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Published Apr. 18, 2022

Field watches are a specific genre of watches rather than simply being watches that one might take to the field. The best field watches not only look like their Vietnam-era counterparts, but can also stand up to everything that’s thrown at them in a field environment. Hailing from a time when the mark of a military man or woman was the plain, utilitarian, easy-to-read watch that kept time, every time. Brands that became famous for this were Hamilton, Glycine, Marathon, Seiko, Rolex, and Elgin, among many others. They graced the wrists of service members up until the advent of cheap digital watches like the Casio G-Shock in the 1980s. Modern-day field watches are a nod to this history, often featuring plain black dials with white indices or numerals. These watches are also often utilitarian in design, slim, lightweight, and use mechanical movements for maximum reliability.

All of the watches in this article were tested by Task & Purpose to be able to follow you anywhere, evaluated based on a number of features, and we had multiple volunteers of varying levels of watch affinity wear the watches, give first thoughts, and let us know which features made our top picks the best.

How we tested

For the watches on this list, we relied on privately purchased watches, such as our best overall and best unisex, but we also were kindly loaned watches by Long Island Watch and Jomashop, who provided us our budget pick, our editor’s choice, and our dress pick with no editorial constraints whatsoever. This allowed us to get hands-on time, see how these watches fit on a variety of people, and evaluate factors that you can’t get from simple measurements, like how it feels in the hand, or how gritty the winding of the movement feels.

If you told many watch fans to close their eyes and imagine the perfect field watch, odds are that many of them would think of something that looked an awful lot like the Hamilton Khaki field watch. This is the quintessential field watch. It’s small, slim, matte-finished, and powered by a manual winding movement, albeit with the twist of the movement holding 80 hours of power. Plus, the watch dial is covered by a slightly domed sapphire crystal. This is a remarkably simple watch that delivers the quality that many people associate with “Swiss Made,” and comes from a brand that’s been making military watches since 1914.

The Hamilton Khaki Field wins in several ways, foremost of which is the fact that it remains true to its roots in the military watches of yesteryear. Big watches are a very recent trend, so the minimal thickness and 38mm diameter is very true to the watches that troops took into Vietnam. However, one way in which it differs is the use of scratch-resistant sapphire crystal instead of the acrylic used during that time period, so you’ll see the dial for longer, unless you’re in the habit of sticking your watch-clad wrist into a bucket of diamonds. Finally, even though this is a manual-wind watch, the power reserve on the Hamilton H-50 is a whopping 80 hours, meaning that you can take this watch off on Friday, pick it up on Monday, and it’ll still be showing the time, only needing a quick wind. These factors made it my friend Jeremiah’s watch of choice, and it comes in a variety of color schemes if you don’t prefer classic green or black.

Many novice watch owners will likely be a little taken aback by the need to constantly wind their watch every few days. It’s definitely an old-school touch, but it’s part of the experience of owning a watch that’s this thin at this price point. Another issue is that, as mentioned above, large watches are a recent trend. They’re still a trend, however, and many modern wearers may be expecting a much larger watch, which the Khaki certainly isn’t. Overall, it oozes old-school, but that comes at the risk of being not exactly the most thrilling watch. Finally, the decision to switch to sapphire crystal was not accompanied by a corresponding coat of anti-reflective coating, meaning that while the luminescent indices glow slightly brighter in the dark, the watch dial is more difficult to read in direct sunlight.

The Hamilton Khaki is a purebred field watch, with the only modernizations made being in service of making it more capable in its natural environment: the field. While this might alienate some who want a watch that looks like a fancy-looking status symbol, those who want a watch that works as hard as they do will not be disappointed with this classic icon.

Specs
  • Dimensions: 38mm W x 9.8mm H x 47mm L
  • Movement: Hamilton H50 (slowed ETA 2802)
  • Country of manufacture: Switzerland
  • Maximum accuracy deviation: +/- 20 seconds per day
PROS

Classic styling

Durable

Extremely long power reserve

CONS

Manual winding

Too small for some users

No anti-reflective coating

Owning an automatic field watch with a sapphire crystal, classic styling, and great luminescence doesn’t have to cost a fortune, and Long Island Watch is here to prove it with its Islander field watch, which brings all these features to the table for roughly $200 retail. The Islander watch line is designed by watch enthusiasts to have a lot of the features that people would add to watches from larger brands — things like anti-reflective sapphire crystals, movements that can be set to the second, and a healthy water resistance. To top it all off, the Islander field watch retains the classic look, for the most part, providing a good way to get a field watch that checks off most of the boxes for a relatively small price.

