How to Choose a Tactical Watch

Garmin Fenix 5

Going beyond the “cool” factor of tactical watches

 

It's no secret that tactical watches are popular, with both men and women.

This article develops how watches are constructed, and what features and functions are available so you can truly choose the best tactical watch that meets your specific needs, without getting ripped off.

 

The hunt for time begins

 

If you search “best tactical watches” you will unquestionably get results that look like snippets from Amazon.

The same watches, with the same information, that appear only to try to induce you to buy one of their 20 – 50  recommended watches.

Really?

In selecting a Tactical Watch, you want a watch that meets some, if not all, of the following specifications:

  1. Robust – able to withstand the rigors of outdoor activity
  2. Visible – able to be seen in low light conditions
  3. Accurate – reliable and precise
  4. Comfortable – able to be worn all day and night
  5. Stylish – able to be worn with street clothing
  6. Feature packed – able to provide specific desirable functions

We'll see shortly how the construction of the watch contributes to all of the above specifications – its ruggedness, visibility, accuracy, comfort etc.

The Anatomy of a Watch

Movement

There are three common watch movements –

  • Quartz movements – are developed with a quartz crystal, which vibrates at a precise frequency (32768 times per second) when energy (battery) is applied to it. An electronic circuit, which counts the number of vibrations, generates an electric pulse which moves the minute hand forward accurately in one-second increments.
  • Mechanical movements – are developed with mechanical parts. A mainspring, which is either manually wound via a crown, or automatically wound through the movement of the wrist, transmits energy by gradually moving the minute hand, via gears, as it unwinds.
  • Smart movements – are developed with computer chips and can mimic the movement of either quartz or mechanical movements and analog (hands) or digital time.

Crystal

The crystal on the watch can be made of anything from cheap plastic and untreated glass to mineral and sapphire glass. Quality mineral and sapphire crystals may have special anti-reflective coatings applied to optimize vision.

  • Acrylic infused Glass – is used on cheaper watches to cut costs. It scratches easily and is not as clear as mineral or sapphire crystals.
  • Mineral Crystal – Is made from silica, and mineral glass is just that, old school glass.  It is a big upgrade from mass production watches.  Mineral glass is more pure, structurally harder and more difficult to scratch than acrylic.  It ranks 5 out of 10 on the official MOHS Scale Of Hardness and may be identified with different names. Seiko calls their mineral glass “hardex”.
  • Sapphire Crystal – Ranking 9 out of 10 (diamonds are 10) on the same MOHS Scale Of Hardness, sapphire watch crystals are as close to indestructible as you can find.  Toughness, durability, long lifespan are what makes a sapphire-based crystal a must have if the specification for your timepiece is a premium.

Casing

The casing of the watch can range from precious metals, such as gold and platinum, to stainless steel, titanium, polyurethanes, and glass infused polymers.

For tactical watches, matt finished stainless steel, titanium, and polyurethanes or glass infused polymers are preferred.

Watch cases are usually sized as follows:

 

Strap

The strap on outdoor watches should almost always be rubber, latex or Polyurethane. Leather, which absorbs body sweat, and metal bands (stainless and titanium), which are more easily scratched, just don’t work well with wet, rugged and hot outdoor environments. Finally, some canvas or nylon straps are common with tactical field watches.

It's desirable to select a manufacturer which offers a number of strap options. Both replacements and alternative straps are more easily facilitated with this type of manufacturer option.

Straps can be secured by a number of methods, such as buckles or tangs, which are the most common, to deployant clasps which essentially fold together. Both work well and deployant is found on better quality watches.

 

Rolex deployant
A deployant clasp on Rolex Explorer

Crown

The crown’s function, aside from changing the date and time, is hopefully designed to provide some waterproof abilities. Does, the crown pop in or is it screwed down? Water tightness is enhanced with a screw-down crown.

The typical position for a crown is at 3:00 there are, however, crowns which are positioned at 4 – 5:00 and provide more comfort, especially when worn on the left arm, since the crown will not push into the wrist.

 

Water resistance

The various water resistance ratings, and what they really mean are summarized in the chart below.

 

Finally, if there is no rating – don't go near the water with this watch!

 

Illumination – Lume

Illumination on smartwatches and some quartz watches are often initiated by pressing a button or by initiating a specific wrist movement which then uses battery power to illuminate the watch face.

Illumination on mechanical watches is referred to as “lume” and can generally be classified as follows:

Radium – this material, which is now banned because of radioactivity danger, is self-luminous, meaning that it can glow without any exposure to light and will glow throughout the night without any deterioration in performance. Many tactical watches from the 1950's used radium paint on the watch hands and markers for lume.

