Special Forces watches are tough, durable, and tactical. Their purpose is to tell the time, hold up under duress, help an operator survive, and accomplish his mission.
From Timex to Rolex, many watches have had the honorable distinction of being worn by members of the Special Forces. However, a handful of watches consistently rise to the top as the best of the best. These are some of the essential timepieces that have proven themselves in combat, and have the honor of being worn on the wrists of today’s Green Berets: G-Shock, Rolex, Casio, Suunto, and Timex.
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Naming Conventions: Green Berets, Special Forces, or Commandos?
First thing’s first – let’s get our naming conventions straight.
We’re here to talk about the watches of the Special Forces – not “spec ops” or Rangers or Delta. Maybe we’ll get to them in another article. If you’re confused, here’s the difference:
Special Forces (AKA Green Berets) – highly-trained special operations unit of quiet professionals with expertise in problem solving, foreign languages, relationship building, cultural understanding, and combat advisory skills.
- Primarily known for unconventional warfare and training foreign militia to fight their own local wars, the Special Forces’ trial-by-fire during the Vietnam War led to the creation of “Delta Force” by some veterans of the secret MACV-SOG and British SAS.
US Army Rangers (75th Ranger Regiment) – the US Army’s premier light infantry special operations force which can do a quick in-and-out operation half-way across the globe within 18 hours of hearing about it at home. Whether it’s a recon mission, capturing a special terrorist, or seizing an airfield/beachfront, these guys love being first.
Delta Force (The Unit) – A highly-secretive Tier-1 special operations unit involved in hostage rescue, counter-terrorism, and anything else you can’t imagine. Delta is said to recruit out of the Special Forces and Rangers; basically the best of the best. Supposedly they can clear a room full of bad guys with dual-wielded 1911’s in under 4 seconds.
Navy SEALs – The US Navy’s primary special operations unit. When you need to send someone in to do some coastal recon or underwater demolition, these are your guys. These days, they do everything – even midnight insertions to capture UBL, as we all know. SEAL Team Six (DEVGRU) is their Tier-1 counter-terrorism component. We’ve also covered the watches that SEALs wear.
Clear as mud? Let’s move on.
Are the Watches Military-Issued or Buy Your Own?
Historically, some Special Forces teams were issued watches. This was likely left to the commander’s discretion and resource availability, but was an infrequent practice.
Most sources reference team members buying their own watches. A successful operator would ask senior (surviving) members of the team which tactics and tools have helped him the most, replicate the appropriate (and inappropriate) ones, and the rest becomes legend.
Today, it’s a bring-your-own watch to the war type of military. You can buy a disposable Timex with that E-4 pay, can’t you? Well, that’s all you really need. If you want something more, it’s up to you how you spend your discretionary income.
On the other side of it – the watch you wear in the Special Forces will acquire historical significance and a legendary family heritage for your children. You should want to own that watch so you can pass it on to your son. Keep the knife, too, in case you accidentally have twins.
At the end of it, the watch you wear will become the answer to this very question: What watches do the Special Forces wear?
The Specs You Need
A watch is a tool, and it should adhere to a minimum set of specifications depending on the intended use. Here are the features in a watch that are most important to a Special Forces operator:
Readability: The “time” portion of the watch should be easy to read at a glance. You shouldn’t have to stare at it for more than two seconds to know the exact hour. This means we’re looking for uncluttered and high-contrast dials.
Non-Reflective: We’re going to stay away from gold and other blingy elements in order to reduce our light signature. The last thing we want is for the moon to bounce off your watch bracelet during a night op and reveal your team’s position. That means no shiny parts and no low-quality PVD.
Water Resistance: “Waterproof” and “Water resistant” are generic terms found in disposable watches. Look for something rated to “200m water resistance” or “Diver’s 200m” for professional ISO-6425 divers. You’re going to need your SF watch to work on underwater dives and in wet environments without a hitch. Anything less than 200m will put your watch at risk.
Durability: In order to avoid replacing your watch every few months, you’ll want something that can withstand being banged about on lots of metal, concrete, and human skulls. Ideally the internals of the watch will be the first thing to fail (after many years, and can be replaced) – not the external components (crystal/etc).
