10 of the best MIL-SPEC watches

10 of the best MIL-SPEC watches

Tom Austin

The watch world’s connection with the military is unequivocal, despite the term “MIL-SPEC” – the abbreviation for military specification – becoming more of a marketing term recently. In reality, however, MIL-SPEC stands for something much more tangible than an abused buzzword when it comes to watches. MIL-SPEC stands for the very set of standards that prevent these things from happening, and that’s what makes these watches some of the toughest in the world. Specifically, the term originated as shorthand for “United States Military Standard”, though it has since become a more generally used term for any sort of military standard, or more generally, military-spec equipment. Except for those times when these “standards” require the items to be as easy on the military budgets as possible – but we won’t worry about that now.

But what makes a MIL-SPEC watch? A multitude of features can bring a watch into MIL-SPEC standards for use in operations, specifically aspects such as extreme durability, low reflectivity, high dial legibility and relatively simplistic function. But all of them have to do a simple job, to be an operator’s tool. So here are our favourites, chosen for their use by militaries around the world, and though somewhat stretching the original usage of the MIL-SPEC term, they have all earned a spot on the list.

Casio F91W

Casio F 91W
Image courtesy of Watchgecko

You cannot have a list of some of the hardest, most durable watches in the world without the OG. The original hard case, the go-everywhere, do-everything Casio F91W. While it’s not a G-Shock, which you might presume is a military operative’s go-to, it is still one of the most durable wristwatches you can buy. This meant that it was particularly popular amongst the newly enlisted, who needed something cheap and functional that helped them find their way through training and into army life. Functionally, the F91W is one of the most simplistic watches you can find, featuring a full digital chronograph, an annual calendar with leap-year adjustment, alarms including an hourly beep, a backlight, and 30 metres of water resistance. Introduced in 1989, it’s gone on to be one of the best-selling watches ever made, with around 120 million in circulation today. Price: A$59.95

Seiko 5 SNKP21J1

Seiko 5 SNKP21J1

The Seiko 5 is simple and dependable, and offers everything the seemingly average wearer may need in any situation. This is certainly the use-case for an operator in the CIA, for which this particular watch has become quite synonymous. The CIA has a long history of issuing Seiko watches through the ’60s and ’70s, and then into the ’80s and ’90s, many of the operatives spent a huge amount of time in the Middle East. This means the “Arabic Seiko” is extremely highly regarded by the CIA community. And quite frankly, it looks damn cool with it too. It’s a unique-looking, stand-out piece in the Seiko 5 range.

The 42-mm watch is made in full stainless steel and has an automatic movement that displays the time, day, and date. The black dial features sword hands leading to eastern Arabic numerals, which make the watch stand out as something special. While the watch is now discontinued, it still can be found for sale at certain outlets. Price: ~A$250

Hamilton Khaki Field Mechanical 38mm

There’s not much to say that you won’t already know when it comes to the Hamilton Khaki Field Mechanical. Manually wound, with 24-hour markings on a legible, black dial, this is one of the most popular picks not only for a field watch, but for any watch at this price point overall. The 38mm case contains Hamilton’s H-50 movement with 80 hours of power reserve, and the 20mm lug width make it super versatile in terms of strap options. Price: starting from A$950 from the T+T Shop

CWC Mellor-72 Mechanical

The Cabot Watch Company Mellor-72 is a tribute to the very first watch the company produced for the British Ministry of Defence, originally issued to the Army, Navy and Air Force trifecta. Powered by a hand-wound Sellita in a 38mm case, the simple dial has printed Arabics and a broad arrow insignia, while the strap is held in place by fixed spring bars. Price: £460

Benrus Type I and Type II

best mil-spec watches

Benrus was a crucial supplier for the US military during the Vietnam War, equipping virtually all of its specialist departments. MIL-W-50717 specified the design details for Benrus’ production, for both the sterile-dialled Type I and Type II with its 24-hour scale. Previously not available to the public, Benrus is now offering both the Type I and Type II as limited-edition models, in a 42.5mm x 47.5mm case, powered by an unspecified ETA automatic or Soprod P024, respectively. Price: US$1,495 (Type I and Type II)

Marathon Large Diver’s Automatic (GSAR)

best mil-spec watches

The Marathon GSAR is the only watch on this list that’s actually currently issued to the military, built to US specifications and provided to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. The robust diver boasts 300 metres of water resistance, while tritium tubes on its indices and hands ensure constant low-light visibility. Powered by a Sellita automatic movement, its 41mm diameter may be too large for some, so Marathon also offer a 36mm version. Price: US$1,500