The standout features at this price point are the anti-reflective sapphire crystal that makes the glass over the dial disappear in certain lighting, the workhorse Seiko NH35 movement, and the excellent luminescence throughout. The design itself is classic field watch, with brushed steel, a high-contrast dial, and a relatively narrow diameter. Overall, it’s a watch that does its job well, and nothing more.

Unfortunately, a side effect of this plainness is the fact that the Islander field watch isn’t winning any beauty contests or design awards. There’s really nothing to write home about in terms of visual appeal, besides that the watch is inoffensive and utilitarian.

The stock strap is leather-lined nylon, and is extremely stiff, meaning that until you break it in, it won’t quite fit your wrist. And, I fail to see how leather-lined nylon is worth the extra cost over a much more comfortable cloth NATO-style strap. The watch also sticks out a good deal from the wearer’s wrist, due to the thick NH35 movement, which is not ideal when compared to equivalent manual-wind movements that sit much thinner. This is especially bad considering the narrower diameter of the watch, which ends up making it look like you’ve got a bottle cap on your wrist.

My biggest issue with the Islander field watch is durability. A friend of mine who bought the watch at my urging dented the steel case when he struck it on the inside of a seven-ton truck engine bay. It damaged the watch to the point of requiring a new NH35 watch movement, which ended up costing roughly half the price of a new watch. While this was likely due in no small part to end-user abuse, managing to stop the NH35 movement due to impact shock is serious, so these watches aren’t invincible.

If all you want is a field watch that does field watch stuff better than some watches that cost much more, and better than anything else commonly available at the price point, the Islander is it. It delivers anti-reflective sapphire crystal, great lume, a solid movement, and classic styling for an affordable price, and from a store that ships from America. In the words of Han Solo: “She don’t look like much, but she’s got it where it counts.”

Specs
  • Dimensions: 39mm W x 12mm H x 48.5mm L
  • Movement: Seiko NH35
  • Country of manufacture: China
  • Maximum accuracy deviation: -20/+40 seconds per day
PROS

Sapphire crystal

Excellent luminescence

Classic design

CONS

Not exceptional-looking

Durability issues

Uncomfortable stock strap

Large on the wrist

Editor’s Choice

The Orient Star Outdoor was the favorite of myself, my editor, and nearly everyone who previewed watches on social media, due to its striking-yet-utilitarian appearance. That sleek, tool-watch PVD black exterior, combined with the sparkling, asphalt-like dial texture, and artificially-aged luminescent markers came together for a winning combination. The beauty isn’t just skin-deep, either, given that this watch houses a tastefully decorated in-house movement that keeps time to a degree of accuracy that outdoes bog-standard Seiko and Miyota movements, and the dial is protected by a sapphire crystal. Finally, the watch comes with two leather-lined NATO straps, so you can switch between black and khaki depending on your mood. It’s built by humans, so it’s not perfect, but it’s a solid choice that we all loved.

The dial of the Orient Star Outdoor is the main attraction. It’s not only executed in an “explorer” style dial with Arabic numerals 3, 6, 9, and 12, but it also features an attractive shimmering texture that doesn’t show itself unless in direct light, and even then it’s only viewable by the wearer. The inclusion of a power reserve indicator is a great way to let you know when your watch is fully wound, and whether or not it needs to be re-wound. The indices feature artificially-aged lume. While it does somewhat diminish visibility, it’s not so much that it makes the watch unviewable in the dark. It gives the numerals a pleasant yellow-green hue in low light. Combined with an anti-reflective coating on the sapphire crystal, this watch is readable in all conditions. The movement is also fantastic. It’s visible through the exhibition case-back and mildly decorated, which is a nice touch, especially for those buying their first automatic watch. It’s not just a good-looking movement either, being a cut above the typical Seiko NH35s that you can find in many watches at this price point in terms of accuracy.

