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    

Gallet Flight Officer Multiple Time Zone Chronograph - Military Issue - 1940'sIwc Mk.xi Mark Eleven. Military Raf Pilots Steel Wristwatch. 1948. Ultra RareHamilton W10 Issued British Military Broad Arrow Wristwatch Cal 649 C.1973Tissot Ww2 Period Military Style Vintage Swiss Watch Chronograph Pilot!!! RepairBreitling Chronograph Military Style Man’s Watch Hand Winding Venus 170Rare Original Iwc Schaffhausen Black Dial Cal. 83 Ww2 Military Swiss Watch 1938 Smiths W10 British Military Issued Men's Wristwatch Just Serviced1940s Omega Ww2 Ss Case Cal 30t2 Movement Working Military Watch Black DialMilitary Pilots Homage Display Back Sub Luminous Dial Seagull Movement Mint Rare Big Military Zenith Swiss Wristwatch In Steel Case Aviator Pilots WwiiOris Crown Big Xxl Military Pilot 43 Mm Pointer Date-automatic Gents Swiss WatchHamilton Khaki Field Automatic Military Watch Lumi Hands And Marks Mint Oris White Xxl 47mm Military Pilot Pointer Date-automatic Gents Swiss WatchHamilton Military "khaki" Field Automatic - Big Size 42 Mm Out Crown Swiss WatchVintage Double Rattrapante Chronograph Lowenthal, Oversize Military Swiss 1930’sMilitary Style Regulateur Mens International Watch Co Iwc Vintage Watch 1924Seiko Green Military Automatic Snk809 7s26-02j0 Mens Watch – Just Serviced. **vintage British Military W.w.w. Omega Mens Watch Circa 1945**Rare Big Military U. Nardin Locle Swiss Wristwatch In Steel Case В. Габю Rare Military Omega Swiss Wristwatch In Steel Case Aviator Pilots WwiiOmega Manual Wind Watch - 30t2 - Dennison Case - Military Style Dial - Ww2Marina Miltare Gmt Automatic Divers Military Type Crown Guard Chunky Homage Vgc Used Hamilton Khaki Field Black Automatic Military 25 Jewels Men's WatchHamilton Khaki Field Automatic Military Watch Lumi Hands And Marks British Military Hamilton W10 Army/navy/raf/m.o.d Mechanical Watch.Vintage Breitling Military Men Watch Chronograph Valjoux Or VenusClassic Large Marathon Gsar Military Thick Lugs Auto Date Dive Watch $1Vintage British Army Issue Military Gents Watch Ww2 Atp - *working*Citizen Eco Drive Bm8475-00f Mens Black Anodized Canvas Strap Military WatchVintage Seiko Military Seals Diver 200m Automatic Rotatable Bezel Sports WatchHamilton Military "khaki" Field Automatic - Big Size 42 Mm Out Crown Swiss WatchSeiko Military Divers Automatic Day/date Japan Made Watch, Excellent ConditionVintage Military Style Ww2 Prestige Sports Swiss Made Chromed Case 1940s WorkingOmega Military Steel Vintage Watch "u_s_army Engraved On Back Rare 30-t2 CaliberCasio G Shock Analog Gac-100-1a2dr Chronograph Military Plane Black Case Vgc1918 Calibre 64t Iwc Trench/military Watch,swivel Lugs,working,iwc 24hr Dial,Rotary Gb00277/04 Men's Military Style Chronograph Watch With Date Leather StrapVintage Military Www W.w.w Watch Parts Record Cyma Grana EtcHamilton Military W-46374d Manual Wind Wristwatch, 17j Cal 2801 - Rf23065Hamilton Khaki Field Military Automatic Date Black Dial Swiss Made WatchJunkers Germany Military Swiss Eta 2824-2 Automatic Men's Watch Ref 6050 42mm!!Lucca Lever Ww1 Military Trench Watch Swiss Made Fully Serviced On Nos Strap Antique, Ww-2 Waltham U.s. Navy Military Pilots Watch - Fssc-88-w-800Stunning Vintage Rolex Oyster Royalite 4220 Military Watch Superbalance Cal 710!Hamilton Khaki Field Military Automatic Date Blue Dial Swiss Made WatchSuper Rare Vintage Hamilton Military Watch ExcellentElgin Ww1 Era Military Trench Watch Offset Dial Sterling Silver CaseVintage 1940's Men's Bulova Military Wristwatch With Original Boxes Runs & HacksMen's Watch Wenger Swiss Army S.a.k Design Military 24 Hr. Black Dial Nice!Vintage Seiko Sus Quartz 7n21-0010 Scfb005 Military Style Men's Watch RareBeautiful, Seiko 7n42 8070 Usa Military G10 Type Watch, With Date FunctionStunning Rare Men's Vintage Seiko 7n42-8070 Military 50m-165ft Watch!Helios Dh D24812h Watch Ww2 Wehrmacht Germany 1941-1945 Original Strap MilitaryPierce Military Maker Fab Suisse Waterproof Vintage Swiss Ww2 Watch 40s ServicedMilitary Watch - Cwc G10 - Gulf War Era Issued 1990Steinhart Ocean Vintage Military Maxi Watch #086/300, Complete In Box, WarrantyOmega Rare Aged 1945 Military Style Wrist Watch Swiss Vintage Movement 17j Vintage Military Timex 1971 Gt Britain Date Genuine Snake Skin Strap Excellent !Steinhart Ocean One Military Vintage Bnib Ovm Mk2Benrus Ultradeep Auto 666 Military For Parts Or Restoration