Tactical watches were originally designed to be task-specific; created specifically for mountain climbing, piloting, and other outdoorsy pursuits. Other men’s watches might be pretty, but can they, as the Timex saying goes, take a lickin’? It could be said that the very first wristwatches, designed for soldiers in World War I, were, technically speaking, tactical watches. Today — although specific features may be incorporated into specialty watches for everything from space flight to deep-sea diving — they are mostly known for a kind of rugged aesthetic, with big faces and large easy-to-read digits.
They’re usually accompanied by a fabric or NATO strap that is very secure and dries quickly. Their chunky nature may be a bit too casual to wear with a suit, but it makes them the perfect accessory to wear with today’s casual wardrobe; rounding out a rugged cotton or flannel shirt with khakis or jeans, and, of course, boots. We also like them with tweedy sport coats and textured heavier weight suiting materials. What’s best is that the style seems to come across a wide range of price points so you can pick one up on a whim to build your timepiece collection, or make an investment purchase that can become a family heirloom. Here are a few of our favorites.
As the name implies, the Altitude is based on a classic pilot watch model, with a ruggedly handsome and modern look. It’s available in ten different color and band combinations, but we like the subtly retro appeal of this graphite case and khaki Cordura nylon strap. This model features a quartz movement and glow-in-the-dark hands and numbers.
OK, technically this is not a tactical watch unless your mission is to identify fellow Grateful Dead fans or get a lot of attention during the party in the pre-concert parking lot. The textured band does fit the aesthetic, however, and we can’t help but celebrate the watch’s earth-friendly solar charging and recycled ocean plastic construction.
The modern equivalent of the tactical watch is, of course, the smartwatch. We think the styling of this one from Amazfit fits the bill, especially with its round face and textured band. The touchscreen face features tempered glass and an anti-fingerprint coating. It also has GPS capabilities and works with Alexa.
Yet another entry into the sustainability category, this tactical chronograph features a recycled stainless steel case and a strap made from recycled ocean plastic. Water-resistant up to 100 meters, the face has a rotating compass bezel that’s controlled by an additional crown, and there’s also an audible alarm.
Pilot’s watches originally had extra long straps so that they could be strapped onto the outside of their shearling jackets. Now they just look extra cool wrapped around our wrists. This one from Shinola features clean black, white, and silver styling with an Argonite 705 quartz movement, a coin-edge bezel, and a sapphire crystal. We also love that it’s made in Detroit, Michigan.
For real aviation heritage, we went straight to the source, Cockpit USA. Known for their historically accurate collection of leather jackets and apparel, the flight crew’s expertise extends to timepieces, too. For just under $500, it’s built like a tank, featuring double case construction, a bi-directional rotating PVD-plated bezel, a K1 mineral crystal, and a Swiss quartz movement, not to mention that signature NATO strap.
Luminox’s collaboration with explorer, adventurer, and all-around tough guy Edward Michael “Bear” Grylls started in 2020 and has now grown to 11 different models (two are sold out!). Just as tough as their namesake, each features multi-functional design and state-of-the-art materials. We chose this one for its all-steel construction. We particularly like the “GMT” bezel, originally developed in the 1950s for PanAm’s transatlantic pilots to keep track of both local and Greenwich Mean Time.
As above, the modern equivalent of the tactical watch is the smartwatch, so we had to add one more version, this tough-as-nails titanium version from Apple with a tactically-inspired braided band (made from recycled yarn and silicone threads for comfort and stretch, no clasps or buckles necessary). The newest Apple watches feature even larger displays, a swimmable, crack-proof crystal, and the ability to measure your ECG and blood oxygen level. Geez, can it cook, too?
At first glance, you may not even be sure you’re looking at a watch since the Titane’s face is inspired by an airplane’s instrument panel. Minutes are counted across the top of the watch, from 0 to 60, then bouncing back to the beginning; the hour is displayed in a window in the middle. A “fuel gauge” shows how much power is left in this self-winding watch. Its price is a bit on the atmospheric side itself but is worth it in conversational value alone.
Another timepiece that lands squarely in the investment category, this automatic Montblanc is inspired by a series of watches designed for mountain climbing back in the Roaring 20s and 1930s. It features a bronze case, a vintage-inspired face design, and a beige fabric strap. While staying true to the sporty nature of a tactical watch, this chronograph has a formal quality that would look great with a suit or even a tuxedo.
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