The Best Watch Bands for Military Style Watches

Posted by Benjamin Grant on

"Military" style has established itself in a lot of different areas, from rugged adventure gear to high fashion styles. It has deep roots in the world of watches (in fact, wristwatches were born out of military needs in WWI) and, over the years, a definition of what makes a "Military" watch has become ingrained in most watch lovers' minds.

When buying a band or strap for your watch the only real criteria for a good band are that it fits, functions and--hopefully--you like the look of it. However, military style watches have a unique look that'll be that much more satisfying and functional if choose a band that complements the style. To find a band that maintains the military look there are a few guidelines to follow regarding style and material.

First of all, let's briefly outline what makes a military watch a military watch. 

The last couple of decades have seen a growing interest in "mil-spec" gear; the kind of gear that theoretically would perform under the harshest of conditions in combat.  While many of these modern, rugged "mil-spec" watches could easily be classified as "military," we're going to use the more traditional meaning of the term in the watch world.

Fundamentally, a military style watch is defined by simplicity, with no unnecessary elements distracting from the core function of keeping time. The dial face traditionally has large, legible numbers on the hour marks rather than stylized shapes or even roman numerals. The hands and numbers will be covered with a luminescent paint for simple but effective night time display. Now, a lot of commercial military style watches have a date function but beyond that, additional features begin to detract from the simplicity that is associated with the military style watch.

The military style watch should give the wearer a clear and accurate picture of the time.

Before moving on, here are a coupe of watches that help define "military style" for reference:

A-11 Navigation Watch (Thousands distributed during WWII) | MIL-W-3818A Post WWII US Specification | Victorinox Swiss Army Infantry One of the more iconic contemporary commercial military watches

*Note that chronographs and divers watches are used by militaries but are not considered classic examples of Military Style


So now to the gist of this article: what is the right strap for a military watch? As already mentioned, if you like how a specific strap looks, feels or functions then there's nothing to say it's not the perfect band for you. However you may risk losing the cohesive look that may be considered preferable by the watch world. Here we list a few styles & materials that will compliment a military style watch.


Canvas Straps

A canvas strap is an excellent option for nearly any military style watch. A lot of the characteristics that are associated with classic military watches come from the watches that were mass distributed to troops during the First and Second World War. Nearly all of the watch models that were used in these periods were distributed with olive green (or khaki) canvas straps, matching the the color and material used to make nearly everything in a soldiers kit.

Thus, if you want to maintain a genuine, original issue military look, an olive canvas strap is probably the best option. If you prefer a wider variety of choices, canvas straps have the advantage of being available in a wide variety of colors. The below model by Toscana illustrates just a couple of these options.


Further advantages of canvas / nylon straps are that they're relatively affordable. As such, you can buy one simply to use for an alternate style or for use on specific occasions when you know the band will be exposed to the elements or rough conditions. This brings us to one of the greatest strengths of canvas or nylon: their ability to withstand wear and tear: fabric straps are not nearly as susceptible to damage by the elements (i.e. water) as, say, a leather strap would be. When wearing a military watch, you shouldn't be preoccupied by trying to avoid exposing it to any elements. In this sense, a fabric strap is mission-ready and good to go in nearly any environments. 

The one exception that should be mentioned is that fabric may start to deteriorate in tropical climates where there is no opportunity for the strap to dry out fully.

swiss army military strap

A slight variation that is commonly found on military watches is a strap made of both leather and fabric, used simply for design or to enhance the durability of the strap. A familiar example of a cloth / leather strap is the original style Swiss Army Nylon & Leather strap.


NATO / Zulu Style Straps

Only slightly different in design, both NATO and Zulu are one-piece straps that slide over the pins on the ends of a watch case and under (behind) the case itself. There are technical differences between these two styles but they have become less relevant today-- in fact, to genuinely be  a "NATO" a strap would mean that a strap fits the specific criteria laid down in an early 70s Military requisition order, including brass hardware, 20mm size, and the color "Admiralty Grey." For this reason, you'll hear these labels used interchangeably as the name is less relevant to the actual strap that you receive.  

These one-piece straps grown in popularity recently and share many of the same advantages of standard fabric straps. These include affordability, a genuine military look with genuine military origins and a wide variety of colors and designs that make it easy to find a color scheme that uniquely match your watch.  

One downside to the canvas strap is that it's on the less formal end of the spectrum. That said, the recent popularity in NATO / Zulu straps has seen these straps used in new ways. That includes being strapped to high end watch cases and worn as a part of very sophisticated wardrobes.

Broadly speaking, any watch outfitted with the universal spring bars / pins attachment method can also be fitted with a one-piece strap. One distinguishing feature of NATO straps is an extra length of fabric that runs behind the watch case as a second layer of fabric between the watch case and the wrist. This extra length of fabric can be seen on the NATO strap made by Swiss Army to the right. 

One-piece straps are available in other materials, such as leather, but these are relatively uncommon.


Leather Straps

The last strap material we suggest for a classic military watch is leather. Put simply, the right piece of leather on a well made watch is a thing of beauty. That combination of form and function is the reason that fathers will continue to hand watches down to their sons for years to come while iPhones will simply be disposed of.

Thanks to the military watch's design emphasis on displaying only the essential information without extra frills or features, a military watch has a uniquely timeless appearance. A leather band compliments this well, giving the watch a bit more of a "classic" dimension than a "spartan" or "utilitarian,"  feel one might get with another material.

The downside to leather is that it doesn't stand up to the elements as well as some other materials and, as such, requires extra care and attention. 


Long story short, it you really want to maintain that original / vintage military look, a canvas strap in olive or khaki is the way to go. However, if  you want your military watch to be your main timepiece, a leather strap will perform well and look appropriate in all but the most formal of settings.

If you're looking for the perfect band or strap from your watch, be sure to check out Total Watch Repair's collection.


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