Tritium – Tritium paint is also a radioactive isotope and replaced radium in watches after WW II. The radioactivity in Tritium is composed of Beta particles which are unable to escape through the glass. It is still potentially dangerous when the watch is opened for servicing. Military issue tactical watches, like those from CWC, can be found from suppliers like Anchor Surplus used with Tritium lume.

Super-LumiNova – First developed about 50 years ago, this safe and non-radioactive material is currently being used on a number of tactical watches. Although safe, it needs to be charged by a light source in order to illuminate. Essentially the SuperLumiNova absorbs the light and then slowly discharges this energy as light.

You should know that some companies use different names and formulations, different colors, and different applications to achieve brighter and longer lasting lume. Without physically verifying the brightness and longevity of a specific watch, the only other guidance is the quality and reputation of the manufacturer.

Self-Powered Micro Gas Tubes (H₃) – A final lume treatment is borosilicate glass capsules which were developed by MB Microtek in Switzerland. The real advantage of these micro gas lights is that they are self-powered, which means they do not need charging and last for approximately 25 years. A number of companies, such as Ball and Luminox, exclusively utilize these micro gas tubes.

 

 

Features

Features can range from a simple watch face with hours and minutes to much more tactical options.

 

Day Date or Date

This is simply the day of the week and numeric date of the month. Some even offer Month but this is rare.

GMT

These offer two time zones by providing another hour hand.

ABC

Commonly available in smart watches, ABC stands for

  • Altimeter or the measure of altitude,
  • Barometric pressure is a measure of air pressure and increased pressure is an indication of good weather, while falling pressure indicates poorer weather, and
  • Compass or direction.

Rotating bezels

Rotating bezels are commonly found on diver watches, are simply used for manually monitoring elapsed time. It should be noted that dive watches are often the optimal choice in tactical watches because of their solid construction and excellent lumes.

GPS

Often found on smartwatches, offer simple GPS coordinates to actual map downloads and complex navigational features.

Miscellaneous

Other features range from downloadable apps for optional watch faces to temperature readings, to heart rate monitors.

 

Introduction to watch selections – how to choose the best

 

To choose the best watch, review the following:

Movement – Quartz movements are more accurate and usually less expensive while mechanical movements do not require batteries and are often of higher quality. Smartwatches, on the other hand, offer more options such as ABC features but are usually not very water resistant.

Crystal – Mineral is the least quality you should accept and if at all possible, sapphire will provide trouble free operations and are worth the increase in cost.

Casing – Matt finished stainless steel or, lighter and more durable but more expensive, titanium should be preferred. Many less expensive watches, however, with polyurethanes or glass infused polymers are also good for outdoor watches. Also, make sure you get a size that's appropriate for your wrist size.

Strap – If at all possible go for rubber or latex straps which are more comfortable and able to withstand the rigors of outdoor use. Try to stick with a company that offers OEM strap options.

Crown – if waterproof is your desired option, stick to watches which offer screw down crowns and offer the waterproof rating you desire.

Illumination – If selecting a quartz or mechanical option, stick with watches that offer micro gas tube hands and markers. Although, super-luminoav may be adequate in low light conditions, they still need to be charged and will decrease in power over night.

Features – Do you want a simple watch with nothing more than well-illuminated hands and a date, or do you desire ABC features. These choices dictate your watch selection relative to the anatomy discussed above.

After evaluating the above, determine your price point and your off to the races.

 

Best Tactical Watches

Here's a sortable table for the watches discussed below.

Smart Watches

Garmin Fenix 3 and 5

Garmin Fenix 5

The Garmin Fenix 3 and 5 are two of the best smartwatches. The Sapphire 3 is comparable in size to the 5X, although smaller sizes are available in the 5 series. Although the price point is higher than other watches, the quality and available functions are excellent. The differences between the 5 and the older 3, which are still available, is a better menu system, the use of a heart monitor without a chest strap, and better GPS features. The easy snap rubber band that comes with the 5 is also available and fits the 3.

The ABC functions on the Garmin are without comparison, and if these are the types of features you are looking for, it will be well worth exploring the Fenix option.

If I were to buy a new smartwatch, I would definitely look at the 5 series. Conversely, if I currently owned the 3, I would be hesitant to move to the 5.

