What is a Chronograph Watch? (EVERYTHING You Need to Know!)

A chronograph is one of the coolest and most functional watch complications in the world.

Its ability to measure time through its stopwatch functionality makes it extremely practical as an everyday watch. Further, its historical usage in everything from NASA missions to motorsport races marks it as an important piece of watchmaking history.

In this article, we’re going to be taking a look at what a chronograph is, how it functions, how to use one, its history, and the different types of chronographs available today. Let’s take a closer look.

What is a Chronograph Watch?

What is a Chronograph Watch

A chronograph is a stopwatch complication in a watch that can be used to measure elapsed time in hours, seconds, and minutes and exists in addition to its regular timekeeping function.

Some typical features of a chronograph are:

  • Start/stop stopwatch functionality
  • Can measure time, typically up to 12 or 24 hours
  • Pushers used to start or stop the chronograph
  • Typically has multiple circles, or subdials, inside the main dial, each used to keep track of a specific unit of time
  • Often has a tachymeter that allows you to measure time over traveled distances

Parts of a Chronograph

Parts-of-a-Chronograph-Watch

Some typical parts of a chronograph are:

Pushers

Chronograph pushers are the buttons, typically on the right side of a chronograph’s watch case, that are used to start, stop, and reset the chronograph function.

Chronograph Pushers on Bulova Lunar Pilot
Chronograph Pushers (Used to Start and Stop the Chrono)

Subdials

The subdials are the small circles within a chronograph’s dial, each measuring its own unit of time.

Chronograph Subdials

Tachymeter

A tachymeter is a ring that allows you to measure speeds traveled over periods of time.

Some of the most popular chronographs like the Omega Speedmaster and Rolex Daytona have tachymeter bezels on the outside of the case, but some watches have tachymeters underneath the watch’s crystal.

Tachymeter Bezel Chronograph - Bulova Lunar Pilot

Day/date

Some chronographs have a day and/or date complication on the dial which keeps track of the day of the week, and the date of the month.

Date display on Timex Weekender Chronograph
Date display at 4:00 on a Timex Weekender

Movement

Inside a chronograph is the movement that powers the watch and chronograph function itself.

Chronograph movements can be mechanical, automatic, quartz, or solar-powered. We’ll go more in-depth on the different types of chronograph movements later in this article.

How Does a Chronograph Work?

Parts of a Chronograph Watch 2
The subdials vary from chronograph to chronograph. The subdials on the Bulova Lunar Pilot (above): 60-minute counter (top left), seconds counter (middle), split-second counter, (top right).

Chronographs are activated by pressing the chronograph ‘pushers’, buttons on the watch case. Typically, the top pusher is used to start and stop the chronograph, and the bottom pusher to reset the chronograph once stopped.

Once a chronograph is started, it will begin counting and measuring the amount of time that has passed since it was started.

Most chronographs have three subdials, small circles on the watch that each measure their own unit of time.

  • A running seconds subdial is used to measure the seconds of the current time (not that being measured by the chronograph).
  • An hour subdial is used to measure the chronograph’s elapsed hours, typically up to 12 hours.
  • A minute subdial is used to measure the chronograph’s elapsed minutes, up to 60 minutes.

Hot tip: The large second hand typically does not run until you start the chronograph, as it is often used to measure the elapsed seconds of the chronograph function. Instead, the smaller running seconds hand on the subdial typically measures the seconds of the current time.

How to Use a Chronograph Watch

Here’s how to use a chronograph with a typical two-button layout:

Watch this short, instructional video to learn how to operate your chronograph

Starting a Chronograph

To start the chronograph, press the top pusher. The chronograph will now activate and will begin measuring elapsed time.

How to Start a Chronograph
Push the top pusher to start the chronograph

Stopping a Chronograph

To stop the chronograph while it is running, press the top pusher.