Resco Blackfrog UDT

Resco Blackfrog UDT

The U.S. Navy SEALs seem to know a lot about their MIL-SPEC watches, so if you were to create a watch for the SEALs, who would be better to create one than an actual Navy SEAL? Retired veteran Rob Smith founded Resco Instruments in 2009, along with his wife, U.S. Coast Guard veteran Nicole Smith. They set about designing and manufacturing wristwatches that serve a purpose: to be sleek, simple, and rugged. Specifically with Resco, form follows function, with no dial, sub-dial, nor bezel present when not serving a purpose. Due to the watchmaker’s still busy military schedule, the numbers produced are relatively low. However, a number of them have found their way onto active military wrists. The Blackfrog UDT keeps things simple with a quartz movement, allowing for fewer mechanical components to go wrong in the field. However, if you’re a purist, the watch can be specified with a Sellita W200 automatic. The 42mm stainless steel comes complete with a full DLC coating for durability, and the dial is intentionally dark, so it doesn’t glow too brightly when you don’t want to be seen. Price: A$2,940 (quartz), A$3,326 (automatic)

Tudor Pelagos FXD US Navy

tudor pelagos fxd black us navy green red strap

Released in September 2023, the FXD was a somewhat controversial watch at the time. The watch world has been begging for a re-imagined Tudor Submariner for what feels like an eternity now, and when the watch was teased, they introduced reminders of Tudor’s heritage with the US Navy, providing them with their Submariners throughout the 1960s to the late ’80s. It felt like a Submariner was on the way. However, what we got was a black dial and bezel version of the Tudor Pelagos FXD, a slightly different version of the watch used by the French Marine Nationale. A fine wristwatch in every way, but it then got a whole heap cooler when it was uncovered a few days later that the U.S. Navy SEALs had been testing the watch in action for well over a year. Objectively, it’s the perfect dive watch. The 42mm case is titanium and, therefore, lightweight, durable, and not overly flashy. There are no spring bars to fail, instead, a more unique integrated lug design keeps the straps locked in place securely. The rotating ceramic bezel is bright and hugely legible thanks to full lume, and the dial is brilliantly legible behind an anti-reflective crystal to make reading the watch underwater extremely easy. It’s understood that the feedback from the SEALs is that the FXD was a fantastic tool watch – I don’t know about you, but I’d trust their judgement. Price: A$6,140

Rolex Explorer II

Rolex Explorer II 226570

You might be forgiven for thinking that Rolexes are for puffer vest-wearing finance-bros, often found wiping a tear when they get their first scratch on the clasp, and in many cases, you’d be right. However, there is a reason that Rolex has a reputation for making arguably some of the best watches in the world. The Explorer II is a perfect example of this. It’s a watch that, on the surface, looks like a normal GMT and will withstand any amount of desk-diving you throw at it, but under the surface is a watch that is hard-as-nails. Like, really, really hard. It’s issued to none other than the SAS, the elite special forces unit of the British Army. It’s widely known that these guys train the best of the best and operate in extreme secrecy, however, a handful have made it onto the open market. Engraved with unique serial numbers and the iconic winged dagger badge, with the motto “Who Dares Wins”. Additionally, we know that a young Prince Harry, during his time in active service, wore an Explorer II as his unit watch, specially made for his Attack Helicopter regiment. Price: A$15,550

IWC Big Pilot’s Watch 43 Top Gun

iwc big pilots watch 43 top gun wrist

There’s nothing worse than being mid-mission, hiding in the shadows, and getting spotted because of a bright silver reflective scratch on your watch case. What a nightmare. Well, fear not, fellow espionage-ists. IWC has just the thing: a military field-style watch with an unscratchable black ceramic case. Released to celebrate the launch of the recent Top Gun movie, the IWC Big Pilot’s Watch Top Gun is no movie prop. It’s a serious piece of kit, featuring a 43.8mm full back ceramic case, a type A dial for ultimate legibility, and an IWC 82100 movement to keep the watch running perfectly. Specifically designed for military pilots, the Big Pilot Top Gun is probably one of IWC’s most favoured recent designs, with the simple and highly legible dial, the touch of red for the TOP GUN text, the titanium caseback and crown, and the black textile strap. It’s definitely one of those “if you know, you know” watches. Price: A$15,700