From its humble beginnings of being used in an astronomy lab to its pivotal role in combat, the chronograph has become a staple among watch collectors. You’re told it’s used like a stopwatch, to measure the elapsed time of just about anything… But how do you actually use one?
To start a chronograph, press the top pusher. When done timing, press the top pusher again to stop it. To reset the chronograph back to zero, press the bottom pusher.
In this article, we’ll also get into some other how-tos, like how to reset its hands if they get stuck and how to use different types of chronographs as well.
What Are the Dials on a Chronograph For?
Chronograph watches usually have small round dials placed at different positions on the dial. Positions vary depending on the model and brand.
Below are some types of dials on a Chronograph watch:
- Hour counter sub-dial – this count elapsed hours when using the chronograph. Note: some chronographs can only measure up to 30 or 60 minutes, and do not include an hour sub-dial.
- Minute counter sub-dial – this counts elapsed minutes when using the chronograph.
- Running seconds sub-dial – this displays the actual time in seconds, not the elapsed time. It is not part of the chronograph function but rather the normal display watch functionality.
How to Use the Chronograph
Chronograph functions have two buttons called pushers and a crown which are used to operate it. Their functions are as shown below:
- Start/Stop pusher – located at the 2 o’clock position and is used to start and stop the chronograph and align chronograph hands to zero
- Reset pusher – located at the 4 o’clock position and is used to reset the chronograph
If the chronograph is mechanical, it is good practice to ensure the watch is fully wound before using it to ensure high accuracy.
Starting the Chronograph
To start the chronograph:
- Press the top pusher just as the event you are timing starts.
- The long second hand in the middle will start swooping. When it makes one full revolution, the minute hand in the minute counter sub-dial will move one tick forward, and so on.
- When the minute hand completes a full revolution, the hour hand in the hour counter sub-dial will also move one tick forward.
Stopping the Chronograph
As the event being timed ends, press the top pusher again. This stops the second hand at whatever position it was last in.
Reading the Chronograph
- When the chronograph has been stopped, take your reading from the hour counter sub-dial to the minute counter sub-dial and finally the seconds hand.
- Take the reading on the sub-dials where each hand stopped, just as you would on the display watch.
- The time, in hours/minutes/seconds format, measures how much time elapsed since the event started and ended.
Resetting the Chronograph
Now you have measured the time the event took, but you may want to measure another event or just reset your chronograph to its starting position.
To reset your chronograph:
- Press the top pusher of the chronograph while it is still running to stop it.
- Press the bottom pusher to reset all the chronograph dials. All hands of the chronograph will return to zero.
A special type of chronograph called the flyback chronograph can be reset while the chronograph is still running, such that it moves to zero and begins ticking again. We will talk more about this below.
How to Realign Hands on a Chronograph
Sometimes, the chronograph hands may not align well with zero when reset and may need manual realignment. Depending on the model, there may be different ways to do this, so be sure to reference your manual.
Realigning the Minute Hand
- Pull the crown out 1 click away from the case.
- Long press the bottom pusher to rotate the minute hand clockwise quickly from the 0 position.
- When the hand is about to reach the 0 mark again, release the bottom pusher and start tapping it. This causes the hand to advance toward zero in small increments, allowing for greater precision.
Realigning the Seconds Hand
- Push the crown back to 0, and pull it two clicks out.
- Hold down the top pusher to advance the second hand quickly toward zero in a clockwise direction.
- Release the pusher when the hand nears zero, and tap it until it gets to zero.
Realigning the 1/10 second hand
- Pull the crown two clicks out, or if it is already in this position, leave it there.
- Hold down the bottom pusher and let the second hand swoop until it nears zero.
- Release the pusher and begin tapping it so that it advances to zero in small increments.
- Push the crown back to zero.
How to Use a Flyback Chronograph
The flyback chronograph is similar to the simple chronograph but is designed to account for human error. It can take a person a few milliseconds to push just one button. In the case of timing two subsequent events, you would need to press the pusher buttons three times when the first event ends: stop, reset, and start.
The flyback chronograph only needs one button push to eliminate such errors and immediately restart the timer.
How to time two events using a flyback chronograph:
- Press the start pusher.
- When the first event elapses and the second one starts immediately after, press the reset pusher. The second hand flies back to zero and begins counting again.
- Repeat the steps above for more than 2 subsequent events.
How to stop and reset a flyback chronograph:
- Press the start/stop pusher when the chronograph is running to stop it.
- Press the reset button to reset the second hand back to zero.
The second hand will remain stationary at the 12 o’clock position instead of swooping back to zero and starting the timer again.
