The Story of the NATO Strap: History, Variations, and 10 Outstanding Watches
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The Story of the NATO Strap: History, Variations, and 10 Outstanding Watches

Once a style that appealed mainly to a small but diehard niche, watches with NATO straps have moved from their original realm of military utility to become a popular option in the mainstream world of watches, even at some of the highest ecehelons of sporty luxury. If you're considering adding a NATO strap to your collection, or are simply curious where they came from and what your choices are on the market today, we tackle all your questions below. 

Why is it called a NATO strap?

One would assume, from the strap’s plainly utilitarian, military look, that the name is derived directly from an association with the North Atlantic Treaty organization (NATO), the intergovernmental alliance of 30 European and North American nations for mutual military defense. However, this is not exactly the case. 

Essentially, a so-called NATO strap is any one-piece strap, made of nylon or some other fabric, that loops under the watch’s case and through its spring bars to hold it securely in place on the wrist. Like all inventions that originated for a military purpose, its design emphasized utility, practicality, and secure use on the field of battle: such a strap construction would hold the watch in place, albeit dangling precariously, even if one of the spring bars were broken. Armed forces in both the United States and Great Britain used these types of fabric straps as early as the mid-20th Century (predating the formation of NATO in 1949); at one point, they were referred to in shorthand as “RAF straps” due to their popularity with pilots of the British Royal Air Force.

Bulova Hack Watch

What does the military consider a NATO strap?

Military people in the know refer to the strap as a G10, which refers to the requisition form G-1098 that an officer assigned to a NATO unit would file to order one using its official NSN (NATO Stocking Number): either 6645-99-124-2986 for army and navy personnel, and 6645-99-527-7059 for air force. In 1973, the British Ministry of Defence established the official requirements for any watch to be used in its service via the “S.S.W.” (“Strap, Wrist Watch”) Defence Standard, or Def Stan, 66-47. To wit:

“Straps shall be supplied with the joints, buckle and loops securely heat-welded in position. The end of each strap and the holes will be heat-sealed…. The strap shall be of straight cross weave nylon ribbon, free from additives which may act as an irritant to the wrist under humid or extreme conditions… The colour of the nylon ribbon (20mm wide) shall be to BS 4800 card number 3, reference 18B25, color grey.” In other words, a truly authentic NATO strap, i.e., one that would pass military muster, comes in only one color choice, the so-called “admiralty grey,” and with very specific guidelines on materials and sizing, including a standard 20mm lug width. 

Of course, as with most aspects of wristwatches throughout their history, established rules go out the window when utilitarian features become fashion objects in their own right, as has been the case with the NATO strap. As early as 1964, before the MOD spelled out its acceptable parameters for military usage nearly a decade later, Sean Connery’s James Bond rocked a Rolex Submariner on a striped nylon strap in Goldfinger — not the admiralty-grey G10, as those standards had yet to be set by the UK helping to popularize the look for style-conscious civilians (even though Bond himself, let’s not forget, was a former naval commander for whom wearing such a watch would have been perfectly in character). 

Sean Connery Rolex NATO strap

What do watch enthusiasts love about NATO straps?

For one thing, they’re the easiest type of strap to swap in and out, requiring no additional tools, and probably the strap that can be most ideally customized to fit to an individual’s wrist; if there’s any extra slack once you tighten it up, you can just loop the tail end of it back into one of the keepers. Because they’re still mostly made of fabrics, they’re lightweight in comparison to leather or rubber straps and especially compared to metal bracelets; swapping a steel watch on a bracelet to a NATO instantly makes it substantially lighter on the wrist. NATO straps have also become known for the casual “summer” or “outdoors” look that they can add to a watch, as more and more enthusiasts embrace the idea of seasonal modifications for their timepieces — and as more and more watch brands increase the interchangeability of their straps and bracelets in response. As alluded to earlier, watch companies rarely feel bound these days by the 1973 guidelines of Def Stan 66-47, so NATO straps can be made in a virtually unlimited array of color choices, sizes, and even materials.

What watch brands use NATO straps these days?