How to Stop a Chronograph
Push the top pusher again to stop the chronograph

Resetting a Chronograph

To reset a chronograph back to its default position, first, make sure to stop it. This is usually done by pressing the top pusher while it is running. Once stopped, press the bottom pusher to reset it.

How to reset a chronograph
Push the bottom pusher to reset the chronograph

Make sure to only reset the chronograph once it has stopped running unless it is a flyback chronograph (more about flyback chronographs later).

The second hand might snap back into place at 12:00, or roll backward slowly, depending on the type of chronograph used.

Measuring Elapsed Time

To see how much time has been recorded since starting and stopping the chronograph, look at the various subdials on the watch to see elapsed hours and minutes. To see how many seconds have passed, look at the chronograph’s large, main second hand.

Chronograph Subdial

What is a Chronograph Used For?

Chronographs were originally designed for astronomers, and then horse races, but their usage was quickly adopted by many other fields. Chronographs have also been used to measure motor races, timing artillery strikes in the military, and even by NASA astronauts to precisely time spacecraft engine bursts.

Chronograph Watch on Wrist

Chronographs are also one of the most functional day-to-day complications since they can be used to time literally anything. Use it to keep track of how much time left you to have in a parking meter, a lunch break, food in the oven, or any other number of uses you can think of – only limited by your imagination,

A Brief History of the Chronograph

The first chronograph was invented in 1816 as a specialized pocket watch designed for astronomers by Louis Moinet.

In the 20th century, modern innovations led to noticeable milestones for the chronograph.

  • 1913Longines releases the 13.33Z, the first chronograph designed for wear on the wrist.
  • 1915Breitling releases the Breitling Transocean; the first pusher-operated chronograph.
  • 1923Patek Philippe released a split-seconds chronograph. This chronograph was later sold in 2014 for nearly $3 million in Sotheby’s, New York.
  • 1934Breitling released the first two-pusher chronograph.
  • 1957Omega Speedmaster released.
  • 1963Rolex Daytona & Tag Heuer Carrera released.
  • 1969NASA Astronaut Buzz Aldrin wears Omega Speedmaster on the moon.
  • 1969 Heuer, Breitling, Hamilton, and Dubois Depraiz race against Zenith and Seiko to create the world’s first automatic chronograph.
  • 1969 – Breitling releases the first automatic chronograph Navitimer.

Types of Chronographs

There are different variations of the chronograph complication that slightly differ, either in operation or aesthetics.

Best Chronographs Under 500

Simple Chronograph

This is your basic chronograph which has multiple subdials and is able to track one measurement of time at a time.

Chronographs Under 500 (2)

Tachymeter

A tachymeter is a scale typically located on the bezel or outside of a chronograph and is used to measure the speed of an object over its measurement of time. 

Bulova Lunar Pilot Chronograph

Pulsometer

A pulsometer is a specialized chronograph used by medical professionals to measure heart beats per minute.

Telemeter

A telemeter scale is used to measure the distance between something that has been seen and/or heard, like the distance between you and lightning.

This can be done by using the telemeter chronograph to measure the difference in time between seeing the lightning and hearing the accompanying thunder.

Historically, this has been used in the military to measure the distance of artillery fire.

Decimator

A decimator chronograph breaks down the minute-track scale more granularly into 1/100s of a minute which is necessary for metric system calculations.

Regatta

Regatta chronographs measure time by counting down as opposed to up, to allow for perfectly timing the start of a yacht race.

Flyback

When resetting the chronograph, the second hand on a flyback chronograph will immediately snap back into its default position rather than slowly winding backward.

This allows the flyback to be used multiple times in quick succession, allowing for very quick tracking of new elapsed time measurements.

Rattrapante / Split-Seconds

A rattrapante is a rare and expensive chronograph complication that adds an additional second hand. The rattrapante starts measuring two time intervals when the chronograph is activated, and each one can be stopped independently.

This is useful when starting to time multiple things that start at the same time but end asynchronously, like laps of a race.