How to Use a Rattrapante/Double/Split Second Chronograph
Standard and flyback chronographs cannot measure two events that start at the same time and end at different times. For example, two athletes starting at the same time but crossing the finish line at different times could not be measured.
However, the Rattrapante chronograph can measure two or more events with different ending times. This is so because it has two second hands, with one above the other such that they would appear as one in their normal position. The two second hands may be termed as:
- The leader second hand – the second hand stacked at the top.
- The follower second hand – the hand stacked below the leader hand. It is not usually visible as it swoops together with the leader hand until it is stopped independently.
The leader and follower can be operated independently of each other. The Rattrapante has an additional pusher at the 10 o’clock position, which is used to operate the follower second hand. Some models, like the Breitling Navigrapher have the extra pusher located at the center of the crown.
How to Operate the Rattrapante
- Press the 2 o’clock pusher. Both second hands start to swoop.
- When the first event elapses but the other is still ongoing, press the 10 or 3 o’clock pusher.
- This stops the follower hand and allows you to record the finish time of the first athlete. The leader hand continues swooping.
- When done recording, press the 10 or 3 o’clock pusher once more. The follower hand swoops forward to catch up with the leader.
- Repeat step four to record the time of subsequent athletes/events.
- You can also stop the leader hand using the 2 o’clock pusher even while the follower is stationary at a different point.
- To reset the watch, press the 4 o’clock pusher.
The making of this watch is very complex. Therefore, only a few brands with the ability to make quality rattrapante chronographs manufacture them. This makes them expensive.
How to Use a Regatta Timer
As opposed to the other chronographs, the regatta timer counts down instead of up. They are specially used for regatta sailboat races. This is because sailboats cannot be assigned a specific starting position as they cannot stay still in one position.
Therefore, sailboats in regatta races will start a distance away from the starting line and time themselves to be close to the start line when the official countdown time reaches zero. Regatta timers are essential in ensuring they are not too close to the start line to cross it prematurely and risk disqualification.
This watch has an extra minute hand at the bottom, usually with a triangular end. This minute hand slides along a scale on the inner part of the dial, which is graduated from 10 to 0. The regatta timer can only count down from a maximum of 10 minutes.
How to set the timer on a Regatta watch
- Rotate the bezel counterclockwise till the 1 mark on the bezel nearly coincides with the 12 o’clock mark of the dial.
- Press the bottom pusher. This activates the setting position.
- Unscrew the crown and rotate it clockwise. The countdown hand will move from 10 toward zero along the innermost scale.
- Stop rotating at the value you would like to start the countdown from, say 5.
- Move the bezel clockwise back to the mean position.
- Screw back the crown.
- Press the top pusher to start the countdown.
- If you would like to restart the countdown after a while, press the bottom pusher. The center second hand and triangular countdown hand will move to their starting positions.
How to Use a Tachymeter
A tachymeter measures units per hour of anything, for example, km/h, beats per hour, and steps per hour, among others. It is independent of units.
The scale is acquired by dividing the total number of seconds present in an hour (3,600 seconds) by the elapsed time in seconds. For example, at the 10 seconds mark of the dial, the scale shows 360 (units per hour). This is calculated by dividing 3,600 by 10 seconds.
At the two-second mark, the value inscribed would be 1,800 units per hour (3,600/2). This means that if you time your steps and find that you take a step every 2 seconds, you take 1,600 steps every hour.
Measuring speed using a tachymeter
A tachymeter can be used to measure the speed of an object if the distance is known. Take the instance of a racing car on a racetrack passing between points that are 1 km apart. Racetracks usually have lines on the road placed 1 km apart, so distances can easily be visually acquired. To find its speed:
- As the car passes one of the 1 km markers, start the chronograph using the 2 o’clock pusher.
- When it passes the next, stop the chronograph using the same pusher.
- If it took 15 seconds to get from the 1st marker to the 2nd, the scale would indicate a speed of 240 km/hour.
When you do not know the distance traversed, if, for example, you are driving on a highway, use the procedure outlined below:
- Look at your speed.
- If you’re driving at 100km/h, this speed on the Tachymeter scale corresponds to the 36-second mark on the watch’s dial (3,600/36 =100 units per hour).
- Start the chronograph at a point on the road and stop it after 36 seconds.
- If your speed remains constant at 100 km/hour, you should be 1 km away from your starting point.
- If you stop the watch halfway to 36 seconds (18 seconds), you will be half a kilometer away from your starting point.
Remember that the Tachymeter is independent of units. Therefore, if your car uses miles per hour, the distance you record from your watch will be in miles.