NATO straps speak to two enduring and undeniable trends in the watch business these days: the continuing popularity of vintage and military-influenced styles and the increasing demand for easy interchangeability between bracelets and straps.  Many brands now offer a NATO alternative option with its watches mounted on more traditional leather, rubber, or metal bracelets. The watches highlighted below, on the other hand, come standard on a NATO.

Tudor Black Bay Bronze Bucherer Blue

Tudor Black Bay Bronze Bucherer Blue

The Tudor Black Bay takes its cues from military-issued watches the Rolex-owned brand made in the 1950s and ‘60s, primarily the Oyster Prince Submariner, Ref. 7922, Tudor’s first dedicated divers’ watch; and the Ref. 7924 “Big Crown” model, both of which boast a historical link to the French Navy. The Bronze Bucherer Blue edition that dropped a few years ago evokes that history further, with its blue-and-gold woven jacquard textile NATO-style strap, inspired by a vintage watch on which the owner had attached a makeshift strap recovered from an elastic rescue parachute. All the Black Bay signatures are present on the special bronze-cased model, including the 1960s-inspired “snowflake” handset, geometric shaped hour markers and distinctive applied numerals, domed sapphire crystal, and unidirectional dive-scale bezel insert, made of blue anodized aluminum to harmonize with the color of the dial. The automatic, COSC-certified Caliber MT5601 beats inside the 43mm bronze case, offering a 70-hour power reserve. 

Hamilton Khaki Field Mechanical

Hamilton Khaki Field

Price: $545, Case Size: 38mm, Case Height: 9.5mm, Lug Width: 20mm, Lug to Lug: 47mm, Crystal: Sapphire, Water Resistance: 50 meters, Movement: Manually wound Hamilton Caliber H-50 (ETA 2801-2 base)

The Khaki Field Mechanical is directly descended from a 1960s watch that Hamilton provided for marines during the Vietnam War era and strives for a high level of authenticity in its period details. With a modest 38-mm case made of stainless steel (here with a camo-tone “Earth” PVD finish), and containing the manually wound Caliber H-50, the model also represents an impressive value proposition for lovers of vintage military watches. The cases have a matte finish to eliminate glare, which would have been a definite boon for an infantryman trying to stay out of sight of jungle snipers. A set of drilled lugs connect the watch to a sturdy nylon NATO-style strap with coordinating leather hardware that enhances both its look and its robustness. The dial’s hands and markers are coated with an “Old Radium”-colored Super-LumiNova (aka “faux lume”), which evokes the look of faded luminous paint from the original watch’s era. 

Seiko Prospex Diver SPB239

Seiko Prospex Automatic Diver

Price: $1,200, Case Size: 40.5mm, Case Height: 13.2mm, Lug Width: 20mm, Lug to Lug: 47.6mm, Crystal: Sapphire, Water Resistance: 200 meters, Movement: Automatic Seiko Caliber 6R35

Japan's Seiko re-interpreted its very first purpose-built dive watch from 1965 as part of its contemporary, Sporty Prospex collection in 2021. The 40mm steel case features a radially brushed finish, squared-off lugs, and an engraved, khaki-painted 60-minute dive scale on its rotating bezel. The tropical-style, sunburst-finished dial hosts rectangular hands and indexes with a generous coating of lume. Distinguishing this Prospex model is its use of a new water-resistant fabric strap made from a traditional Japanese braiding technique called “Seichu,” which gives it, Seiko says, a tensile strength four times stronger than more conventional nylon fabrics used to make straps. The material also offers greater resistance to degradation by water and sunlight. Inside the skin-diver-style case is the Seiko Caliber 6R35, an automatic movement with a 70-hour power reserve. 

Marathon General Purpose Mechanical

Marathon GPM

Price: $450, Case Size: 34mm, Case Height: 9.2mm, Lug Width: 16mm, Crystal: Sapphire, Water Resistance: 30 meters, Movement: Automatic Caliber NH35

Manufactured by — no kidding — the sole official supplier of watches to today’s U.S. Armed Forces, the Marathon General Purpose Mechanical offers a number of distinctive elements seldom found in this price range. Housed within a 34mm stainless steel case, the Marathon GPM is tactically small, designed to be a lightweight companion to the large loads of military gear utilized by its wearers in combat operations. The dial has indexes and hands with tritium-filled tubes, which offer brighter and longer-lasting luminescence than most other dials, whose luminescent elements need to be recharged by light. Completing the utilitarian package is a reliable third-party caliber from Seiko and the tough, “Ballistic Nylon” NATO strap that makes it ideal for combat troops to wear onto battlefields and other challenging environments — so long as they’re not underwater missions, as the cases feature only a somewhat pedestrian 30-meter water resistance. Shop here.

