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    

Mint Rare Vintage Breitling Aopa 1966 Military Navitimer Cosmonaute 809Vintage 1954 24 Hr Glycine Airman Working Hack All Original Military Cold War ErVintage Hamilton Chronograph Chrono British Military Aviator Broad ArrowBritish Military Issued Smiths W10 1969 6645-99-4045 Hacking Cal 89 ServicedHeuer Lemania Tourneau Chronograph Pvd Pilots Military Mens Watch Valjoux 7750High Grade Men’s Vintage Rolex Watch Military Dial Stainless Steel Body1960s Vtg. Fortis Marinemaster Stainless Steel Military Chronograph Valjoux 72Gallet And Co. Marathon Navigator 1991 Desert Storm 211 Military Watch SsMens Military 1937 Iwc International Watch Co Schaffhausen Vintage Watch Cal.97Rare Military German Big Navigation Watch Laco Luftwaffe Officers WwiiIwc Schaffhausen Stainlees Steel Cal.95 Mens Watch Military Beauty Black Dial !!Vintage Hamilton Military Watch Gg-w-113 Hack Movement Usaf 17jJaeger Lecoultre In Big Stainlees Steel Case_watch Military Beauty Black Dial !!Iwc Schaffhausen Stainlees Steel Cal.73 Mens Watch Military Beauty Silver Dial !Rare Mens Vtg Hamilton Nos Gg-w-113 Military Issue Black 24 Hour Hack Dial WatchVintage Waltham Military Wwii Type A11 Mens Watch Circa 1943 WorksHeuer Military Style Vintage Men Wrist WatchVintage Wwii Hamilton 987a Military Us Ord Dept Wrist Watch €Beautiful Looking 1915 Solid Silver Offices Military Trench / Deco WristwatchVintage Zenith Military Pilot Chronograph Watch - Cal 143-6 (excelsior Park 4)1943 - 1944 Omega Cal 30t2 14k Solid Gold Watch, Box, Military - V V RareRolex Antique Military Watch For Men's. High Grade Mov. Era Wwii 1930'sRare Elgin Military Officers Fancy Golden Wwi Vintage Dress Watch Porcelain DialMaratac Mid Pilot Watch Military StyleVintage Seiko 6309-7290 Automatic 150m Military Black Diver's Scuba Dive Ss Z22Nice Used Glycine Airman 7 Large Automatic Man's Watch Wristwatch!Mens Military Style 1905 Omega Factory Vintage Collectable Watch MagnificentZenith Army Vintage Manual Wind Cal 106-67 Rare Wristwatch Armbandur Military Classic Large Marathon Gsar Military Thick Lugs Auto Date Dive Watch $1Superb Wwii Gents Military Trench Watch Mens Ulysse Nardin Stainlees Steel Case_watch Military Beauty Crystal Glass_ !!1943 Wwii Vintage Longines Men's Wristwatch W/ 24 Hour Dial - Military StyleRare Mens Vtg Benrus Nos Gg-w-113 Military Issue Black 24 Hour Hack Dial Watch !Jl333 Very Rare Vintage Seiko Diver Iranian King Military Gents Watch 7005-8140 Rare Zenith Military 1939 - 1945 Watch Wwii Swiss Made WristwatchVintage 1930-40's Seiko Mechanical Military Watch "seikosha Type 10" Wwii Genuine 1987 Cwc G10 Wrist Watch Genuine Issued British MilitaryMens Military Style 1930's Doxa Switzerland Vintage Watch RegulateurRare Junghans Navy Quartz Military Diver's Watch 40 Mm Stainless Steel WorkingWest End Watch Matchless Military Watch Trench Dial With An Excellent Movement Rare Ww1 Military Trench Aviators Pilots Stamped Leather Watch Strap Holder NiceRare Big Military Omega Swiss Silver Wristwatch Aviator Pilots WwiiVietnam Gg-w-113 Benrus ? Military Stainless Steel Dated Oct 1969Genuine 1985 Cwc G10 Wrist Watch Genuine Issued British MilitaryMens Rolex Aviator Military Style Wwii Vintage 1930s Swiss Amazing Quality WatchOld Gallet And Co Marathon Stainles Steel Military Watch C/w Vintage Nylon Band Diesel Men's Multi Time Zone 56mm Chronograph Watch 3 Bar Sba Military Dz7246Omega World Time Military Gents Wristwatch, Swiss 15 Jew *serviced* No Reserve!!Ollech & Wajs Mp (military Pilot)Ww1 Military Trench Watch Project Spares Parts Hinged Lugs Red 12 Jw Case Nice Eterna Black Faced Swiss Military Wristwatch Atp-144589. Circa 1940's/50'sOmega 4044 Antique Vintage Military Year 1940's Rare Collectible 29mm MechanicalVintage Military Watch, Mil-w-3831b, 15 Jewel HackingRare 1944 Rolex Hurricane Observatory Ww11 Military Pilot Watch Nylon Band WorksMovado Vintage Military Fancy Lug 14k Gold Bezel Wrist Watch Runs I5Vintage Bulova Military Wrist Watch-type A17aWenger Genuine Swiss Army Military - Squadron Pilots 12 Hour Chrono Watch - $595Glycine Airman Sst Chronograph Automatic Black Dial Men's Watch 3902-199-lbn9Vintage Military Wrist Watch Army Watch Fed. Staock No. 6645-006-4279 - N875Vintage Hamilton Military.mil-w-46374b. Jun 1982. Mechanical Hand Winding.