In the military there are a few schools on watches for military use. Some use the “buy’em cheap and replace as broken” and others are “buy’em once and cry once.” There are success stories from both methods, and in the end a watch is (mostly) just there to tell time. In my uneventful and completely normal career I’ve encountered plenty of folks wearing Casio, Luminox, Citizen, Rolex, Omega, Tag Heuer, Victorinox, and plenty of Timex offerings. It really doesn’t matter what watch you have on your wrist as long as it does its job, but when you are in the backside of the moon as far as resupply goes, having a reliable watch is a nice comfort. Having that watch work when you need to meet a “hit time” is doubly comforting. Having a watch fail you during a working vacation can be a bit of an emotional let down.
The cheapest offering listed here is the Timex offerings. The olive drab “GI” watch works, isn’t particularly rugged, but is available and cheap. If you want a step up in price and quality even if there is a step down in absolute timing accuracy, a Seiko 5 is a much better option and will outlast several Timex watches (I was introduced to the Seiko 5 military line through a UK Royal Navy Officer who had his for the better part of a decade and just kept replacing the strap with another NATO band as they wore through). Between the Timex and a Seiko 5, the Seiko is the better buy, but not always available at some random PX in the middle of nowhere.
Next up is the ubiquitous Casio G-Shock. I’ve worn through plenty of G-Shock bands myself, and a G-Shock “tough solar” offering will probably outlast you if you don’t rip the watch right off the band. Unfortunately ripping the watch right off the band is how I lost one, and the others when the band failed. Good watches although big on the wrist. If you like that style of watch, replacing the band with an easily replaceable NATO strap should help you suck every possible minute of life out of it. Generally a G-Shock will be available in the PX in the middle of nowhere, but the NATO strap won’t be.
Next up in the price range of common military watches is the Luminox brand. Essentially these are overpriced plastic watches with battery powered quartz movements and tritium illumination, and the Navy SEAL selling point. I don’t recommend spending 180 bucks or more on a quartz dive watch when a Casio quartz dive watch can be had for less than 50 dollars. But, these watches are pretty popular with the folks who wear them, and they do seem to hold up well. But in the price range, there are other options that are every bit as rugged. The 200 dollar range really starts to open up some great watch options. A British Army Diver showed me his issued Citizen Promaster Dive watch, powered by light, and it had great illum and a solid steel case. I honestly think this is a better buy than the Luminox offerings which are slightly lighter, but are all battery powered in this price range. Alternately a Seiko SNE109 style solar powered dive watch can be had in the 150 dollar range, and I think that is also a better buy than a Luminox.
Above 200 dollars you run into the Omega, Tag Heuer, and Rolex crowd. These are the watches that you see on the wrists of single Captains, married Lieutenant Colonels, and contractors. These are status watches, even among the military community. They tell time just fine, but are also success symbols.
The watches I see that are a little scraped up but still going strong are usually the Citizen and Casio offerings. Seiko as a brand doesn’t have a huge penetration into the military culture that I’ve been around, but I expect that to change as Seiko has been consciously branding itself towards the “rough use” crowd with their Prospex line (and I’ve seen the Seiko Prospex dive watches in the display case of at least one PX).
If you see a lot of dive watches represented in this list, that is largely because dive watches have a well deserved reputation for being more rugged than other watches. But to explain how hard military culture is on watches, I’ve seen the seals break on G-Shocks and let condensation in, fogging the crystal. I’ve seen that on an Omega too. I’ve seen a contractor stop wearing his Rolex Submariner because the equipment he was around caused it to run fast (the movement got magnetized) so he went out and bought a Rolex Milgaus. I’ve seen a LTC who jumped into Panama wear a 25 dollar digital Timex for as long as I’ve known him. And I’ve seen a Captain with a Tag Heuer that was utterly beat to death and still telling time through a very scratched crystal that was in desperate need of replacement.
If you have a loved one looking to go into the military, I think the Seiko Solar dive watches with a metal bracelet, or the Citizen offering when put on a NATO strap, are the best watches for starting out. Most watches fail because of the strap, followed by the crystal, so getting something with a very tough or easily replaced bracelet is critical, and having a good crystal (sapphire is best, mineral crystal second best, plastic the worst) is second. Even a 48 dollar Casio diver that requires a new battery every 18 months or so is going to get the job done (but I hate getting batteries changed out on a dive watch, means you have to open the case).
Comments are open, what type of watch do you like, and why?