With details this beautiful that beg you to look closely, the minutiae of the watch is going to be the part where it fails the most. On the beautiful, textured black dial, the white date wheel stands out like an attention-grabbing distraction, ruining the consistency of an otherwise flawless watch. Having a black date wheel with white numerals would have made this watch just that much more attractive. Then there’s the strap, which is miserable and stiff, vice a standard nylon NATO strap. Although replacing stock straps is not difficult in terms of price or availability, Orient Star is Orient’s premium line, and the straps should improve accordingly, especially when Orient’s Defender II line has a simple nylon strap for much less.

The watch is also approaching overly-large territory for some smaller-wristed wearers, who might find this watch to be ungainly, especially when compared to every other watch on this list, which will fit every wrist, regardless of build or gender. In general, this is a watch that will most likely best fit men of average height and build, unless the wearer doesn’t mind watches that overhang their wrist.

The Orient Star Outdoor is a watch that embraces its styling and design in a brash way, delivering a package that is somehow understated and attention-grabbing at the same time. It’s one of my favorite watches of all time, and it’s been one that I’ve recommended to many friends for their first nice watch.

Specs
  • Dimensions: 40.7mm W x 12.2mm H x 49mm L
  • Movement: Epson F6N43
  • Country of manufacture: Japan
  • Maximum accuracy deviation: -5/+15 seconds per day
PROS

High visibility “Explorer” dial with a great texture

Good lume

Excellent movement

CONS

Stiff, uncomfortable straps

Mismatched date wheel

Wears slightly large

Best Automatic Field Watch

Hamilton is making our list of field watches twice for a good reason, namely that Hamilton is the company to beat when it comes to this style of timepiece. For those who want to dress up at the office, but acknowledge their roots in a field environment, say for a nostalgic infantry field-grade officer who got sent to do whatever lieutenant colonels do, the Khaki King II is an outstanding choice. It looks extremely classy while also carrying the heritage and design language of the Khaki Field that got our best overall spot. This one carries more detailed styling, an automatic movement, and a day-date complication similar to that of the Hamilton Khaki Pilot on our Aviation watches list. This is a watch that does almost anything and does it in style.

The Hamilton Khaki King II is an extremely good-looking watch with clear numerals, a circular engraved track, and a day-date complication that adds a touch of class while retaining the tool watch DNA. The dial is still easy to read, has the inner afternoon hour track, and the same outer minutes track as the Khaki Field, but adds a finer brushed steel, a polished bezel, an exhibition case-back, and a three-link oyster-style bracelet to round out the dressed-up aesthetic. The movement is Hamilton’s fantastic H-40. The automatic movement winds itself, offers a whopping 80 hours of power, and features a date wheel that uses part of the spring tension to snap over to the next day automatically at midnight. The Khaki King is also supremely wearable and makes just under 12mm feel like just under nine by using downward-curved lugs and a very articulated bracelet, meaning that despite this watch being on the wider side, it’ll fit most wearers handily.

Unfortunately, the Khaki King has become too much dress, not enough field, by eschewing a lot of what makes a field watch a field watch. Many of the other watches on this list boast 100m of water resistance, while the Khaki King has only 50, meaning that this is definitely not the watch to take swimming, since 50m really means “50m of simulated depth in still water.” Another issue is the complete lack of anti-reflective coating on the crystal of the watch, which makes this a bear to read in direct sunlight. Speaking of light, the luminescence on the Khaki King is totally unimpressive, with pips around each hour index, and some paint on the hour indices, both of which glow faintly in the dark for a short period of time, eventually leaving only the hour and minute hands glowing, effectively making the watch unreadable after a few minutes.

Like the service member who was promoted out of a field environment and ended up in some office at the Pentagon, the Khaki King carries the DNA of the field watch, but in a dress watch package. It’s a beautiful, stylish, and supremely comfortable watch, but it’s not designed to be taken on your next rough expedition.