Good Strap: A good timepiece is no good to anyone if it doesn’t stay on your wrist. This isn’t technically part of the watch, but most people will never change the strap (even though it’s very easy to do). Therefore, a good strap is a required consideration in a combat-ready watch.
Night-time Visibility: Whether you wake up in the middle of the night from a random sound or you’re balls-deep in a midnight long-range recon patrol, you need to be able to see the time in the dark without shining a beam on it. That means the watch should have luminescence or a backlight that also doesn’t give away your position.
Timing Mechanism: Ideally a good watch will have some method to mark how much time has elapsed. This can be through a rotating timing bezel or a stopwatch function. Either way, it’s one of the most useful features to have besides the actual time.
The watches that Special Forces teams wear will tick off most of these boxes. Now let’s get to the damn watches already.
Watches of the Special Forces
Casio G-Shock – a Military Staple
Seven times out of nine, a guy in the military is sporting a G-Shock, and the same goes for spec ops. These watches are very cheap, reliable, and tick off all our boxes. They also look very tactical for some cool guy points.
G-Shocks are virtually indestructible, and will last until the battery dies (solar G-Shocks get around this). That’s waterproof, shockproof, and smash-proof. Many have tried to kill a G-Shock and many more have failed.
Generally, a G-Shock is a G-Shock. Most team guys don’t brag about “model XYZ-123,” but about “my G-Shock.” You can’t go wrong with any of them, though they do range in price from $50 to $1000. The cheapest ones are just as durable as the feature-rich expensive ones.
When it doubt, start with a G-Shock
But okay, you want to know which G-Shocks the Special Forces wear, right? Well here’s two popular choices:
Following the success of the classic GW6600, G-Shock has re-released a modern version of the watch for today’s military and everyday use. While the face is slightly different, the shape and wrist profile is identical.
Today, the GW6900 is a popular choice among newly-minted Green Berets for one very important factor: affordable price. This watch is often purchased for Selection or during the Q-Course because it looks cool and tactical and does it’s job well; it ends up lasting for decades.
It’s durable, functional, and loaded with features – and yet not “too many” features to be confiscated by cadre.
Besides the typical slew of useful features, the G-Shock DW6900 is solar-powered, meaning you don’t have to worry about changing the batteries. It also has atomic timekeeping, which lets you sync to an atomic tower so you never have to physically set the watch.
Not bad for a war watch with a legacy.
- Tough Solar-Powered
- Multi-Band 6 Atomic Timekeeping
- Shock Resistant
- 200M Water Resistant
- Magnetic Resistant
- EL Backlight with Afterglow
- Dual Time
- Daily Alarm
- 1/100 Second Stopwatch
- Auto Calendar (pre-programmed until the year 2039)
- 12/24 Hour Formats
- Accuracy +/- 15 seconds per month
For Special Forces operators deep in a FOB-less hellhole, the G-Shock Rangeman is a popular choice of watch. Where the entry-level G-Shock above was “good enough,” the Rangeman is a professional instrument with state-of-the-art technology fit for the quiet professional.
One of the most important tools of an operator is intel – and the G-Shock Rangeman gives you that in spades. Barometer for detecting upcoming weather changes? Altimeter for tracking your altitude on a jump? Thermometer for checking your anal temperature? Digital Compass for land nav on your wrist? Check-check-check-check.
You don’t just put all these tools in a watch for kicks; the G-Shock Rangeman is purpose-built for professional military use in the harshest conditions. If you lose all your other gear in an accident and get stranded, this G-Shock will help you get home and will outsurvive you.
Here’s what else you get for the premium price: solar power. It’ll convert the faintest light into battery power, so no crapping out on you ever. Atomic Timekeeping: the G-Shock Rangeman will automatically sync up to the nearest atomic tower 6 times per day to calibrate to the perfect time so you never have to second-guess your time instrument.
You can wear it unpressurized to over 35,000 feet, down to 200m underwater, fire off thousands of rounds from rifles, anti-tank weapons, Claymores, etc. There’s a reason why Special Forces operators love the G-Shock: just like them, it’ll never give up.
