You've probably heard of diver's watches, or field watches, but do you know what defines a tactical watch?

We often refer to generic watch categories in this magazine, for example Diver, Pilot or Racing. These collections all have clear design parameters based on professional requirements and are easily recognised. Recently another category has popped up in our writing, fuelled by the availability of highly stylised models from Marathon, BOLDR and the Geckota Phalanx. This descriptor is TACTICAL.

The word is technically a specialist equipment term, however now it is much banded around, often without merit. According to the Cambridge Dictionary:
Tactical – adjective.
Definition: Relating to tactics; done in order to get a particular (military) result; tactical military operations or weapons used to achieve specific goals.

The Marathon Automatic Diver's Watch 41mm - Image Credit: WatchGecko Online Magazine

Traditionally tactical products are designed for use in a non-standard military or police environments. Something out of the ordinary, most likely offensive rather than defensive, and often within the sphere of elite units. Watches are very much a part of this equipment category and tactical watches are generally dark and subdued in appearance to work sympathetically with the apparel worn by specialist units. Tactical is also currently a highly fashionable look and while there is nothing wrong with this, the correct look does not necessarily make for authentic equipment.

So, what makes a true tactical watch, and can a normal watch be transformed to give a pseudo-tactical look?

Professional tactical watches are impressive machines. They are robust, water resistant and master the difficult technical characteristics of being subtle and non-reflective yet highly legible. A considerable amount of design and field evaluation effort goes into these watches and the price often reflects this. Unlike “fake” tactical watches genuine articles are not designed on a whim by simply painting a case black, strapping on a NATO, and announcing you have a tac-watch in your portfolio.

Any purpose-built tactical watch should deliver on the promises made by the manufacturer, whether it has been accepted into military service or not. A quality watch maker really should not apportion such a definition to a watch if it cannot take the knocks associated with a tactical life. If you are tempted to part with you cash for such a product you should, as a minimum, be looking for some of the following design characteristics. If your chosen product has all, then buy with confidence.

  • Non-reflective case in Earth colours, brushed steel or black
  • Few external projections to snag on clothing and equipment
  • A low-profile dial with high legibility from the indices and hands
  • Quality luminescence, with dial functions clearly defined in low light
  • At least 100m water resistance (unless a lower manufacturers tested depth is given)
  • Sapphire crystal glass with anti-reflective finish front and back
  • Movement (irrespective of power source) protected from shocks
  • Soft strap, fabric, or rubber, which readily rejects water and sand
  • Battle proven provenance if you are lucky!

Good examples of such models would be:

BOLDR Venture Carbon Black Automatic Field Watch or the BOLDR Venture Black Dawn Automatic Field Watch

The new kids on the block offering uncompromising design and bullet proof build quality. These two models are a perfect blend of field and tactical.

The BOLDR Venture Black Dawn - Image Credit: WatchGecko Online Magazine

The new kids on the block offering uncompromising design and bullet proof build quality. These two models are a perfect blend of field and tactical.

Marathon Navigator Pilot's Watch - Sage Green or Black

The Marathon Navigator Pilot's Watch on Genuine Vintage Bond NATO US Type NATO - Image Credit: WatchGecko Online Magazine

The archetypal military watch which fully meets US milspec and has been tested in the harshest environments and battle proven. You cannot ask for much more at this price.

Geckota Phalanx Sierra Zero One Special Operations

The Geckota S-01 Phalanx - Image Credit: WatchGecko Online Magazine

An in-house specialist watch designed for purpose with operational experience integrated into the team. The Phalanx is actually currently on test with an elite Special Operations Counter Terrorism unit outside the UK (watch this space for an unclassified feature update).

So, can you get a tactical look without buying a dedicated watch?

Its inescapable; military imagery sells. It always has, from $5 olive drab ARMY t-shirts in the 1970s to Versace’s new Camouflage fleece (£980 in the Fall-21 Collection), the look has always been popular, and it shows no signs of slowing down.

One day you look at your Rolex Submariner and decide it could benefit from a more tactical look. Can this be pulled off? Yes, and remarkably easily. Watches like the Sub or the Seamaster are actually the easiest to “tacticalize” (think we invented a word there).

The Rolex Submariner on a NATO - Image Credit: WatchGecko Online Magazine

Put a decent NATO strap on any such watch and it changes the look totally. And this transformation is not without precedence. Check out the stunning Rolex Pro Hunter collection. Especially models like the Submariner Military on a black NATO (NB: I have seen this model issued to an SF unit). Alternatively, research Project X who’s stylish alternations to the Submariner make the weapon of choice for Daniel Craig while he is off duty from being James Bond.

Of course, such bespoke watches are exorbitantly expensive however you can get a remarkably similar tactical look just by fitting a quality ZULUDIVER or WatchGecko NATO strap to your steel watch. The secret to a successful transformation is to keep the strap completely plain or if that is just too militaristic for you, perhaps one or two subdued stripes at the most.

Second is to make sure that the metal work on the NATO matches your case finish, then the strap will look like it belongs with your watch. If your case is polished stainless copy that, or brushed steel (or titanium) this too can be easily replicated with satin metal keepers. New to the collection for 2021 is gunmetal so this will work on a wide variety of watches.

Luminox on ZULUDIVER 141 NATO in black - Image Credit: WatchGecko Online Magazine

The best choices are probably the extremely robust ZULUDIVER 141 NATO straps or The Vintage Watch Company NATO straps which are cost effective enough to allow for multiple operations choices from black to tan. If the 141 metal work is just too thin and subtle for you then the Premium range offers a more bold appearance which is often required if the watch case is physically bigger, 41mm and over. The bolder keepers and bigger buckle offer a more balance 360 degree look.

You will be amazed at how effectively a high quality, thoughtfully designed, NATO changes the appearance of watch and makes it feel like you about to jump into (or out of) a C-130 rather the family car. Here are some very familiar watches which have been put through their basic training.

Whether you want a full-blown tactical watch or you are just a weekend warrior looking to change the appearance of your daily diver, the tactical look is here to stay. Embrace it and very soon you will be telling people the time is Zero Dark Thirty.

Useful links to some of the tactical type watches and straps featured in this article:

BOLDR Watches

Marathon Watches

Phalanx Watches

Full range of NATO straps