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]



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    

Invicta Reserve Cadet 0594 Military Swiss Automatic Chronograph Tachymeter WatchSteinhart Ocean Vintage Military (ovm) Swiss Eta 2824-2 (grey Dial)Vintage Seeland Incabloc Military Style 17 Jewel Two-tone Bulls Eye Dial Watch Vostok Russian 17j Manual Wind Vintage Military Style Watch Not Modern Gwo!S. Coifman Sc0271 Mens Silver Dial Swiss Quartz Dual Military Time Date WatchVintage Olma Waterproof Military ? 17 Jewels Gents Mechanical Wrist WatchSmith & Wesson Military Style Field Watch - Sww-w-mx27Military Wristwatch Case 6b/159 A12 119 Solid BarsIwc Mark Series Wwii Military Ss Nos Case Wm EstatePart Military Wristwatch Case With Bezel Weems Solid BarsNaviforec Men's Military Sports Stainless Band Quartz Backlight Wristwatch WhiteVintage Rolex 1601 18k Gold Bezel Datejust Saudi Arabia Military Logo DialStunning Iwc Mark Xi Raf British Military Pilots WatchBell & Ross By Sinn M1 90s Vintage Military Pilot Chronograph Watch Lemania 5100Vintage Lemania Military W.w.w, Mark Knopfler Bravehearts Charity Auction #1Rare Auricoste Spirotechnique Professional 200m French Military Dive WatchRare Vintage Wwii Military Benrus Skychief Valjoux 72 Vz Chronograph Pilot WatchVintage Hamilton Raf 6b Military , Mark Knopfler Bravehearts Charity Auction #6Ww2 Omega Www Military Army Watch Y12212 - Very Good Condition Good TimekeeperVintage Hamilton Gs Military Style, Mark Knopfler Bravehearts Charity Auction #5Us Military 1979 Benrus Dive Watch Type Ii Class A Mil-w-50717 6645-00-225-1741Glycine Airman 7 Blue Multiple Timezones Automatic Men's Watch 3919.18Glycine Airman 7 Black Multiple Timezones Gmt Automatic Men's Watch 3919.19Ww2 Era 1941 Military Style Rolex Ref 2280 Boxed Midsize Big Crown Vintage WatchVintage Porsche Design Pvd Military Automatic Valjoux 7750 Identical To Orfina Glycine Men's 3918.18-66.lb8b Airman 18 Purist Automatic Blue Dial Blue Leather#176 Vintage Breitling Chronograph Military Dial Hand-wind 35 MmGlycine Airman Special Gmt Automatic Stainless Steel Men's Wrist Watch-head OnlyVintage Omega Seamaster Cal 562 Date Mechanical Steel Military Style Dial WatchVintage Omega Military Gold 18k Watch Porcelain Dial From1world War Ww1 Wk1 Pre-owned Bell & Ross Br03-92 Aviation/military 46mm Sand/beige W/travel Pouch Vintage Omega Seamaster Mechanical Cal 286 Military Style Dial Steel Watch 1960sLemania Vintage Majetek Military WatchGlycine Men's 3918.18.lbk8 Airman 18 Gmt Automatic Blue Dial Blue Leather WatchSuper Rare Benrus Military Type 2 Class B Watch 1000 Made Cia Us Navy Vintage Omega Military Watch 37mm Excellent ConditionHamilton British Military Wristwatch C1975 (model Ref: 523-8290), Falklands War.Us Benrus Type Ii Class A Mar 1977 U.s Military Diver Watch Mil-w-50717 Used1940's Rolex Swiss Victory Wind-up Military Dial Men Watch Chromium Lizard As/isHelbros Vintgae Ww2 Era Landeron 48 Military Type Chronograph Telemeter Two Tone1942 Ww2 Military Style Rolex Oyster Ref 3980 Midsize 30mm Vintage WatchOllech & Wajs O&w Mp2824-2 Military Watch, Automatic**hamilton W10 Vintage Military Watch 1973 **rare And Nice Condition**1927 Solid Silver Vintage Military Trench Style 26mm Midsize Vintage Retro WatchMtm Blackhawk Military WatchBenrus Military Style With Hack Men's Watch - Series #3061 - Manual WindVintage Wittnauer German Military Auto Watch Black Dial Silver Gilt D2929h Case Universal Geneve Military Wristwatch Steel Case Screw Cap Load ManualBenrus Military Cal Dr2f2 With Hack Men's WatchMarathon 316l Gsar Us Government Military Dive Watch Military Vintage Ulysse Nardin Automatic Watch All Stainless Steel From 1950sHamilton Khaki Field Silver Dial Automatic Men's Military Watch 25 JewelsV.rare Vintage Military Omega Calatrava Cal.30t2 With Original Dial - 35 Mm1942 Longines Wwii German Military Dh Vintage Men's Wrist Watch, To Fix1950 Movado 125 Military Style Sport Borgel Cased Quality Vintage Mens WatchOriginal Military Watch Jaeger Lecoultre From 19 Oct 1944 From Ww2, PersonalMens Military Style 1912 Omega Factory Vintage Regulateur Watch CollectableZenith Beautiful Military Style Wrist Watch Swiss Aged Branded Movement Cal.15j Vintage Potens Prima Squale Military Divers S. Steel Wristwatch. .99 No ReserveCasio G-shock Dw-5600bbn-1jf Military Black Series With Cordura Nylon Band