Tactical Watches: An Apple Watch Won’t Cut It

Pop quiz time, do you know where the wristwatch was popularized? World War 1, believe it or not. Prior to the Great War, a wristwatch was something only worn by women and only occasionally. The watch of this era was the pocket watch, but when you’re under fire, pulling the watch from your pocket won’t do it. The same goes for manning a machine gun, dropping mortars, and firing a rifle. Wristwatches became the norm in the Great War and have had a long history of military service ever since.

War and watches go together like automatic fire and belts of ammunition. Without the ability to keep time, things fall apart pretty quickly. We live in an amazing time of radios and advanced communications, but time is still invaluable. Time is most certainly tactical. Being able to coordinate efforts relies on time. Organizing requires the ability to keep time, and so do logistics, planning, and everything else.

In a rough world, you need a good watch to keep time, which often falls under the category of tactical watch.

The Modern Watch World

The modern watch world is dominated by watches that look great and keep time, but their price makes them impractical for most users. Then we have cheap watches and smartwatches. Both are fine but are not practical for the tactical user. Fitbits and the Apple Watch are great, but they aren’t practical for a tactical world.

G-shock mudmaster
The British Military got their own G-Shock in the form of the Mudmaster

They are too bright, the batteries die too fast, and a lot of the features that make them cool aren’t needed for the tactical world. In fact, they may actually be of danger in a tactical setting as FitBits, specifically, have been proven to be susceptible to malware attacks that reveal sensitive GPS coordinates and other data.

Further, if you live a life of adventure, a life of hiking, kayaking, shooting, and exploring, then your average smartwatch might not be the best thing for your wrist. You need something tough that can take abuse, is waterproof, and can be versatile in its approach to a world that’s a little tougher than Uber rides and cocktail lounges. A tactical watch needs to be tough, versatile, and have a long battery life.

The Top 5 Tactical Watches

G-Shock GA100C-8A

Our first watch is a bare-bones, stripped-out, and down-to-earth option for those who just need a watch to keep time. I personally love the features on most of my gadgets. If I was going to head back to Afghanistan, this is the watch I’d grab. The G-Shock GA100C-8A, because Casio and branding only go as far as the name G-Shock. This bare-bones model is perfect for those who just need a tough-as-nails watch that doesn’t tap out.

G-shock watch
G-Shock is the classic tactical watch

The GA100C-8A is both an analog and digital watch, so you can cover all your preferences. The watch has the date, as well as timers, a stopwatch, and even an auto light for instant, one-hand illumination with the flick of the wrist. Of course, it’s also built like a tank and designed for tactical applications. It’s got giant oversized buttons for use with gloves and a thick, durable strap to last you forever.

Garmin Foretrex 801 GPS Navigator

Here’s a fun story about my first experience with Garmin GPS watches. We were deploying to Afghanistan, and Eddy Vedder, front-man of the rock band Pearl Jam, bought every squad leader in our battalion a Garmin navigation watch. He apparently went to school with our Battalion Commander. Anyway, those watches served us wonderfully, and they’ve only gotten better in the last decade. The Garmin Foretrex isn’t your everyday wear watch, but a device with a huge screen designed for navigation. Sure, it keeps time, but that’s not the point.

Gamin navigator watch
The Garmin GPS watches keep the time and so much more

This GPS watch is powered by two AAA batteries and can last anywhere from 100 hours in navigation mode to 1,000 hours in expedition. This modern option can link to your cell phone, but a stealth mode can cut it off when necessary. The Foretrex even has a night vision mode for you goon types. The Foretrex will get you where you need to go, and it’s perfect for hiking, humping, and whatever adventure you might need to take.

Garmin Instinct 2X Tactical Model

Smartwatches are not exactly great for tactical use. Leave it to Garmin to figure out how to mix modern functionality with extensive durability. The Instinct 2X works like most modern smartwatches, with features to log workouts, a step counter, a heart rate monitor, and all that fun stuff. Alongside those common features, we get a GPS navigation system with trackback routing and a directional compass.

gamin instinct 2 fde
The Garmin Instinct 2 is the smart tactical watch

There is a built-in mini flashlight, a night vision mode, a stealth mode to kill signals, and even a kill switch to wipe all data from the watch instantly in the event of an emergency. There are even a few unusual features, like a Jumpmaster mode and a ballistic calculator. Battery life is always a concern, but if you set it to a basic smartwatch mode, the solar power will keep it alive forever. Seriously, forever. It’s the only smartwatch I’d trust for tactical use.

Marathon TSAR

The Marathon TSAR is the watch you turn to when you need to blend both function and style. The TSAR was famously issued to Marine Corps officers during the beginning of the Global War On Terror, and it has been famously used by numerous police and military forces alongside specialized rescue units. TSAR even stands for Tritium Search And Rescue, and the Tritium ensures you can always see the dials and hands.

Marathon tsar with black band
The Marathon TSAR is a classy tactical watch.

The TSAR was developed originally for Canadian search and rescue teams in the 1990s, and they’ve been popular ever since. The TSAR and the Marathon Dive Watches, in general, are built with oversized bezels for use with gloved hands. The TSAR is as overbuilt as you imagine it, but it doesn’t look like a Casio sitting on your wrist. If you need to dress up and want one watch to do it all, the TSAR has you covered.

Luminox Commando Raider

Luminox is often missing in the discussion of tactical watches. They are a little more European-oriented, but the Europeans do have a good history of Commando forces. The Commando Raider is one of their latest options and one of the more durable and well-made designs. This Swiss-made watch uses a nice Swiss-Quartz and a sapphire crystal with an anti-reflective coating.

Luminox commando raider
The Commando Raider certainly lives up to its name

The battery lasts 50 months, and the Tritium goes strong for 25 years. Everything in this watch is either stainless steel or carbonox with that Swiss precision those neutral mother-truckers are known for. The Luminox Commando Raider is made to last forever and will sink to the bottom of the ocean and still tick away time. Plus, it looks pretty dang nice, to boot.

Keeping Time

Time is tactical. It’s not sexy tactical, or fun tactical, or the kind of tactical that gets mentioned in the after-action reports. Yet without the time and the ability to keep it, nothing gets off the ground. In fact, the only time when time gets mentioned in the AAR is when it fails. Time matters and a watch that make it through the fire is invaluable.


Travis Pike is a former Marine Machine Gunner and a lifelong firearms enthusiast. Now that his days of working a 240B like Charlie Parker on the sax are over he's a regular guy who likes to shoot, write, and find ways to combine the two. He holds an NRA certification as a Basic Pistol Instructor and is probably most likely the world's Okayest firearm instructor. He is a simplicisist when it comes to talking about himself in the 3rd person and a self-professed tactical hipster. Hit him up on Instagram, @travis.l.pike, with story ideas.

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