- Digital Compass
- Full Auto Calendar (Pre-programmed until the year 2099)
- 12/24 Hour Formats
- Button operation tone on/off
- Accuracy: +/- 15 seconds per month (with no signal calibration)
- Storage Battery: Solar Rechargeable Battery
- Battery Level Indicator
- Power Saving Function
- Approx. Battery Life: 7 months on full charge (without further exposure to light)
- Multi-Band Atomic Timekeeping (US, UK, Germany, Japan, China) Receives time calibration radio signals which keep the displayed time accurate
- Auto receive function (up to 6 times per day/up to 5 times per day for China)
- Manual receive function Signal: US WWVB, UK MSF, Germany DCF77, Japan JJY40/JJY60, China BPC Frequency: US 60kHz, UK 60kHz, Germany 77.5kHz, Japan 40/60kHz, BPC 68.5kHz
- Tough Solar Power
- Shock Resistant
- Mud Resistant
- Case & buttons are sealed to prevent mud, dirt and dust from getting into the watch
- 200M Water Resistant
- Low Temperature Resistant (-10 C / 14 F)
Rolex: a Spec Ops Tradition
Let’s not forget the most important tool in a Green Beret’s arsenal: his beard.
You can let the muppets in the regular forces worry about AR 670-1; in the Special Forces you wear what you want. Enter Rolex.
During the Korean and Vietnam WarsRolex gained a stellar reputation among many branches of the military, and you could pick one up for about one month’s pay.
The story usually goes like this: deep in Vietnam, one operator on the team was so enthralled by his Rolex that he kept raving about it to his team members. They would also go out and buy one on leave and would be equally impressed; thus the legend would continue to spread.
At the time, no watch could match the durability and reliability of Rolex watches, justifying their reputation. Today, there are hundreds of watches that are just as good without the markup. But history is history, and Rolex was first to market with the best war watches.
The Rolex GMT-Master is the quintessential watch of the Special Forces.
“I paid 95 bucks for that Red and Blue GMT in Feb 67” – crusty old operator with a watch worth $15,000 today
So what is a GMT Rolex anyway? It’s a watch for interlopers finding themselves far from home. Notice the fourth hand (“GMT hand”), which indicates a secondary time zone in military time.
GMT-Master vs GMT-Master II:
Originally, the GMT-Master had a GMT hand that was slaved to the set time. This would only serve to show the time in military 24-hour time, and you’d use the bezel to calculate your home time zone.
In the 1980’s, the GMT-Master II was released, which had an independently-set GMT hand for tracking home time. The bezel could now be used to calculate a third time zone.
The GMT-Master has become a significant watch for the Special Forces today due to it’s Cold War legacy. For older operators, the shape and appearance is instantly recognizable, as they constantly ran into fellow operators and SEALs wearing them throughout the various operations of the Cold War.
Is it practical in today’s military? Not at all. Can it survive the harsh environments endured by modern SF operators? Probably not. But is it awesome to look at, reliable, and has the potential to carry a timeless legacy for your great-grandkids and double in price? That’s where they get you.
Now we get to the core of what makes an ideal modern Special Forces watch: a tough state-of-the-art precision instrument that’ll give you mission-critical features without dulling your senses by being a smartwatch.
The Casio Pathfinder (called the Pro-Trek in EU markets) is a favorite watch of the Green Beret finding himself deep in the boonies with no foreseeable resupply. It helps them navigate unknown terrains in darkness, survive, and complete their mission.
The barometer on this watch will help you know when bad weather is approaching; the digital compass is useful to check status on your heading in vehicles, aircraft, or in the unknown; the altimeter will help you determine where your location for setting up a DZ and to figure out if you’re coming up to jump altitude; the stopwatch is obviously useful for timing everything from time on target to checking the burn rate on a fuze.
There’s really too many features to list on this watches, so you can check the full feature list below. Keep in mind that the digital compass would not be allowed in at least one Army school.
