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Updated Aug 20, 2022 4:09 PM

Tactical watches are a difficult category to define, simply because unlike things like solar watches or dive watches, there’s no specific quality that makes them tactical. In our efforts to determine what counted as one of our picks for work watches for the military, we defined “tactical” as durable, legible, accurate, and in common use with U.S. service members today — and every single one of these, with one exception, hits all four. 

The best tactical watches are ready for whatever mission that you throw at them, and these watches prove that “military grade” isn’t just a term thrown around by people who don’t know what they’re talking about. Read on and find a tactical watch that belongs on your wrist.

Garmin makes the tactical watch for service members who have some sort of serious, ground combat-based job (or who want to look like they do.) Garmin watches have it all – the durability, the GPS capability, and the price tag to make them everything that you need for a rugged watch. They also have an added bit of “look what I have” to them. The Garmin Fenix 7X Sapphire Solar is the latest addition to the Fenix family of watches and is possibly one of the best options for people who want one of the best military-style watches currently available.

The Garmin excels in every function that a military-style watch needs to. The timekeeping is near-perfect, owing to the fact that the watch sets itself based on GPS time or the network time of whatever device that it connects to with Bluetooth, meaning that you’re unlikely to fall out of sync more than a second or two per day. The Garmin Fenix 7 is chock full of military-specific functions like MGRS display, waypoint plotting, and a large display to view maps in a pinch. Finally, due to the fact that it’s a solar model, it has a longer practical battery life that extends a charge into the weeks, not days, meaning that you can count on this for even the longest of missions.

The Garmin Fenix watches aren’t known to be understated, and the Fenix 7x Sapphire is no different. This isn’t just a large watch, it’s a gargantuan watch, stretching 54 millimeters lug-to-lug, making it unwearable for slim men and most women. Another issue is that for all the military utility of Garmin’s Global Network Satellite System connectivity, it’s still not going to be as accurate as encrypted military Selective Ability Anti-Spoofing Module, or SAASM GPS, which is the standard with most military GPS. Finally, the straps are totally proprietary, so if you don’t like the rash-inducing rubber straps that come on the Garmin, you’ll have to spend money on Garmin-specific straps.

Product Specs
  • Dimensions: 51 x 54 x 14.9 millimeters
  • Materials: Titanium bezel, polymer lugs, rubber strap
  • Movement type: Garmin satellite with, Bluetooth, barometer, and multiband satellite connection
  • Water resistance: 100 meters
Why It Made The Cut
  • The Garmin Fenix 7X Sapphire Solar watch may be a status symbol, but that’s not for nothing, since this is the essential wrist-mounted military tool.
PROS

Perfectly accurate

Military-specific functions

Surprisingly long battery life

CONS

Overly large

Proprietary straps

Still not as accurate as military GPS

Best Military-Grade

Going into this article, most people in the know would expect a Casio G-Shock to appear somewhere on the list. When I asked Marines what they think of when they think “tactical watches” the response was, overwhelmingly, “G-Shock, boom, that’s it, that’s all you need.” This is because Casio G-Shocks are some of the best rugged watches, that also punch well above their weight in terms of cost-benefit analysis.

G-Shock watches are known for one thing, and that’s the fact that you cannot break them. We’ve seen G-Shocks endure the worst combat zones, get run over by military vehicles, endure actual house fires, get hit by hockey sticks and so much more and keep on ticking. Couple that with 200 meters of water resistance, and these are watches that you can even take into the most dangerous waters and rely on them to keep time. Finally, this watch is one of the most water-resistant on this list and is our budget pick, which highlights how the G-Shock is famous for performing incredibly well, relative to the price.

The downsides to this watch are mostly related to the price, and the necessary cutting of costs to get this level of durability with this level of quality control. The stock strap is resin, like the case, and while flexible enough to wrap around the wearer’s wrist, it’s stiffer than rubber and just as rash-inducing. The watch also can’t be read one-handed in the dark, meaning you’ll have to free one hand to press the backlight button in the dark, which is something that’s inadvisable at diving depths, and hard to do when your dominant hand is occupied. Finally, as expected at this price point, the glass on the watch is made of ordinary mineral glass, and is therefore prone to scratching, meaning that after exposure to sand, metal, and other common environmental hazards that you’ll find in the military, the display can become fouled.

