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    

Steinhart Ocean Vintage Military - Automatic Diver. Boxed With InstructionsMagnificent All Original Vintage 1966 Twin Jet Military Breitling Navitimer 806Super Rare Solid 18k Gold Vintage 1963 Aopa Military Breitling Navitimer 806Auricoste Type 20 Military ChronographVintage Swiss Roi Des Eaux Landeron 248 Chrono Military Style Diver Chronograph Nivada Chronograph Military Type Aviator Vintage Swiss Made No Reserve!Vintage 1953 24 Hr Glycine Airman Working Hack Military Pilot Watch Cold War EraSteinhart "ocean One Vintage Military"Luminox Navy Seal Military Divers Black Dial Cost £238 With Case And Two StrapsVintage Baume & Mercier Military Wwii Diver Chronograph From 45s Wristwatch!Vintage Meister Anker Valjoux 7733 Chrono Pvd Case Military Style Chronograph Authentic Vintage Seiko Diver 7002 Mod Big 42mm W/military Color Plongeur Hands!Vintage Military Ulysses Nardin Chronograph Valjoux 72 Waterproof Steel CaseHamilton Us Military Watch Original Vietnam Era Watch Dated 1969 Rare Watch Vintage Ss Full-size Military Omega 18k Gold Case Chronograph Watch 40'sVtg 1944 Military Wwii Omega Ss Mens Watch Cal 30t2 Ref: 2490-3 Second At SixWw1 1915 Elgin Military Style Silver Cased Trench Wristwatch‏ For Repair‏ Rare Military Omega Swiss Wristwatch In Steel Case Aviator Pilots WwiiVintage Military Pierce Steel Chronograph Mechanical Wrist Watch Spares RepairsSuunto Core Black Military Wristwatch Barometer Compass AltimeterVintage 721 Zodiac Hermetic Jet Aeronaut Military Wind Men's Watch 24 Hour DialAwesome Longines In Big Stainlees Steel Case_watch Military Beauty Black Dial !!Rare Big Military Doxa Swiss Wristwatch Laco Aviator Pilots WwiiWinegartens London Ec2 Ww1 Era Swiss Military Large Trench Watch Sub Dial 1914 Suunto Core All Black Military Smart Watch - Includes Altimeter, Compass & AlarmWorking Ww Ii Era Rolex Victory Military Watch. No Reserve!!!!!! Waltham, Avia, Cimier Chronograph, Alprosa Vintage Military Watch Lot. Wwii 6Record Vintage Military Watch Ww2 Hamilton Usn Buships Vintage Military WatchSuunto Core All Black Military Smart Watch Ss0142790101940s Collectible British Military Www Eterna Automatic Bumper Stainless SteelMarathon Military Watch - Automatic - Dive - 300m - L00k - Very CleanAntique Vintage 40's Rolex Boys S / Steel Military Style T/tone Dial Wrist Watch1985 British Military Issued Cwc G10 Royal Navy Watch With Original StrapCabot Cwc G10 Genuine British Military Issue WatchNos Ww2 Elgin Military Watch A-11 Mint Condition With 24 Hour DialVintage Gents Military Universal Geneve Stainless Steel WatchUs Military Issue Pilot Navigator Sterile Dial Watch Marathon H3 Trilium Wenger Genuine Swiss Military Chronograph Quartz Watch 536.0766 Men's Swiss MadeCirca 1960 Cyma Military Style Bumper Automatic 17 Jewel Cal R.429 Working Vintage Omega 15 Jewel Manual Wind Military Men's Watch Movement Caliber 30t2Suunto X-lander Military Black WatchSuunto Core Military All Black EditionSuperb Military Ww1 Swiss Wrist Watch Perfect Just ServicedSuunto Core Military Smart WatchWw2 Hamilton Military Usn Buships Watch With Original Military Nos CaseWenger Genuine Swiss Army Military Time Men's Field Issue Terragraph Watch $225Vintage 1978 Hamilton H3 Manual Wind Military Men's Watch Us Mil-w-46374bVintage Tissot Sub Second Military Style Antimagnetic Great Design Vintage Longines Military Wwii From 40s Jumbo Size Pilot Wristwatch!Bnwt + Box Casio Gd-350-1ber G-shock Watch Military Army Time Nato BlackVintage..military Style ! Cyma Watersport 15 Jewels..chatons..1945.swiss !.Vintage 30mm Mens Military Illinois Wrist Watch, Complete With Secs@9:00British Military Automatic Broad Arrow Circle T Tritium Dial Eta MovementHamilton Khaki Military Style Wind Up Watch Model 9415a 17 Jewels Vintage Elgin A-17a Military Pilot’s Watch €Vintage Military Stopwatch British Army Broad Arrow Marked "cwc" Vintage & Rare Longines Weems Military Watch 17 Jewels Circa 1940sRare Vintage Seiko 6309-729a Automatic 150m Military Green Diver's Scuba DiveRare 1941 Omega Royal Air Force Military Watch, Precursor To The Seamaster, Nr!!