Several weeks ago James asked me to write an article on tactical watches. I apologize for the delay but every time I sat down to write on it, I found an excuse to procrastinate: too much information, too many choices!
Part 1 of this series will cover: Rolex, Panerai, Bell & Ross, and Sinn. Part 2: 5.11, Luminox, G-Shock, and MTM. Part 3: will look into some interesting brands most of us haven’t even heard of. The jewelry market is too big to cover every brand so I will not discuss AP, Blancpain, Breitling, Citizen, JLC, Omega, Seiko, etc. I do not want to write a Wikipedia article here.
In addition it does not make sense to review the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Survivor, adding it to the list of tactical watches, as not many DVM readers might be able to afford one. It reminds me of a recent letter from a Cigar Aficionada reader complaining that reviewers only review gadgets way out of reach for the average cigar smoker. We at DVM don’t do that!
Now, be careful though: buying a cheap time-piece it may cost you over the years – you might want to invest into an “expensive” watch once in your life and keep it as long as possible… I made a lot of stupid investments with knives, thankfully less with flashlights, and basically none with my watches: don’t spend your money on too many cheap ones instead of getting a better one for the same amount!
The tactical watch
There is no real definition as with all tactical stuff. I’d define the average tactical watch with attributes as:
• Scratch-resistant with a Sapphire glass • Easy to read with glowing numbers in the dark • Stainless or black case • Quartz or automatic (self-winding) mechanism = trouble free operation • Rubber wrist-bands or NATO-strap compatible • No fancy design: simple as a tool-watch should be
Most of us will immediately think of diver’s watches: the grandfather of tactical watches. So, let’s jump right into the topic…
I always have fun when people start bashing Rolex for having the image of Paris Hilton wearing one while holding Tinkerbell or some other celeb back from rehab. Nevertheless Rolex is selling more steel-versions than golden ones encrusted in diamonds. I met a lot of people in our industry and most of them acknowledge the role of Rolex watches in the tactical community or even carry/own one themselves.
Rolex basically invented everything we know of the modern watch: the self-winding (automatic) wrist-watch, waterproof and shockproof, multiple models for different activities – “tool watches”, and external certification. While Rolex may not have invented the diving watch (that one goes to Omega: model "Marine" introduced in 1932; though I always thought it was the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms): they perfected them like a lot of other things.
Rolex Submariners that were issued to combat divers and soldiers (the famous "T" models with the radio-activity warning for the tritium) are worth a fortune with collectors, Pan-Am had Rolex come up with the GMT watch (two time-zones) for its pilots flying Boeing 707s over the Atlantic, and COMEX had them issued to its highly-specialized deep-sea divers and was instrumental in the development of the Submariner version that later became the Sea-Dweller.
In addition several companies and royal families gave them away as presents. My personal “holy-grail” is a Rolex Oyster Perpetual Space-Dweller – one of a few rare NASA prototypes – though the watch is nothing fancy.
A Rolex Oyster Perpetual Submariner is an automatic watch you'll never need to worry about. No change of batteries, possibly one of the most precise watches due to the Oyster Perpetual movement, and built like a tank. No fancy features except a date (or not; depending on the model), glowing numbers, and simply the best steel wrist-band you’ll ever wear. (It can adjust for wearing gloves with a quick snap.)
The only issue with Rolex watches as a "tactical" watch is that they are not available in all-black versions. (Which can be done as an after-market PVD-job violating your warranty of course.) If you plan to save money and troubles by owning only one watch, I'd absolutely recommend either a Submariner or the bigger Sea-Dweller DEEPSEA to you. In addition you can always "flip it" as an insurance, because the resale-value is very high.
The Italian "god-father" of combat diving watches. And, yes, the first models even used Rolex "engines" before Panerai started making its own movements. (A movement is the "engine" of watch). The most famous 3rd-party producer is ETA, a Swiss company making movements for basically all modern watch producers. You can basically buy a movement and design your own case around it.)