Product Specs
  • Dimensions: 43.4 x 46.5 x 12.5 millimeters
  • Materials: Resin case and strap
  • Movement type: Casio Quartz
  • Water resistance: 200 meters
Why It Made The Cut
  • The Casio G-Shock is the most common military utility watch for a reason, and this is because of a reputation for durability that’s earned, not given.
PROS

Bombproof durability

Practically unlimited battery

Affordable relative to other options

CONS

Crystal will scratch

Cannot be read in the dark one-handed

Stock strap is uncomfortable

Marathon is the best company that you’ve never heard of for rugged watches, and that’s on account of their attention to detail, overbuilt quality, and use of Tritium technology. These watches are trusted by servicemembers around the world, including Marines, Navy SEALs, and Canadian special operations. This is a watch that won’t quit, and which looks extremely cool every step of the way, designed specifically to work in combative environments.

The Marathon TSAR is a watch that is proudly modern, taking advantage of tritium vials on the hands and hour markers, and of quartz technology to ensure that it’s always accurate. The use of Tritium means that the time will always be visible, albeit dimly, even after many hours in darkness, unlike most watches and their luminescent paint. Another advantage is that this is a proper ISO-rated watch, meaning that from the top of Mount Everest, to the bottom of the littoral waters of the Atlantic Ocean, you can count on it to keep good time. This, combined with the fact that the sapphire crystal and 300 meters of water resistance are far above many others, even at this price, means that this is one of the most durable watches on this list, and even on the market.

Unfortunately, the downsides extend beyond the four-figure price tag, chief of all some of the features that Marathon built in deliberately. For starters, this is not a small watch, which is expected for a 300 meter diver, but which also limits its availability to smaller users. Marathon opted to forego anti-reflective coating on the crystal of this watch, to not dull the luminescence of the tritium vials, but when combined with the dial of the TSAR being fairly shiny for a matte finish, means that this watch can be a glare-heavy mess in direct sunlight. Finally, the stock rubber strap has the same problem that every other rubber strap on the market causes, which is to say that it induces rashes by trapping moisture.

Product Specs
  • Dimensions: 41 x 48 x 14 millimeters
  • Materials: Stainless steel, sapphire crystal, rubber strap
  • Movement type: ETA F06 Quartz movement
  • Water resistance: 300 meters (diver)
Why It Made The Cut
  • The Marathon TSAR Government Issue is a professionally-certified military-issue diver’s watch that takes advantage of tritium to deliver unlimited low-light legibility.
PROS

Always visible in the dark

Officially dive-certified

Extremely durable

CONS

Wears large

Glare-heavy

Stock rubber strap can cause rashes

The Hamilton Khaki Field is one of the original tactical watches, being directly linked to the watches worn by American servicemembers in the jungles of Vietnam. This is a mechanical field watch in its purest sense, focusing on legibility and wearability, and with some modern additions to enhance durability. This is what many older veterans think of when they think “tactical watch” since for years, this was the military standard in timekeeping.

The biggest advantage of this watch is that it fits into one of my ideals for military watches, which is wearability. The Hamilton Khaki Field comes in at a very manageable 47-millimeters lug-to-lug distance, which when combined with the 38 millimeters diameter means that this watch is wearable for everyone, making it one of the best tactical watches for men, women, and even children, if you feel like giving your offspring a Swiss watch. This watch is also incredibly legible, with a high contrast dial that features white Arabic numerals against a dark background, and an inner dial that allows for easy 24-hour conversion, making it all the more military. Finally, the sapphire crystal on the Hamilton Khaki Field ensures that unless you have a habit of going elbow-deep in a pail full of diamonds, your watch crystal will remain scratch-free, further enhancing the legibility.

The one way in which the Hamilton Khaki Field falters more than all other downsides is that it has a meager 50 meters of water resistance, making this a decidedly terrestrial watch. Don’t take it swimming. The other factor is that due to the vintage DNA in this watch, it has to be manually rewound every day or so to keep the mechanism inside running, you have to make a routine of periodically winding the crown. Finally, despite the fact that the H50 movement inside is no slouch in terms of mechanical accuracy, it’s hard to compete with quartz watches that lose a dozen seconds per month or GPS-corrected watches that don’t lose any time as long as they can see the sky.

Product Specs
  • Dimensions: 38 x 47 x 9.8 millimeters
  • Materials: Stainless steel with sapphire crystal
  • Movement type: Hamilton H50 Mechanical
  • Water resistance: 50 meters
Why It Made The Cut
  • This Vietnam-era classic is still one of the best choices for an everyday tactical watch, owing to the fact that it found a formula that worked, and stuck with it.
PROS

Wearable for anyone

Scratch-resistant crystal

Extremely legible

CONS

Low water resistance

Manual wind

Not as accurate as others

Best for Working in the S-Shop

You work in S1 or S4 and you think that the other options on this list are just not your style, because nothing on this list really compliments a faded perm and a smedium skivvie shirt quite like an Apple Watch. The Garmin is too big, and grunts make fun of you for being a Rear-Echelon Mother…yknow whenever you wear it. The G-Shock reminds you of boot camp, which was the last time you stood at parade rest for anyone. The Marathon isn’t a Rolex, so none of your Instagram followers care. Finally, the Hamilton is such an old-fashioned watch, it probably was cool when, like, MySpace was around.