Panda

A panda chronograph is the chronograph design with a white dial and darker, usually black, subdials. This gives the appearance of a “panda” and is one of the most popular chronograph styles as seen in watches like the Rolex Daytona.

Orient Neo 70s Panda Dial Watch on stock oyster bracelet
Panda Orient Neo70s with a white dial and black subdials

Types of Chronograph Movements

Given the complexity of the chronograph movement, they can be quite difficult and complex to produce. Chronographs can come in automatic, mechanical, quartz, solar, or any variation thereof, but it doesn’t stop there.

There’s a wide variety of various chronograph movements and calibers with slightly different functions and usages.

Mechanical

Mechanical chronographs are hand-wound watches powered by winding the crown, which creates tension in the watch’s mainspring. This tension is released slowly, powering the rest of the mechanical movement over time.

Seagull 1963 see through display case back reveals the decorated ST19 movement
Seagull 1963 see-through display case back reveals the mechanical movement

Lacking an automatic rotor, they tend to be slightly thinner, and often less expensive, than their automatic counterparts.

Automatic

An automatic chronograph is just like a mechanical chronograph with the addition of an automatic rotor which self-powers the movement when in motion. As the rotor rotates, it automatically generates power to the mainspring, which powers the rest of the movement.

Quartz

Quartz chronographs are battery-powered, and thus, don’t require complex or expensive ongoing watch maintenance. Quartz watches are much more precise than their mechanical counterparts, making them excellent timekeepers.

Timex Weekender Chronograph with Quartz Movement

Meca Quartz

Meca Quartz chronographs combine the best of both worlds between mechanical and quartz movements.

Battery-powered, like quartz, they are reliable and accurate timekeepers that don’t need frequent watch servicing, only a simple occasional battery replacement.

However, they still have the advantage of the smooth-second hand sweep of their chronograph second hand, like a fully mechanical chronograph would.

Solar-powered

Solar-powered chronographs are solar-battery-powered quartz movements that are charged by sunlight.

Modular vs Integrated Chronographs

Modular

Modular chronographs take an already existing time-only watch movement and integrate an additional chronograph module on top. This allows more flexibility in design and casing, and can often be more cost-efficient.

On the flipside, modular chronographs tend to be thicker, as they essentially combined two movements into one. They can also be more difficult for a watchmaker to service, and they may opt to replace the movement instead.

Integrated

Integrated chronograph movements are built with both the chronograph and time mechanisms combined into a single movement. Due to their complexity, they can be much more expensive to service than modular chronographs.

Column-Wheel vs Cam Chronograph

Column wheel and cam chronographs simply describe the mechanism which allows a chronograph to start and stop.

Column-Wheel

A column-wheel chronograph is a specific type of chronograph movement which uses different “columns”, or teeth, to slide into place when certain functions are activated, falling in and out of columns.

column wheel chronograph vs cam

While this type of movement is most commonly seen in more expensive watches, the ST19 movement, notoriously used in the Seagull 1963 is an extremely affordable (and rare) option.

Column wheel chronographs are known for their snappy, tactile feel.

Cam

Cam chronographs are handled with a series of levers to activate the start and stop functions. These tend to be the most cost-efficient and robust, at the cost of often being slightly less snappy and tactile.

Chronograph vs Chronometer

A chronograph refers to the watch complication, like a stopwatch, that allows the wearer to measure time intervals.

A chronometer, on the other hand, is a type of watch that is certified for its extremely high tolerances of precision and accuracy.

Chronograph vs Automatic Watch

A chronograph is a type of watch complication that a watch may have, while an automatic watch refers to the type of movement used to power the watch.

An automatic watch can have a chronograph complication, although chronographs can also be found with other types of watch movements, such as quartz or solar-powered as well.

What Are the Small Circles?