How to Use a Pulsometer to Measure a Heartbeat
Doctors or nurses usually use this to find the beats per minute(bpm) of a patient’s heartbeat. The counts will usually be done in 15 or 30 beats.
The pulsometer has three scales. The first is an outer scale which is demarcated from 0 to 60. This outer scale shows elapsed time. There are two other inner scales that look like two semi-circles. These are basically the same scale repeated on both sides/repeated every 30 seconds. These show beats per minute.
To find a patient’s bpm using a pulsometer:
- Start the chronograph.
- When the patient’s heart beats 15 times, stop the chronograph.
- Read the value on the inner scale that coincides with the second hand. This is the patient’s bpm.
- The value in the outer scale is a measure of how long it took for the patient’s heart to beat 15 times.
For example, let’s say that the count starts at the 0 mark on the outer scale, and it takes 15 seconds for the patient’s heart to beat 15 times. The seconds hand will indicate 60 bpm on the inner scale but 15 seconds on the outside scale, showing the time elapsed.
You can redo the measurement when the second hand hits the 30 seconds mark. This is where the 2nd inner scale starts and is identical to the first scale.
How to Use a Telemeter
This scale is used to calculate the distance between an observer (you) and an event that can both be seen and heard. It uses the standard speed of sound to calculate distances. Therefore, every 3 seconds indicates a one-kilometer distance.
Back in the day, it was used to measure the distance of enemy artillery fire in war.
Today, it is mostly used for determining how far away a lightning storm is from you. To do this:
- When you see lighting, press the start/stop pusher of the chronograph.
- When you hear the thunder, stop the chronograph using the same pusher.
- The second hand will point at a value along the Telemeter scale. This value denotes how far away you are from the storm.
How to Use a Rotating Bezel as a Timer
Although not a typical chronograph, dive watches usually have bezels with markings of up to 60 minutes in the form of dots or lines, with numbers written at intervals of 10 (that is, 0, 10, 20 up to 50, then back to zero). Some bezels may replace the zero with an inverted triangle.
To time yourself using a rotating bezel:
- Rotate the bezel such that the triangle or 0 mark of the bezel coincides with the minute hand. Do this before you go underwater.
- Dive into the water, and as you are about to ascend, check where the minute hand is pointing in relation to the bezel, not the normal dial of the watch.
- Take the reading on the bezel. This reading is the time spent underwater before you ascend.
For example, if the actual time on your watch before you descend is 9:15, rotate the bezel so that the zero/arrow is at the 3 o’clock position where the minute hand is pointing. Say you take 15 minutes underwater, the time will be 9:30, so the minute hand will be pointing at the 6 o’clock position. The bezel will, however, indicate “15” at the same 6 o’clock position. Therefore, you will have spent 15 minutes underwater (bottom time).
Things You Should Avoid Doing With a Chronograph
If the chronograph is mechanical, you will have to wind it constantly. Even automatic watches require manual winding when they are totally drained. As you wind, once you feel some resistance, stop winding. Any more winding at this point could snap the main stem.
Operating the Watch Underwater
Divers may be tempted to use the chronograph to time their bottom time using their chronographs. This may be detrimental to the watch since pressing the pushers allows water to seep into the watch. It is better to use a rotating bezel for this purpose.
Can I Run the Chronograph all the Time?
Many chronograph watch owners may be tempted to run the chronograph feature at all times as the stationary chronograph second hand may make the watch look like it may not be working.
However, it is best not to leave your mechanical chronograph running when you do not need it, as it has many parts that will wear down due to friction.
Mechanical chronographs also draw their power from the mainspring. Unnecessarily leaving them running will use up the mainspring energy faster, necessitating frequent winding.
Quartz chronographs, however, do not have the problem of wear due to friction as they do not have as many parts as their mechanical counterparts. But their batteries will be drained more quickly if the chronograph functionality keeps running. Running the timer all the time may reduce the battery life from 3 or 4 years to as little as half a year.
Moreover, most chronographs are designed to stop after running for a while. Some are set to stop at 30 minutes or 1 hour, and others for as many as 12 hours. This may depend on which sub-dials are present on your chronograph. For example, a chronograph with a twelve-hour sub-dial may run for 12 hours, while one with only a sixty-minute subdial may run for only 1 hour.
Chronographs are useful in measuring elapsed time, but they have been replaced by digital gadgets like phones, which are more accurate down to fractions of seconds.
Chronographs, however, will still be around for a while since many people appreciate the skill and knowledge required to make them. Others simply like the feel of using an analog watch to time their events.