nato Strap Swiss Pilot 40s Vintage Universal Geneve 263 17j Swiss Watch Men Military Style Ww2 St/steeHigh Grade Omega World Time Military Gents Wristwatch *serviced* No Reserve!!!Vtg Marathon H3 Military Watch Black Face 24 Hour Dial Gallet&co. Feb.1991Vintage Lot 1 Mens Minerva Manual Wind Military Style Watch Clean And RunningVintage Military Swiss Lucerne 24h B Dial, Excellent Working Order And ConditionGood Size Hm Silver Military Trench Watch No Reserve Vintage Ww1Vintage--hamilton (46374 B-- Sep 1979)--military Watch--h3---dispose Rad.wasteHamilton Geneve 6bb Military Raf Pilots Working Wrist WatchGenuine Bulova Ww2 Usa Issued Military Watch, A Great Survivor !1966 Vietnam Era Military Winding Watch Dtu-2a/p Mil-w3818bVintage Genuine Rolex6694 Conqueror Military Black Dial Good Condition Men WatchEpos Military Date Stainless Steel Automatic Mens WatchSuunto X-lander MilitaryCwc Militar Diver Sas Sbs Taucheruhr Sub Military Watch Very Rare!!!!Raketa Soviet 1970`s Vintage Rare 24 Hour Dial Military Wind Up Men`s WatchVintage 50's Zenith S.58 Automatic Military Wristwatch .99 No ReserveHelsa Military 24 Hrs 20atm Tested Worldtime Lollipop/mercedes Automatic Watch Mans 1939 Military Omega Seamaster Watch Fully Working 1930s Ww2 23.4sc RarePt3421x1 Pulsar Mens Gents Chronograph & Date Display Military Style WatchHamilton Military Khaki Automatic Big Size Sapphire Crystal Beautiful !!!!!!. Suunto Core All Black Military Intelligent Smart Watch Ss014279010Omega Military Wwii Era 1944 Sub-second Dial 1940s 26.5 T3 Cal Rare Antique *nr*Russian Military Mechanical Wristwatch Poljot Aviator. Cal.2614.2h Serviced.Ww1 1917 Lovely Military Swiss Trench Watch Red 12 Silver Ornate Case Works WellVintage Large Antique Wwii World War Ii Military 24 Hour Waltham Mens Watch . NrElgin Aopa Vintage 24hr Military Dial Stainless Swiss Made Manual Mens WatchRare Invicta Old Chronograph Landeron 248 Military Dial Vintage Men's Wristwatch