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    

Stunning Rare 1960’s Limit Military Diver Style Chronograph Mens Vintage WatchRare 1970 Mortima Commandant De Bord Diver Military Worldtime Vintage Mens WatchVintage 1940s Craftsman Landeron 248 Military Gents Swiss Chronograph WatchGlashutte Tutima German Luftwaffe Rare 1940s Flieger Chronograph Military WatchRare Poljot Strela Russian Chronograph Military 3017 Wristwatch Vintage C1960s Omega Vintage Military Us Armystyle Reference2179/3;1944;rare Version;very NiceVintage Seiko Military Dial 24h Army Bracelet & Nato Good Lume Feb 1988 Vgc Lejour Vintage Military Pilot Style Automatic Chronograph Watch, Valjoux 7750Oris Crown Big Xxl Military Pilot 43 Mm Pointer Date-automatic Gents Swiss WatchRare Citizen Promaster Military Tough 200m Divers Good Blue Lumibrit Box VgcWw2 Hamilton Military Watch Usn Buships Mint Cond !1976 Benrus Type I Class A Us Military Vietnam Era Divers Watch Special ForcesOris Crown Big Xxl Military Pilot 43 Mm Pointer Date-automatic Gents Swiss WatchSwiss Luminox Men 660ft Tritium Watch Navy Seal Dive Rubber Strap Band MilitaryRare Big Military Longines Swiss Wristwatch Case Aviator Pilots WwiiLemania Military WatchSeiko Military Dial Crongraph 43mm Army Two Nato Good Lume Sept 2012 Boxed Vgc Hamilton Khaki Field Automatic - 42mm Military Watch, Blue DialVintage 1942 Longines Military Style 17 Jewel Hacking Watch Nice Cond. Runs1916 Men’s Military Style Waltham 14k 585 Fine Gold Wwi Trench Watch!Luminox Navy Seals Divers 3001.bo Military 24h Black Gray Dial 200m 2 Straps VgcMoeris Dh Military Watch Ww2 No ReserveHamilton Military "khaki" Field Automatic - Big Size 42 Mm Out Crown Swiss WatchSuper Vintage Gents Fortis Military Style 17j Hand Wind Watch Hamilton Khaki Field Automatic - 42mm Military Watch, Lumi Hands And MarkersVintage Swiss Watch Omega Military Manual Wind Cal284 Stainless Steel CaseOris Crown Big Xxl Military Pilot 43 Mm Pointer Date-automatic Gents Swiss WatchSuunto Core All Black Military Wrist Watch WristwatchRare Aged 1914 Swiss Eye-catching Omega Watch Gold-plated Case Military Style Glashutte Tutima Chronograph German Luftwaffe Military Watch 1940s Cal Urofa 59Seiko Skx007j Mod Submariner Skx031 Dial Automatic Black Bay Bond Military NatoMen’s Original Military Arsa Vintage Germany Watch Wwii DhOld Original Waltham A-17 Military Watch 17 Jewel W/hack Type Feature Nice&runs!Vintage Articulated Lugs 925 Military Trench Watch Titus (solvil) 1922 Post Ww1Soviet Military Mechanical Watch Raketa Aviator 24 Hours. Cal.2623.h Serviced.Ll Bean Military Dial Good Lume Rare Watch 41mm Lock Down Crown 300ft Wr G/conUsed Suunto Vector Military Foliage GreenHamilton Military "khaki" Field Automatic - Big Size 42 Mm Out Crown Swiss WatchMens Hamilton Gg W 113 Analog 24 Hour Military Hand Wind WatchEaglemoss 1940's Style German Luftwaffe Replica Military Wristwatch - V05 A19 Omega Military Bullseye Modele + Depose Waterproof 26.5 Cal Circa 1939 Rare Big Military Omega Swiss Wristwatch In Steel Case Aviator Pilots WwiiSuveran Swedish Omega Military 30t2 Large Size Case 2400 Circa1945Superb Quality 1940’s Revue Thommen 69 Military Style Mens Vintage Retro WatchAged 1923 Swiss Eye-catching Omega Watch Stainless Steel Case Military StyleSeiko 7t92 0cf0 Flightmaster Pilot Slide Rule Cronograph Military Look Blue Vintage Omega Military 30t2 Large Size Case 2179 Circa1940'sVintage Watch Swiss Made Military Style Lot 3Www Record British Issued Military 194os 15 Jewels One Of The Dirty Dozen V/g/cRare Military Doxa Locle Swiss Wristwatch Laco Aviator Pilots WwiiBeautiful Vintage Lecoultre Ss 12a Bump Automatic Vxn Military Style Watch Vintage 1972 British Timex Military "school Watch" Mechanical Wristwatch Nice!Suunto Core Black Military WatchWwi Era Military Early Gruen Watch Specialties Men's Trench Watch W/grill GuardSuunto Core All Black MilitaryVintage Late 1940s Military Style Gents Swiss Watch By MiraCitizen Military Modded Plexiglass Chrongraph Pilot Red Secs Hand Eco Drive Gc Hamilton Mil-w-46374d Us Military Windup Wristwatch 1988/h3 W/band/ Runs GreatVintage 1942 Omega Possible Military Cal 30t2 Sc. No Reserve!!!!Superb Quality Boxed Seiko 7s26c Automatic Military Diver Style Nato Men’s Watch