 

Suunto Core

suunto core

Both the Suunto Core and Casio G-Shock Mudman come in at about the same price point and both are mineral glass crystals. The Suunto is actually very attractive looking and fits well with its curved rubber strap. The controls on the Core are relatively straightforward and the price point is definitely a plus if you can't swing the Garmin.

 

Casio G-Shock Mudman

Casio G-shock mudman

 

With the G-Shock, you start to venture into the Casio cult. This is a very popular watch, at a great price point and Casio offers a number of watches up and down the price line. The look alone is what some defines and “tactical” and the feel and construction are really excellent for such a reasonably priced watch. It still only carries a mineral crystal but the ergonomics are excellent and just about everyone loves the looks. Again, if price or loyalty to a cult is your thing, the Casio may be the ticket.

Quartz Watches

 

Momentum M50  Mark II

Momentum M50 Mark II

 

The Momentum M50 Mark II is an example of a tactical watch that just hits are the required characteristics, it has a sapphire crystal, stainless steel construction with a rubber band, a screw down crown at the 4:00 position and comes in at a decent price point. If the size works for you, this may be the answer to your needs. Momentum is a well respected company and offers a number of OEM strap options should you decide to make a change.

 

Luminox Navy Seal Dive Watch

Luminox watch

The Luminox Navy Seal is one of the lower priced yet quality tactical watches, the case is composite, glass is mineral crystal, and the crown is a push crown but the lumes are glass tubes which last 25 years and never need to be charged. At the price point that this watch comes in at, that may be just the tradeoff you're willing to accommodate.

 

Traser H3

 

traser watch

The Traser H3 is like the Luminox on steroids, here you're dealing with stainless steel, sapphire crystal and a screw down crown but for a bigger price point. Again, the lumes on this tactical watch are glass tubes and that alone is one of the critical features.

 

 

Mechanical Watches

Ball Engineer

Ball Fireman

With the Ball Engineer we're dealing with all the required features, this is an automatic and with sapphire, stainless steel, a screw down crown and a rubber strap. Ball is famous for the lume on their watches and this watch is no exception with the customary 25 years, non charged glass tubes.  This is definitely a step above and the price is reflective of that – you're now, however, in mechanical watch territory.

 

Marathon Automatic

 

Marathon Automatic

Marathon is a tactical watch company that believes in mechanical watches and again hits most of the important construction and feature points – stainless steel, sapphire and a nylon strap which can be easily converted for a rubber strap if desired. The only drawback is the push in crown vs. the screw down but that's reflected in the price point and this may just be a great entry into the mechanical watch field.

 

Seiko Automatic Diver

 

Seiko Automatic Diver

 

My final recommendation is one of the stellar Seiko's.  This is easily one of the lowest price points for an automatic watch and still has a stainless steel construction with a rubber strap and a 4:00 screw down crown. It is mineral crystal and uses super-luminova as its lume. For the price, an excellent watch and Seiko is a remarkable company that continues to produce great watches at even greater price points.

 

Special – the almost perfect watch

In developing this post, a part of my goal was to discover myself, the perfect tactical watch.

To me that watch would have the following characteristics:

  1. It would be made of titanium – light, strong and comfortable.
  2. It would be sized in medium to large.
  3. It would be made of sapphire crystal with anti-reflective coatings.
  4. It would have a screw down crown.
  5. The crown would be at the 4:00 position for ultimate comfort.
  6. It would have a water resistance of at least 200 meters which would even accommodate snorkeling.
  7. It would have access to a latex or rubber strap, maybe even with a deployant clasp.
  8. Maybe even the stronger drilled strap pins vs. the standard compression pin,
  9. It would utilize at least SuperLumiNova and possible even gas tubes.
  10. It would be somewhat a dive watch with a quality matt ceramic bezel.
  11. It would be at a great price point.
  12. Finally, it would be an easily serviceable and quality automatic mechanical movement.

What a list. But where is this watch?

I really wasn't able to find anything that meets all the above until I happened to run across a Kickstarter campaign that had already been successfully completed and is now offering the above watch for pre-order and possibly, by the time you see this, order.

It's called the Hamtun and was created by a UK watch builder. Check out the story and see how this watch literally meets all the specifications.

Check it out. I think this might be one of the best deals out there.

 

hamtun watch

Summary

Knowing the construction and characteristics of a watch is the way to make the right selection. Most watches are sold on looks and price and too many consumers are simply not educated as to the various options and construction features.

In fact, it is easy to get a watch that simply won't meet your needs as a tactical watch.

Hopefully, the knowledge you've gained from this review, as well as the example watches of what's available, will help in your ability to make the right choice.

 

Always be prepared, be well.