Specs
  • Dimensions: 40mm W x 11.4mm H x 49.6mm L
  • Movement: Hamilton H40 (slowed ETA 2834)
  • Country of manufacture: Switzerland
  • Maximum accuracy deviation: +/- 20 seconds per day
PROS

“Dress-field” look

Outstanding power reserve

Wears smaller than it looks

CONS

Mediocre lume

No anti-reflective coating

Low water resistance

Best Field Watch for Women

Technically, this is the most historically accurate watch on this list. Besides the addition of a sapphire crystal, it’s a direct replica of a WWII service watch made by Eterna. And, at 35mm, what was an average-sized watch diameter back then is now considered more common for a women’s watch. Women, or people of smaller stature who want a watch that doesn’t look ridiculous on their wrist, will likely appreciate this watch. It has everything a field watch should have without entering dinner plate territory. The Vaer A-12 features a small seconds display that’s in keeping with the original design and it comes with not one but two straps — the second one being of your choice, including a bracelet option for dressier occasions.

The A12 is a supercharged version of the watches worn in WWII by military men and women, adding sapphire crystal and a modern Swiss movement, as well as an exhibition case-back, so that you can appreciate the gorgeous Geneva striping on the steel portions of the movement. The movement, an ETA 7001, is accurate to roughly plus or minus eight seconds per day, and in an extra historical touch, Eterna, the original manufacturer of this watch during WWII, was the company that developed the ETA 7001. This watch also is supremely wearable, not just because of the small diameter, but also due to the extremely comfortable strap, and fits small and large wrists alike. Finally, this isn’t a watch that simply looks like the original utility watch, it also improves on the original with 100 meters of water resistance, making this a watch that you can comfortably take swimming.

Some people aren’t going to like the fact that this watch is manual wind, being used to watches that either automatically wind themselves, or use batteries or solar power to stay constantly wound. Additionally, despite being a precise military tool, the watch cannot “hack,” or stop the second hand, meaning that you can only be so accurate to the time of day. This is accurate to the original, but a modern improvement would be nice. Finally, this watch is not cheap, and a large part of that is trying to fit an accurate movement into an extremely small package.

The Vaer A12 is a terrific watch with legitimate military DNA. It’s small enough to fit nearly anyone by virtue of being as authentic as it is. You get a lot of the quirks of a vintage watch, but for the most part, it’s improved where it counts, giving you a great unisex watch that makes it the ideal choice for women who still want to have a durable watch with a rich military history.

Specs
  • Dimensions: 36mm W x 9.2mm H x 43mm L
  • Movement: ETA 7001
  • Country of manufacture: Switzerland
  • Maximum accuracy deviation: +/- 8 seconds per day
PROS

Compact in every dimension

Supremely accurate

Historically authentic

CONS

Manual wind

Compact size necessitates higher cost

No hacking capability

Best Titanium Field Watch

The Boldr Venture Field Medic Chronograph is an unusual watch in every way, being made of an unusual material, featuring an unusual movement, having an unusually shaped case, and featuring one complication that most people don’t even know exists. The Venture Field Medic is a chronograph that takes advantage of the second hand to provide medical personnel with a pulsometer, allowing them to measure a patient’s heart rate in beats per minute. Additionally, it’s made entirely of ultralight titanium. When combined with the quartz movement, it means this is a watch that you might forget is even there until you need it.

The Venture Field Medic Chronograph delivers a durable, utilitarian package with its inherently matte titanium finishing, stellar lume, and anti-reflective sapphire crystal. In addition, the Seiko VK64 mecha-quartz movement is much more accurate than most mechanical movements, and allows precise reading of the pulsometer, beating more than once per second, meaning this is a watch you can count on when seconds matter. The pulsometer feature is something that medics and corpsmen (and nurses and doctors) can appreciate, even if it is a somewhat ceremonial tool these days.

Unfortunately, having a quartz movement automatically makes this watch less cool, in the minds of watch snobs. Additionally, it’s definitely an acquired taste in terms of styling, with the angular titanium and hyper-modern lines, which means that it’s definitely not a classic piece. Finally, the narrow diameter combined with the thick case gives this watch the same characteristics as the Islander Field watch, where it feels like a top-heavy bottlecap on the wrist.

For the medic, corpsman, or other medical professionals, this is a cool, affordable, and durable watch that pays homage to the wearer’s profession. It’s not for everyone, but it’s probably one of the nicest titanium field watches on the market, due solely to its unique features and styling.

