Military watches, for obvious reasons, are some of the most interesting timepieces to study and collect: they have serious history behind them, they're robust and well made, and their utilitarian, straightforward nature ironically often leads to naturally attractive designs.
Prices on vintage, issued military watches very much runs the gamut — you can pay $200 for a WWII-era, American-made A-11, or you can pay $200,000 for a Rolex "Milsub" issued to the Royal Navy in the 1970s. Because of this, we've decided to focus this guide on timepieces that'll run you less than $5,000. A further constraint, however, is that we've elected to focus on pieces 34mm and larger, as watches like the A-11, cool as they are, are quite small even for the small-wristed among us (think ~32mm).
Of course, keep in mind that vintage issued watches such as these are going to need service more frequently than modern watches with modern movements in them that use synthetic oils, automatic winding, etc, so factor those costs into your purchasing decision. Still, there's nothing cooler than the knowledge that someone long ago wore your watch into a dangerous place in order to blow shit up.
(...or wore it in the mess hall while he spooned rice and beans onto plates for 12 hours a day, but the mystery is part of the attraction.)
One of the best bargains in (fairly) modern military watches, the Cabot Watch Company G10 was produced in huge quantities for British military personnel, and is in fact still being produced today in slightly updated form. The originals were made between 1980 and the early 2000s and feature a 36mm steel case with a quartz movement, battery hatch, a matte black tritium dial, fixed spring bars, and an acrylic crystal. Though they've appreciated somewhat in price over the past few years, you can find them all day long for under $500.
Movement: Swiss-made quartz
MIL-W-46374 and GG-W-113
Thin, handwound, highly legible, and largely American-made, both the MIL-W-46374 and the GG-W-113 (variations on a theme that were updated from the 1960s through the 1990s) are perfect entry-level military watches. Unfortunately, though gone are the days when you could nab one for under $200, you can still find gobs of them on eBay for about $500 — which, in the world of issued watches, is still on the inexpensive side. Just understand that some of them aren't made to be serviced, so maybe look for a later model with a screw-back case and a more modern movement, such as the MIL-W-46374D.
Movement: Various hand-wound mechanical
Price Range: ~$500
Marathon/ADANAC Navigator's Watch
Though Marathon still makes a super cool, composite-cased Navigator watch, back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, they manufactured one out of steel. (Cases were manufactured by Gallet, and some models were signed "ADANAC" — "CADADA" backwards — while others, which used tritium tubes on the dial, were signed "Marathon.") These watches feature a rotating 12-hour bezel, a screw-down crown and a tough quartz movement, as well as an easy-access battery hatch. For under $1,000, it's a hell of a cool piece.
Movement: Swiss-made quartz
The Dirty Dozen
Manufactured by — you guess it — twelve brands and delivered in late 1945, the "Dirty Dozen" watches (officially designated "Watch. Wrist. Waterproof") are some of the coolest timepieces to emerge from WWII. Though few, if any, probably saw any action, they still make for great examples of function-first engineering, and one of the most plentiful, made by Cyma, is thankfully also one of the most robust, with a stainless steel 38mm case. Handwound with black dials, the Dirty Dozen ooze military cool, especially on a green NATO strap.
Movement: Various handwound mechanical
Price Range: $1,000-$5,000
This watch is as British as afternoon tea, but has stronger masculine overtones. Built by Smiths, the famed British clock and watchmaker of Mt. Everest fame, the W10 was produced in the 1960s and 1970s with an in-house, handwound movement made in England. Measuring 35mm in diameter and featuring an anti-magnetic dust cover, a tritium dial, fixed spring bars and the "broad arrow" signature, it was made for both the Army and the Royal Air Force, which are marked “6B” on the case back. Though you can no longer find them for under $1k (sigh), you can easily find them for about $2,500 in condition.
Movement: Smiths cal. 60466E handwound
Though there are several kinds of vintage military monopusher chronographs (chronographs that utilize one pusher for start, stop and rest rather than two), we're referring here to those first produced for the British MoD in the 1940s/1950s by Lemania, Breitling, and Rodania. Sized at a very modern 38.5mm and outfitted with Lemania handwound movements, these insanely cool chronos were issued to RAF pilots, sailors and submariners in the Royal Navy. (Just keep in mind that servicing them won't be cheap.)
Movement: Lemania cal. 15 CHT handwound
Price Range: $3,000-$6,000 (can be found for sub-$5k)
Angelus Cal. 215 Legi Ero Chronograph
This is definitely a "watch guy's watch." Produced in the 1950s for the Hungarian Air Force, these chronographs featured Angelus's well regarded caliber 215 handwound movement in an oversized, 38mm steel case. With their gorgeous, gilded dials in bi-compax (two sub-register) layout, military signature on the case back ("L.E." stand for legi ero, or "air force"), in-house movement and modern proportions, these are some of the best values in midcentury military watches. While service may be costly, the fact that these can be had for under $5k, given today's market, is remarkable.
Movement: Angelus cal. 215 handwound
Price: $4,000-$6,000 (can be found for sub-$5k)