Overall, there’s a reason the Casio Pathfinder is popular in the SF: it’ll help you accomplish your mission as an affordable and feature-rich spec ops gadget.
- Large-capacity solar storage battery requires very little light to recharge and powers watch for up to 6 months on a full charge
- Large, dual-layer LCD is easy to read and displays multiple functions simultaneously
- 3 small sensors detect direction, altitude and temperature, keeping you in tune with the world around you
- Digital compass displays current heading; reports bearing in 1° increments
- Altimeter tracks elevation gain and loss from -2,300 to 32,800 ft. (-700 to 10,000m) in 20 ft. (5m) increments
- Altimeter memory captures up to 40 records of altitude, date, month and time
- Altitude graph positions you with respect to your target altitude; target alarm alerts you when you obtain your goal
- Detect change in the weather—barometric tendency graph charts the weather changes
- Barometer tracks atmospheric pressure changes from 260 to 1,100 hPa (7.68 to 32.49 inHg)
- Thermometer ranges from 14 to 140°F (-10 to 60°C) measured in 0.2°F increments (0.1°C)
- Backlight with afterglow
- Features: 1/100 of a second stopwatch, time in 12 or 24-hr. format, date, day, auto calendar (through 2039), 5 daily alarms, sunrise/sunset data and hourly chime
- Also features world time with 39 time zones (48 cities)
- Watch operates in temperatures as low as 14°F/-10°C
- The Casio Pathfinder PAG240B-2 multifunction watch is water resistant to 100m (330 ft.)
The main competitor to the Casio Pathfinder is also commonly found on the wrists of Special Forces operators: the Suunto.
Overall, the watch has a lot going for it, and for the same reasons: it’s large and easy to read, and is packed with many of the same features. However, many users report that it is less durable and feels less robust than Casio products, which are a big negative in the field.
Like the Rolex, the Suunto Core is perfectly fine if you never have to physically explain to someone what “get your hands above your head” means. However, for a door-kicker, it seems rather fragile. Nevertheless, you’ll have at least one guy on your team that swears by them, so he’s probably a more reliable source for what works (at least for him).
Nonetheless, the Suunto is a high-quality precision instrument that will also help you accomplish your mission. From a watch critic standpoint, this piece seems to be a sleeker yet more disposable version of the Casio Pathfinder.
- Altimeter, Barometer, Compass (ABC) wrist-top design delivers crucial data for gauging performance, direction and weather
- Barometric altimeter is accurate to 29,500 feet and displays current elevation and elevation gain/loss;records entire session for later analysis
- Unique start-from-zero function simplifies altimeter usage by eliminating need to enter a reference altitude
- Barometer function measures and records air pressure to help predict changing conditions; weather trend indicator shows history over last 3 – 6 hrs.
- Automatic Alti/Baro mode senses movement, or lack thereof, and seamlessly switches between altimeter and barometer functions
- Storm alarm feature activates when a rapid drop in air pressure is detected over a 3 hr. period; alarm sounds and flashes to indicate bad weather
- Digital compass monitors direction; set and follow a bearing using rotating bezel ring, or point top of watch in direction of travel to lock in bearing
- Sunrise/sunset times ensure you never miss another beautiful dusk or dawn; set regional data and watch will inform you how much daylight remains
- Snorkelers will appreciate the accurate depth readings to 10m (30 ft.) and underwater buttons
- The All Black Suunto Core multifunction watch features a mineral crystal, tough plastic case and elastomer strap that withstand rugged outdoor use
Speaking of disposable watches, let’s not forget the original disposable watch – the Timex.
This Timex Expedition is a modern quartz release that is very similar to the Timex MIL-W-46374B. That watch was a plastic USGI-issued watch during the 60s. It could be picked up for about $10 until the 1990s..
Naturally, this cheap and disposable watch found it’s way onto the wrists of many Special Forces teams. However, this watch is certainly not unique to SF; many services and MOS designations in the Army and USMC have worn it in the line of duty.
Nevertheless, the Timex Expedition is a modern version that has many family resemblances to the MIL-W-46374B. It’s still very cheap, but comes in a rugged metal case and a quartz movement (instead of plastic and automatic).