Specs
  • Dimensions: 38mm W x 12.2mm H x 44mm L
  • Movement: Seiko VK64
  • Country of manufacture: Singapore
  • Maximum accuracy deviation: +/- 20 seconds per month
PROS

The ideal watch for medics and corpsmen

Durable, lightweight, and accurate

Unique functionality

CONS

Quartz is seen as less cool

Controversial styling

Top-heavy design

What to consider when buying a field watch

When shopping for a field watch, it should be assessed on how durable it is, how legible it is in all conditions, and how well it keeps time. There’s a reason why many field watches look very similar, and that’s because there’s a formula that just works, usually including a dark-colored dial with illuminated numbers and hands, and usually in a compact package. In general, these watches will have a military appearance, and be less stylish than dress watches, but also more suited for casual occasions.

Key features of field watches

High contrast dial

Field watches need to be legible in all conditions, meaning that the dials will usually be the polar opposite of the numerals in terms of coloration, to make them stand out as much as possible. This cuts down on reading time and makes the watch more legible in both the low light of a jungle canopy and the glaring desert sun.

Luminescence 

When moving from bright to dark environments, the numbers and hands of a field watch need to be legible, which necessitates luminescent paint or other materials to ensure that the hands and indices are still visible. Some watches may use SuperLuminova or other phosphorescent paint, while others use higher-tech solutions like tritium to provide long-lasting, albeit less bright, low-light visibility.

Crystal

The crystal, or glass of the watch, needs to protect the dial, but not interfere with the legibility of the watch. More modern options will use scratch-resistant sapphire, which necessitates an anti-reflective coating to cut down on glare in direct sunlight, but the classic option is acrylic plastic, which while prone to scratches, can be easily cleared up using polywatch rubbing compound, or replaced for cheap.

Field watches pricing 

Budget

From $50-$150, budget field watches will often feature quartz or Chinese mechanical movements, acrylic or mineral crystals, and lower-quality materials. However, some gems can be found in this price range, but buyers beware, since the low cost comes from cutting corners somewhere.

Mid-range

From $150 to $500, this is where most of the watches on this list fall, being expensive enough to offer the quality features that many users want, while also being affordable enough to take into the field, since, after all, they’re called field watches. Watches in this price range will feature quality movements, good finishing, sapphire crystal, and you’ll find the beginnings of Swiss watches with time-honored brands like Hamilton

Premium

From $500 up, the sky’s the limit. This category can include tritium watches from brands such as Marathon, all the way to luxury watches like the famous Rolex Explorer, which is a field watch in style, but not often in practical use. These watches know no bounds in terms of finishing, features, and designs, but are often too expensive for many users to feel comfortable taking afield.

FAQs on field watches

You’ve got questions. Task and Purpose has answers!

Q: Can you wear a field watch with a suit?

A: Absolutely! Watches like the Hamilton Khaki King are almost specifically designed for this use, featuring field watch DNA, but with upgraded styling. Any of these watches on a quality leather strap will look fantastic and can serve as a nice nod to the wearer’s outdoorsy tendencies when in more genteel environments.

Q: Why is it called a field watch?

A: Field watches come from a long lineage of timepieces worn by military men and women, explorers, and workers, and are therefore usually designed with durability, legibility, and affordability in mind.

Q: Should field watches be small?

A: Field watches are generally smaller, generally for the stated reason that they need to be wearable for many different body types, and need to not snag on anything while in use, given their heritage as general-issue military watches. However, larger options like the Orient Star Outdoor are fine and are just as much a field watch as a 36mm Vaer or 38mm Hamilton.

Q: What watch do the Navy SEALs wear?

A: Whatever they want. Historically, the frogmen in Vietnam would often be seen with watches from Hamilton, Glycine, and Seiko. However, they generally preferred dive watches like the Seiko 6105, Seiko 62MAS, and the famous Rolex Submariner, owing to their amphibious mission.

Task & Purpose and its partners may earn a commission if you purchase a product through one of our links. We independently evaluate gear by putting products in the hands of subject matter experts. The products we test may be purchased by Task & Purpose, our staff, or provided for review by a manufacturer. No matter the source, our testing procedures and our assessments remain free from third-party influence. Learn more about our product review process.

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