You may have seen and wondered about the small circles on the dial of a chronograph. Each of these is a subdial within the larger dial of the watch, each tracking its own unit of time.

What are the small circles on a chronograph (subdials)
The small circles on a chronograph are subdials that each track an individual unit of time.

Typically, chronographs will have two or three subdials. Chronographs with two dials are often referred to as “bi-compax” while chronographs with three are “tri-compax”.

Tri-Compax vs Bi-Compax Subdials on a Chronograph
A tri-compax chronograph (left) has 3 subdials. A bi-compax chronograph (right) has 2.

Often, one subdial will act as the running seconds to tell the current time, since the larger second hand is used to measure how many seconds have elapsed since activating the chronograph function.

Other common uses for chronograph subdials are to keep track of hours or minutes passed, while some use a subdial to keep track of a day or date, although much less common.

Can I leave My Chronograph Running?

Yes, just like any watch complication, a chronograph is a functional tool that is meant to be used.

You can leave your chronograph running, however, the chronograph requires more energy than a typical 3-hand watch, which may result in more wear and tear on a mechanical movement, or more battery drainage in a battery-powered quartz movement. Don’t fret, however, as this is not damaging to the watch.

Most chronographs are only able to measure up to 12 or 24 hours. Once your chronograph reaches its maximum capacity, the chronograph function will pause until you reset it. The watch will still keep time, however.

Chronograph Minute/Second Hand is Stuck & Not Moving

It’s common that a chronograph hand, be it a minute, or second hand will get stuck in its operation. The method to fix it will vary from watch to watch, movement to movement, and I suggest looking up the manual of your specific watch for detailed instructions.

With that said, try this method which commonly fixes many chronographs with this issue:

  • Pull the crown out to the time-setting position. Usually, this is furthest away from the watch case.
  • Press and hold the top pusher for a few seconds. If the minute/second hand begins to move, continue to press the top pusher until the minute/second hand resets into the desired position.
  • If that doesn’t work, try continuously pressing the top pusher in shorter, repeated presses.
  • If that doesn’t work, repeat the above with the bottom pusher.

If you have questions about your specific chronograph, drop me a comment with the model and reference of your watch below, and I will attempt to instruct you for that watch in particular.

Chronograph Not Working

If your chronograph function is not working, it’s possible your watch may be damaged and in need of a watch service, or repair. But, before jumping to this conclusion, try the following:

  1. Ensure your watch crown is pushed all the way in.
  2. Ensure your chronograph is reset, and the second hand is at 12:00.
  3. If your watch uses a battery, have the battery replaced with a fresh, new one.
  4. If your watch has a mechanical or automatic movement, ensure it is sufficiently wound to its maximum power reserve.
  5. If your watch is solar-powered, ensure it has had enough time to charge in the sun until it’s fully powered.

If you’re still having issues, do not hesitate to contact a local, experienced watchmaker, who will be able to evaluate your watch on a case-by-case basis.

Summary

How to Use a Chronograph

A chronograph watch has a stopwatch function with the ability to measure periods of time, typically up to 12 or 24 hours. It’s started, stopped, and reset typically through the use of its chronograph pusher buttons on the side of the watch’s case.

Chronograph watches are some of the most interesting, and most functional since they can be used for such a wide variety of uses. Historically, they have been used as mission-critical instruments in motorsport races, artillery strikes in the military, and even in NASA missions.

Brands like Rolex, Omega, Bulova, Seagull, Seiko, Zenith, Hamilton, Breitling, and more have played their part in elevating the chronograph’s popularity to one of the most popular watch complications

in the world, and many reeditions, or evolutions, of some of the earliest chronographs from these brands, like the Rolex Daytona and Omega Speedmaster, are still some of the most popular to this day.

With that said, there are plenty of great budget-friendly chronographs on the market – check out our full article for more information.

Hope this article was helpful! Still have questions about chronographs? Drop me a comment below, and I’ll be sure to answer.

– Anthony

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