CWC T20 General Service Watch

CWC General Purpose Watch

Price: 269 GBP (approx. $332), Reference: 15410, Case Size: 38mm, Case Height: 11mm, Lug Width: 18.5mm, Lug to Lug: 42mm, Crystal: Hesalite, Water Resistance: 100 meters, Movement: Swiss quartz Ronda 715

Canada’s Cabot Watch Company, or CWC, is a longtime provider of watches to British military units. The T20 General Service Watch is based on specifications issued by Great Britain’s Ministry of Defence in 1980 for a quartz-powered watch for military use. For various logistical reasons, the watch was never actually produced until 2020, when CWC issued it on the 40th anniversary of the day the MOD specifications were published. The tonneau-shaped case (one of the requirements of the 1980 specs) is made of brushed stainless steel and measures an ‘80s-appropriate 38mm. The dial features an old-school railroad minute track, large legible Arabic numerals, a date at 3 o’clock, and the arrow motif used historically to identify watches made for Britain’s military units. The quartz Ronda movement inside is made in Switzerland and boasts a robust five-year battery life. The gray NATO strap completes the field-ready package.

Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe

Blancpain Fifty Fathoms BathyscaphePrice: $9,500 - $11,900, Case Size: 38mm, Case Thickness: 10.8mm, Lug Width: 20mm, Crystal: Sapphire, Water Resistance: 200 meters, Movement: Automatic Caliber 1150

Introduced in 1953, the original Blancpain Fifty Fathoms is regarded as the first modern divers’ watch, establishing the template for all the others. Today it’s the foundation for a vast and versatile collection within the Blancpain portfolio; as of 2013, that collection includes the Bathyscaphe family, named for the undersea vehicle invented by Auguste Piccard and offering a more vintage-style aesthetic. The Bathyscaphe offers both a 38mm and 43mm case size and several material options, including steel and plasma ceramic.  The dial’s distinctive handset, subtle domed curve, simple geometric hour markers, and luminous dot on the bezel for orientation, a detail requested by the original models’ military clients, all derive from the late 1950s model. The automatic movement inside is the in-house Caliber 1150, which offers a lengthy 100-hour power reserve in its twin barrels. The triple-loop NATO strap that comes with several models is based on the vintage strap designed by the British Ministry of Defence for its divers’ watches in the 1960s. 

Bulova Hack Watch

Bulova Hack Watch

Price: $395, Reference: 96A246, Case Size: 38mm, Case Height: 13.45mm, Lug Width: 18mm, Lug to Lug: 47mm, Crystal: Mineral, Water Resistance: 100 meters, Movement: Automatic Miyota Caliber 8250

During World War II, New York-based Bulova supplied watches — in addition to other instruments like telescopes, altimeters, artillery range finders and even fuses for explosives —  to the U.S. Armed Forces under a special contract with the government. The original so-called “Hack Watch” got its name from its special feature, a lock-down mechanism for the running seconds that allowed for perfect synchronization, or hacking, of multiple watches in the planning of a mission. The modern version of the Hack Watch, part of the historically inspired Military collection, features a vintage-look military-time dial with an inner 24-hour ring, large Arabic numerals, luminous cathedral hands, and a boxy crown. It’s powered by an automatic movement, a Japanese-made Miyota 8250, which has a 42-hour power reserve. The NATO-style strap that anchors the contemporary Hack Watch to the wrist is made of black leather, a slight concession to civilian luxury over military utility. Shop here.