The Apple watch is the best work watch for the office-bound service member given that it performs as well as an Apple product is expected to. The timekeeping is immaculate given that it connects to GPS and cellular data, so you know exactly when you get off at 1400, as soon as you get back from lunch chow. The size is also extremely wearable, meaning that no matter if you’re the skinny e-person build or the weirdly jacked dude that’s in every admin or supply shop, this watch will fit. Finally, it’s an Apple watch, so everyone knows you’re hip, cool, and not poor.

The issues with the Apple watch are mostly that this isn’t a rough-and-tumble watch, but that’s not what it’s made for, and cases exist for those times when you do actually go to the field or do ground fighting PT. The screens on these are known for cracking, which is a huge bummer, so make sure you take it off before you post motivational photos of you doing the obstacle course on Instagram. The straps are known for snapping or fraying, so similar caution applies there, and make sure you have a black-colored strap, because gunny still hates you. Finally, if you noticed that we didn’t recommend these for S2 and S6, that’s because they at least know that smartwatches are electronic warfare threats.

Product Specs
  • Dimensions: 38 x 45 x 10.7 millimeters
  • Materials: Stainless steel case, Ion-X mineral glass
  • Movement type: Apple iOS
  • Water resistance: Who cares
Why It Made The Cut
  • The perfect tactical watch for S-1 lotharios with TikTok careers this watch ensures that you let everyone know that you get hella bitches and get off every day at 1400.
PROS

Accurate due to cellular link and GPS data

Wearable for many body types

Immediately recognizable

CONS

Fragile

Poor strap durability

Electronic warfare threat

Things to consider before buying a tactical watch

Tactical watches are made for the hellish, hardworking environments that servicemembers might find themselves in. From the highest mountains to the depths of the oceans, and everywhere in between, these watches need to keep accurate time to keep missions running smoothly. Because of this, there are several areas in which they need to excel.

Durability

Tactical watches need to stand up to whatever you throw at them. Look for high water resistance, scratch-resistant glass, and sturdy straps so that they don’t fail you when things get down to the wire.

Legibility

Tactical watches need to be readable in a multitude of environments, rain or shine, day or night. Because of this, look for high-contrast dials, large numerals, and good luminescence, so that at any given time, you can glance at your watch and see where you are on your mission timeline. 

Wearability

Tactical watches need to be large enough to read easily, but small enough to not snag on gear, cables, or other hazards and need to fit comfortably. Everyone’s body is different, but make sure that your watch fits you and stays out of the way.

FAQs about tactical watches

Q: How durable are tactical watches?

A: As durable as possible, ideally. Look for watches with good water resistance, ISO certifications related to durability, and scratch-resistant glass to keep your watch ticking at all times

Q: Do tactical watches have smartwatch capabilities?

A: Absolutely. The Garmin Fenix is an example of a tactical watch that can display your mobile device’s notifications, cycle music, track your steps, and more.

Q: Can tactical watches be set to military time?

A: Ideally yes, especially with the digital ones, most tactical watches have an option to display time in a 24-hour format. 

Q: Why do military service members wear their watches backwards?

A: I’ve heard everything from wanting to not allow the glint of the crystal to flash in the sun and reveal your position to snipers, to wanting to protect the crystal from getting shattered, all the way to wanting to be able to read the time while aiming your weapon downrange. I’m not sure which I believe, and which I dismiss as just “my uncle who claims he was a SEAL in Vietnam said this.”

Final thoughts

Tactical watches are a conundrum since they’re not really a category of watches. Instead, I chose this list as a sort of ethnography of watches that I see Marines around me wearing, and noticing the patterns in their wear. These watches are all, with that one exception, good, sturdy, and durable watches, and will serve you well, no matter the mission. 

Methodology 

When evaluating the contenders for this list of tactical watches, we selected them based on how well they’re trusted by professionals for military use in any environment. The G-Shock and Garmin are perennial choices, seen as arguably the best options for the job by their proponents. The Hamilton and Marathon options are for the more retro-minded and traditional watch aficionados. The Apple watch was mostly a commentary on how many service members try to wear one while doing any sort of military task, and end up breaking them and getting bummed out. Overall, these choices reflect the real-life timepiece selection of Marines, soldiers, sailors, airmen, coastguardsmen, and Guardians.