War might not be good for many things, but it has benefited watch technology advancement. The need for timepieces to be more resilient, less visible, able to go to lower depths, or be able to survive higher temperatures has led to brands making discoveries they may not have done without a mil-spec document arriving on their desk.
What Is A Military Watch?
Technically, it is any timepiece worn by someone in the military – the first of which were allegedly used during the 1899-1902 Boer War. WWI saw soldiers strapping everyday pocket watches to their wrists to avoid having to fumble in their clothes, but it was during WWII that real innovation happened. This was thanks to governments realising that a watch could be a valuable part of the military tool kit and therefore asking more and more brands to adjust their watches to the military’s specifications, hence mil-spec.
Most watches the military asked to be spec-up share characteristics: they have large legible, luminescent numerals; a 24-hour track so all-night operations can be timed; matte or bead-blasted cases so they can’t be detected and won’t succumb as easily to environmental damage. There’s also the NATO (or G10) strap, which is fabric and designed by the MoD with a specific looping construction that keeps the watch on the wrist even if the spring bars break.
The Key Types Of Military Watch
There are three distinct categories of military watches, each with slightly different characteristics to suit the needs of the Army, Airforce and Navy.
Field watches are the most basic – usually cheap, robust, three-handers. Then there’s pilot’s watches and diving watches, both rather self-explanatory except the military versions of these styles maybe be more technical or able to go deeper than ones made for mere civilians.
The Best Military Watches You Can Buy Today
While we might not be able to get our hands on a Rolex 5517 MilSub, there are watches out there that have parlayed their military connections into timepieces that work just as well in the local as they do in the officer’s mess. Here are seven that are ideal for civilians.
Tudor Pelagos FXD
A new kid on the military block, this is another timepiece born of Tudor’s relationship with the Marine Nationale (French Navy) that has been ongoing since 1956. This time the company has worked with the prestigious Commando Hubert unit of combat swimmers.
Combat swimmers navigate the water in linked pairs, changing direction every 10 minutes to avoid detection. This new Pelagos has a bidirectional bezel, which is necessary for the countdown before they have to change course, the dial is matte, the robust fixed bars on the strap ensure it won’t fall off and, interestingly for a military diver, the watch is good to just 100m because combat divers stay near to the surface.
Traser P66 Automatic Pro Military Watch
In 1989, the US military took an interest in Oskar Thüler’s invention: trigalight. This self-illumination technology was developed by his company mb-microtec using the world’s smallest gaseous tritium light sources, which deliver decades of light without any external light source. The US wanted it incorporated into a watch perfect for night ops, so the Traser P66 Automatic Pro Military was born.
After the US military, the British decided to supply this watch to selected service people and anecdotally it’s one of the few brands military personnel will buy for themselves.
Panerai Submersible Marina Militare Carbotech
Panerai was a military brand before it was a civilian one, producing technical tools and eventually watches for the Italian Royal Navy since 1935. This beast from 2019 was designed specifically for the Navy’s special operations unit, known as Teseo Tesei or Comsubin.
It is made from hardwearing but lightweight Carbotech, a carbon fibre composite unique to Panerai, has highly legible blue Superluminova and a unidirectional bezel. And, if you’re lucky enough to find one of the limited in-store-only editions, it comes with an exclusive training day experience with the Teseo Tesei themselves.
Timex MK1 Steel 40mm Fabric Strap Watch
Timex has a long-standing history of producing military-inspired timepieces but, for a very brief period in between February and March 1982, it actually had a military contract. As part of this, it created the Mil-Spec W-46374B for the US Marine Corps: a watch designed to be discarded. You couldn’t change the battery or make repairs, so once it stopped you threw it away.
Luckily, the civilian version of this field watch, the MK1, is more robust. Its case is hardwearing stainless steel, it comes on a military-inspired fabric strap, has a mechanical movement, and will set you back just $185.
Breitling Aviator 8 B01 Chronograph 43 Mosquito
Breitling has had links to the RAF since the 1930s, when it started to produce onboard chronometers for aeroplanes, many of which helped secure an allied victory in WWII. Which leads us to the Aviator 8 B01 Chronograph 43 Mosquito, a watch inspired by those worn by early British pilots and a tribute to the de Havilland Mosquito, one of the most iconic WWII bombers.
The red and orange accents on the dial are a nod to the colours used on the body of the Mosquito, while the retro leather strap references the era the plane was created. Powered by the in-house Breitling Manufacture Calibre 01 movement, it’s a fitting homage to an incredible aircraft and the men who flew them.
Bremont and the military have been courting each other unofficially for years; there’s even a side of the business exclusively for service men and women to have their Bremonts spec’d with their insignia. In 2019, they made it official with the Ministry of Defence (MoD) announcing the British watch brand as its luxury watch partner.
Bremont’s MoD collection features the Broadsword for the Army and the Arrow for the RAF, but this fabulous retro-diver is the one to buy. The Argonaut has an elegant inner rotating bezel, custom Superluminova in a lovely mint shade and, despite being a tool watch, feels more like a timepiece made for a gentleman than an officer.
Vertex Bronze 75
Vertex has the accolade of being the only UK brand featured in the Dirty Dozen – the group of 12 watchmakers commissioned by the British MoD during WWII to produce reliable watches for British soldiers, which includes the likes of Jaeger-LeCoultre, Omega and Longines.
Vertex continues to riff on its military history today with watches inspired by that era, like this beauty. Launched to commemorate 75 years since the end of WWII and taking inspiration from the Cal 59 Nav, one of which is currently on eBay, the Vertex 75 ticks all the military inspiration boxes but encases them in bronze for a modern take on a classic design.