Panerai was an insider-tip that became famous in recent years and mostly due to Sylvester “Sly” Stallone and later his Austrian buddy Arnold. Sly once posted a great reply, how he became aware of this brand:
Of course the company later designed a "Sly-edition" and due to its size it became a cult, with people who prefer watches over 46mm. My problem with Panerai is that my wrists are too small for one. Else, they are damn fine watches making you look like Jason Statham in the Expandables – unless you want them for real duty.
Black (PVD) versions are available, but for a super-premium only. If you are shopping for a "cool" watch with some serious tactical background, take a look at a jewelry store offering possibly both brands: Panerai and Rolex. I seriously would prefer a Rolex over a Panerai as it is the more robust watch – but that is me talking never having worn a PAM… In addition you should know that most PAMs like the Luminor Marina are hand-wound mechanical ones. Therefore PAMs take a bit more attention and care from your side.
Additional comment: I would never, ever buy a new watch from such a brand. It's like buying a new luxury car: you'll automatically lose 25% of the value after leaving the store. Check out special watch-stores and forums like www.watchuseek.com, speak with friends, and ask around. (E.g. I know several high-end, second-hand dealers.)
Like with other collectables some people just buy a model, put them into the safe, and flip it later for another better/newer one. I also know a few people having owned every Rolex model – by selling the old one and getting the newer afterwards.
What Panerai is in Italy, Bell & Ross could be for France, though Panerai has a real history compared to the relatively young Bell & Ross. The brand was launched in 1992 and in the beginning made by the German watchmaker Sinn. The two Bell & Ross founders decided to convert their love of military-style time-instruments into watches.
Today it is well-known for the "01" instrument watches, which looks like a cockpit watch on your wrist. The "03" is the smaller version with 42 instead of 46mm. I am a big fan, though only a few models have been issued to the tactical community: a 01 GIGN (French anti-terror unit) version, the "Demineur" – a Quartz watch with magnetic field protection for French EOD teams, and the Quartz BR03-88 selected by the French Air Force for its pilots. The 02 is the equivalent of the Rolex Submariner, as every good watch company has at least one diving model in its portfolio.
The company uses ETA movements for most of its models, which explains the attractive price. The tactical factor is quite high with Bell & Ross, which might surprise people based on how young the company is. I am a big fan, as it somehow suits my style. Mentioned BR03-88 uses the same ETA movement as the Breitling Emergency-One; of course without the RF beacon and therefore smaller but with a similar coolness factor.
Black (PVD) versions are available of most models and usually cost only a few hundred bucks more. Most B&R models include more than one strap, with tools for changing straps included.
Both B&R and Panerai have a cult of its owners changing wrist-bands. If you are into changing your wrist-band from tactical black rubber to exotic leather, you can find lots of 3rd parties offering those.
Sinn is a German manufacturer of automatic watches and has a huge portfolio of models. One of the most well-known watches in the tactical community is the Sinn U-series based on the “EZM: Einsatz-Zeitmesser” – kind of the Heckler+Koch of “tool-watches.”
The cases for the UX, U1, U2, and U1000 are all made out of German U-Boot steel. Not some recycled steel from tanks as with some limited edition knives but current steel as used by ThyssenKrupp for submarines. The EZMs were used by several German Special Forces units like the GSG9. The U-series is basically the commercial version.
The U1 is an automatic watch while the UX is a Quartz watch. The whole movement of the UX is swimming in a liquid allowing an underwater pressure up to 500 bar for the movement. The commercially available EZM 3 is watch with magnetic field protection – very similar to the Bell & Ross “Demineur”. I do not own a Sinn (U1 yet!) and all my friends owning one are highly recommending it. It’s a no-nonsense tool-watch and nothing fancy.
More in part 2.
~Lorenz “Lo” Szabo Contributing Correspondent
Lorenz “Lo” Szabo is an Austrian citizen and tactical gear-head, helping US companies locate customers in Europe and parts of Middle East. His areas of expertise are body-armor, less-lethal, and low-light. He also consults end-users on special equipment and training. He loves coffee, cigars, and all kind of bling made from Titanium. He has a dislike for people using political correctness as a defense for their own stupidity. As he has written this all himself, it might not be true at all…