What Are The Three Dials On Your Watch (Chronographs Explained)

Are you among the many people with a three-dial watch and no idea what to do with it? I feel your pain. Understanding the complexities of a chronograph watch (a three-dial or multi-dial watch) can be a bit confusing at first.

However, once you get the hang of reading your chronograph watch, you’ll probably find that it has become an extremely useful tool that can make your everyday life that much easier.

So what are the three dials on a watch?

Generally, the three dials on a chronograph watch tell you how many seconds are passing within a minute, how many minutes are passing in an hour, and other timing information, sometimes to the tenth of a second. Chronograph watches are often used as stopwatches with integrated displays.

Chronograph watches usually feature three subdials that will give you additional timing information apart from just what hour and minute it is. This way, you can time events more easily. 

Subdials are also called auxiliary dials and are a common feature on watches that have been designed to be multifunctional.

Alarm watches, dual-time-zone watches, and calendar watches can also have many subdials. Are you confused yet? I get it. 

Watches can actually be pretty complex. That’s why I’ve taken the time (get it? time…) to go over how chronograph and multi-dial watches work, what they can be used for, and above all, how the heck to read them.

What exactly is a chronograph watch, anyway?

One of the most famous chronographs of all time - the Omega Speedmaster "Moonwatch"

Chronograph watches are watches with multiple dials that can be used to precisely time events. They were invented in 1816 for tracking astronomical events. 

These watches are also often used by pilots, in the military, for car racing, and for diving or submarine maneuvers.

The word chronograph is simply a greek way to say “time reading.” While chronograph watches tell you what time it is, they also help you time events. 

Reading the subdials on the face of a chronograph watch can help you figure out how many seconds are passing and time events to the tenth of a second. 

Chronograph dials are usually pressurized and can be started, stopped, and reset to zero individually.

These days, many smartphones have stopwatch timing features that are easier to use than chronograph watches. However, learning to read a chronograph watch is a great skill to master. 

Modern chronograph watches often use moveable bezels as tachymeters. 

This allows for fast and very precise calculations when timing distance or speed. The chronograph is still one of the most popular and sought after wristwatches.

Are most people able to read the three dials on a chronograph watch?

Probably not. 

You may feel a little bit better to find out that while chronograph watches are becoming more popular in the mainstream, most men under the age of 40 who own a chronograph watch don’t actually know how to read it. 

Many people don’t understand what chronograph watches were intended for, can’t operate their subdials or get them to work properly, or simply have never bothered to figure out how these watches were meant to be read.

How To Read The Three Dials

Now that you understand where the chronograph came from, why it’s a popular option, the reasons behind its expensive price tag, and what it can be used for, let’s get into how to actually read your chronograph watch.

First, let’s go over exactly how to read and work your chronograph watch functions.

As you look down at your watch, you’ll see three dials and a thin hand.

• The Thinnest Third Hand

This thin third hand on your watch will stand still until you begin your chronograph timing. It sweeps in a circle and indicates that the timer is on and working.

• The Far Left Subdial

The far left dial is usually the seconds timing indicator. It tells you how many seconds are passing.

• The Uppermost Subdial

The top indicator subdial is your minutes indicator. It tells you how many minutes are passing within an hour.

• The Lowest Dial

The bottom subdial is your hours indicator. When 60 minutes have passed on the top subdial, the bottom subdial hand will move to the one position.

How To Use The Chonograph Functions

Stating Chronograph Functions

Starting your chronograph functionality will usually work the same way across all chronograph watches. you push the top button, and the small thin hand on your watch will begin sweeping.

As the hand sweeps, the chronograph functions will begin tracking time.

When it hits 60 seconds, the top dial will move one minute, equalling 60 seconds.

As the top dial hits 60 minutes, the bottom dial will begin ticking. For example, when the bottom dial reads one, and the top dial reads 6, you will know that 1 hour and 6 minutes have passed.

Then, you can look at the second tracking dial and see how many seconds are passing.

Stopping and Reading Your Chronograph Timer

To stop your chronograph timer, you just have to push the button again. It’s that simple.

Then, you just look at the three dials and read what they say. For example, if the top hand reads 9 the bottom hand reads 3, and the far left dial hand reads 43, you’ll know that three hours, nine minutes, and forty-three seconds have elapsed from the time that you began your chronograph timer.

The video below will show you exactly what I am talking about. This way, you can get a visual idea of how chronograph watches track time.


So, chronograph watches can come in many configurations, but they almost always feature three dials that can be used to time things.

This makes them very popular for people who need to keep track of distances traveled and time elapsed. You can start your chronograph watch by pushing the top button on its right side.

Then, you just read the dials which tell you how many minutes, seconds, or hours are passing.

The thin hand tells you that the chronograph watch is working. E6B watches have additional rotating bezels that can help you track and calculate distances.

Now that you can read the three dials on your chronograph watch and know how to actually use it, I want to know what you think!
Do you find that you are able to apply the chronograph features of your watch to your daily life? Which type of chronograph watch do you like best? Please feel free to leave your comments and feedback!

1 thought on “What Are The Three Dials On Your Watch (Chronographs Explained)”

  1. I have an automatic unbranded watch it has 3 dials but they indicate day date and month any info on this would be gratefully recieved thankyou


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