Breitling Superocean Heritage Chronograph 44 Ocean Conservancy

Breitling Superocean Heritage

Price: $6,450, Case Size: 44mm, Case Height: 15.6mm, Lug Width: 22mm, Lug to Lug: 54.5mm, Crystal: Mineral, Water Resistance: 200 meters, Movement: Automatic Breitling Caliber 13

Breitling partnered with surfing champ Kelly Slater’s sustainable clothing brand Outerknown in 2019 to produce NATO straps for several of its watches. Among the first were special editions of the brand’s Superocean Heritage dive watch, whose design hearkens back to the original 1957 Superocean model. The Ocean Conservancy Limited Edition has a 44mm stainless steel case, a unidirectional ratcheting bezel made of scratch-proof blue ceramic, and a silver-colored tricompax dial with chronograph and running seconds displays driven by the ETA 7750-based, automatic Breitling Caliber 13, which boasts a COSC chronometer certificate for accuracy. The watch’s blue NATO strap is woven from ECONYL yarn, a material produced from recycled nylon waste, chiefly from discarded fishing nets from oceans around the world, and used in clothing produced by Slater’s Outerknown brand; the striped pattern is based on the fabrics used for the clothing.

IWC Pilot’s Watch Spitfire

IWC Pilot's Watch Spitfire

Price: $4,800, Reference: IW326801, Case Size: 39mm, Case Height: 10.86mm, Lug Width: 19mm, Crystal: Sapphire, Water Resistance: 60 meters, Movement: Automatic IWC Caliber 3210

The Spitfire from aviation-style specialist IWC is a pilot’s watch that could do double duty as a field watch; early watches worn by aviators, after all, shared much in common with those worn by ground troops before the genre expanded to include chronographs, dual-time functions, slide rules, etc. Having famously produced one of the famous “Dirty Dozen” field watches used during WWII, IWC channels that vintage spirit with the Spitfire Automatic, the most understated model in its high-flying Pilot’s collection. Based on the legendary Mark 11 watch from 1948, the Spitfire Automatic sports a clean, three-handed black dial, with large luminous sword hands, a small date window at 3 o’clock, white hour numerals, and an inverted triangle with two dots at 12 o’clock, a classical feature of vintage military watches. The watch is mounted on a canvas NATO strap and contains the IWC in-house Caliber 32110, which bestows it a power reserve of 72 hours, or three days. 

Omega Seamaster Diver 300M 007 Edition

Omega Seamaster Diver 300m 007 Edition

Price: $9,200, Case Size: 42mm, Case Height: 13.5mm, Lug Width: 20mm, Crystal: Sapphire, Water Resistance: 300 meters, Movement: Automatic Omega Master Chronometer Caliber 8806

James Bond put NATO-strap dive watches on the men’s fashion map as early as 1964’s Goldfinger, and Agent 007 would return to that look in recent years. The Seamaster Diver 300M 007 Edition features a 42mm titanium case with a brown “tropical” aluminum bezel ring to match its dial. The case features crown guards on its side to protect the screw-down crown, and a helium release valve at 10 o’clock, and the ratcheting bezel sports a scalloped edge for easy operation by gloved fingers. The dial hosts wide, skeletonized hands and prominent applied hour markers, all luminous-coated; a detail inspired by UK military history and Bond’s career as a navy man is the arrow marker above the 6 o’clock index, used historically to denote property of the British government. Beating inside the case is the Omega Caliber 8806 automatic movement, equipped with a co-axial escapement and METAS-certified as a Master Chronometer. The NATO strap, with its striped pattern of gray, black, and khaki, harmonizes nicely with the sober colors of the bezel and dial and is made of a suitably sturdy fabric.

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Join the Conversation

Doug C.

Question for you! Why is it that almost every nato strap has that annoying third metal hoop that sticks out on the side of your wrist catching every sleeve or whatever? I am in love with the Helm watch line, and I know I’ve harped on them to you several times!..but they have one called the NS1. It has only two hoops. Works so well, strap goes under both pins so it retains that “nato” aspect of saving the watch from falling off the wrist if one fails, but avoids the third ring! Am I missing something here? Love to hear your thoughts.

Darren P.

You wrote, “Canada’s Cabot Watch Company, or CWC, is a longtime provider of watches to British military units.” I was not aware that CWC was a Canadian company. Marathon certainly is.

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