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    

Lemania Stunning Military Vintage Chronograph Cal 15tl Vintage 1940s Gents British Military Lemania Ww2 Www Wristwatch Vintage Seiko 6309-7290 Automatic 150m Military Black Diver's Scuba Dive Ss Z22Vintage Vietnam Era Military 24 Hour Military Glycine Airman 1 Compressor BackUltrarare Glycine Airman Vintage Vietnam Era, Military Ss 24h, Tropical Dial Nrp1967 Rolex Submariner Ref.5513 Royal Navy Military Inspired W/ Sword HandsMint Ww2 Vertex Mens Military Broadarrow Www Watch On Nato Strap. Wwii VintageElgin Bu-ship Frogman Canteen Military WristwatchGlycine Airman Vietnam Era 25 Jewel Auto. Stainless Steel Military Type WatchRare Military Swiss Watch Iwc Schaffhausen Steel Case Laco Aviator Pilots WwiiRare Sterling Silver Ww1 Vintage 1915 Military Officers Rolex Trench WatchMint Condition ! Ww2 Elgin Military Watch A11 With Original CaseVintage Ww2 Elgin Military Type A11 Af-45 Navigation Hack WatchVintage Ww2 Hamilton 987a Ord. Dept. Military WatchOmega 2383-4 Military Dial 35mm Oversized Screwback Steel Caliber 269 ManualGents Vintage 1935-40 Gallet Racine Triple Illuminated Military Watch64's Vintage Omega Military Watch Mens Wind Up Cal 286 Perfect Working ExcellentVintage Eberhard Chronograph Military Style Staybrite Steel Case,Vintage Ww2 Waltham Canadian Military Rcaf Hack WatchRolex Antique Military Style Wristwatch For Men's. Era Ww2. 1940's. Luxury.Antique Military Watch - Rolex - Era Ww2. Watch For Men's. 15 J. Swiss. Cal. 534Vintage Omega Mid Size 2165 Manual Steel Military Ww Steel Watch 1930sTutima Glashutte Military Air Force Chronograph Titanium Automatic Watch 751-32Vintage 1920' Longines Military Trench Watch Jaeger Lecoultre - Military !!Quality Rare 1917 Solid Silver Gs Vintage Military Trench Cushion Cased WatchSuunto Core All Black Military Edition Watch Ss014279010Rolex Watch Co Precision Chronometer Military Style Swiss Pocket Watch MovementVintage Hamilton Military Watch €Soviet Russian Military Mechanical Watch Raketa Antarctic,24 Hours. Cal.2623.hVintage Oris Pointer Date Swiss Made Military Black Dial Hand Winding WatchCasio G-shock Frogman Men In Military Colors Gf-8250erMens Military Style 1930's Junghans Uhrenfabrik Vintage Superb Watch GermanyVintage 1976 Hamilton H3 Military Manual Winding WatchSuper Rare 12 On Top All Original Vintage Military Glycine Airman 1 SpecialRussian Military Mechanical Men’s Watch Poljot Aviator Alarm / Signal Cal.2612.Vintage Bulova Military A-11 Navigation Hack Watch - Post War Af46 Military Iwc - Schaffhausen Stainless Steel Cal 73 !!Glycine Airman Sst Chronograph Automatic Black Dial Men's Watch 3902-196-lbn9Genuine Breitling Colt Quartz Ref.60180 Military Black Dial Men's WatchHigh Grade Men’s Military Pilot Rolex Watch Of British Officers Wwii High Grade Men’s Military Rolex Watch Of British Officers Wwii Stainless Steel Superb 1940`s Military Eterna W.w.w P1205 3109533 Wristwatch, Rare Example! Very Rare Seiko 4s15-7020 Sus Military (scff003)Vtg Breitling Cadette Military Chronograph . 40's. Rare, Hard To Find.Ww2 German Geneva Sport Skull Military Watch Swiss Vintage WristwatchVintage Elgin Military Us Army Type A 11 Hack Black Wheels 1944'sWw1 Military -1915 Officers Trench Wristwatch Solid Silver Working Vintage Swiss Watch Omega Military Style Stainless Steel Case Cal 265Ww2 Bulova Military 24 Hours Watch With Original Military CaseVintage Stainless Steel Gruen Bumper Autowind 24 Hours Military Dial,service.nrGlycine Airman Special Ii Wristwatch (purist, Noon At Top)Vintage Ww2 Era British Military Cyma Www WatchValjoux 22 Vintage Chronograph Movement Ww2 Military Age Mulco Dial Rare Ww2 1944 Military Vintage Mens Omega 30t2 Large Size35mm Excellent Working Vintage Chronograph P Buhre Military Style 1940 LandronVintage Seiko 6309-729a Automatic 150m Military Army Green Diver's Scuba Dive SsVintage Men's Elgin Military Type A-11 15 Jewel Wristwatch Hack Ww-iiCitizen Eco-drive Military Canvas Wr 100m Men's Sports Watch Bm8180-03eAnker Kh Ruhla-vintage Diver’s Taucheruhr Military Gents Mechanical Watch