For a simple, cheap, semi-disposable watch with a military aesthetic (as well as a history of being worn by the Special Forces), you can’t go wrong with this simple analog timepiece.
Other Watches that Special Forces Wear
Let’s be clear – the above watches are by no means the only ones that Special Forces operators wear. They’re simply the ones that are the most raved-about and consistently proven among teams.
During my research, I discovered a handful of other watch brands and models that kept coming up as being favored by the Special Forces. There was no detailed history of using them in the field, but certainly a history of ownership.
Named after the legend SGM Walter L. Shumate, the Shumate Diver is a top-of-the-line military watch. It’s designed and sold by NFW.
The Shumate Diver is built with dozens of hours of SF operator input in a Fort Bragg operations conference room down to the last detail. Due to it’s highly-specific design and purpose (as well as the name), it’s highly sought after by Special Forces operators.
If you’re a team guy and are interested, you may be able to contact George Fox at NFW to get your hands on one. Link here.
Marathon makes high-quality military-spec watches that are robust and easy to read. They come with tritium tubes for night-time legibility (hence the radioactive sign), in both mechanical and quartz.
GPM stands for “General-Purpose Mechanical” watch. They’re built to the specifications of many of the world’s militaries, and are popular among Special Forces operators and child soldiers. If you’re in the former group, consider getting a sterile version (without “U.S. Government” on the dial).
At the risk of running on too long, I’ll end the watch models here. The rest of these refer to brands and collections rather than specific models.
- Citizen Eco-Drive – solar-powered, affordable, and reliable
- Seiko Dive Watches – robust watches that can take a beating and great for dives
- Omega – entry-level Swiss luxury chronometers
- Ball – mid-range American chronometers.
Final Thoughts on Choosing a Special Forces watch
So far I’ve presented you with popular and field-tested watches historically worn by Green Berets. If your purpose is to imitate, you can pick one off the list. If your purpose is to operate, you can choose to blaze your own trail.
Here’s some final things to consider when making your choice.
How hard will I cry if I lose it?
A Rolex is not for everyone. If your phone has a cracked screen, stick to something cheaper and only upgrade if it dies. For every great Special Forces Rolex story, there’s another one about how it ended up at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean while trying to strap it to the outside of a wetsuit.
If you can’t afford to lose a $300 or $10,000 watch tomorrow in the field, stick with an affordable G-Shock until you can.
The More Features in the Watch, the More Battery It Consumes
Title says it all. Increased functionality (barometer, compass, etc.) will drain your battery life much quicker than a simple time-teller.
If you opt for something feature-rich, make sure it’s solar-powered for on-the-go recharging. Most of the choices in this article conform to this recommendation.
A Watch is a Tool
Keep in mind that a watch is a tool – so the important thing is function over form. Like a pair of boots or a camo pattern, consider the operational environment you need it for, and pick the features accordingly.
Also keep in mind that you need to be able to use it as a hammer if necessary.
Despite these popular SF choices, many watch companies make military-spec watches that’ll get the job done.
As part of an elite force, you have the chance to blaze a new trail. When the writers of the future catalog which watches Special Forces wear, your model might be on the list…
… but probably not, given the SF reputation for being quiet professionals. More likely, your watch will be passed on to any kids you have. It doesn’t seem important now, but to any kid growing up, their father’s watch (and knife) is an important family heirloom.
Every operator eventually finds himself in a suit and tie trying to keep a low profile. Whether it’s at a wedding or a flight, you’re going to give yourself away by wearing a G-Shock with your formal/civilian attire.
If you need a timepiece to blend in, you can get affordable and reliable Citizen or Seiko watch for under $100 that’ll hold you over until retirement. You can click that link for some ideas.
Images: All images are taken from public DOD sources and the public domain. If you have concerns over any images, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
My name is Tom Leto, and I’m a watch enthusiast at heart. I’m here to steer you in the right direction when looking for your next watch, and to help you avoid common newbie mistakes. Right now my favorite brands are Orient Star, Longines, and Nomos.