Welcome to Watches You Should Know, a biweekly column highlighting important or little-known watches with interesting backstories and unexpected influence. This week: the Rolex Military Submariner.
If the Rolex Submariner is the most famous dive watch, then the Rolex Military Submariner, or MilSub, is the most famous military-issued dive watch. What is now a highly sought after piece of watch history — and one of the rarest collector’s watches ever — was once merely Ministry of Defense (MOD) standard issue equipment.
The Brits were one of the early militaries to use divers for offensive purposes during wartime, complementing ongoing recon and defensive missions. Coming out of WWII, the MOD realized a robust and reliable dive watch would be absolutely necessary for diving units. At the time, Rolex was the clear leader in waterproof watch technology, catching the attention of the MOD and marking the first appearance of a military-issued Submariner.
Around 1957, when the MOD was ready to commit to the Submariner, Rolex was several years and several upgraded references into the Submariner’s history. The 6538, which would become known as the Bond Submariner for its time on Sean Connery’s wrist, was made into a MOD-spec version, the A/6538.
According to Mike Wood, one of the world’s preeminent collectors and authorities on MilSubs, the MOD required certain features that would differentiate the civilian and military Subs: fixed bars, requiring a nylon strap and ensuring the watch case isn’t leaving your person without an arm attached to it; a larger bezel, allowing gloved divers more gripping power; and a bezel material of German silver (a copper alloy not containing silver), which would typically dent upon impact, versus cracking or breaking.
The factory-installed dials with luminescent markers powered by radium had to be re-lumed by MOD watchmakers due to their unsafe radioactive levels. Tritium was used for the re-lume, signified by a circled “T” above the depth rating — making this likely the only vintage watch worth just as much or more with a re-finished dial.
It seemed as though the beefed up Submariner was to receive its own reference number, 6540, given the amount of modifications, but, likely due to the small production run, the reference defaulted to A/6538. In fact, documented examples show a crossed-out “6540” stamped inside of the casebacks, with “A/6538” stamped alongside.
After the Omega Seamaster served MOD divers from 1967 to 1971 as the issued watch of choice, the MOD approached Rolex and asked that they produce a reference 5513 Submariner with some of the same modifications found on the Omega. What resulted was three different MilSubs: the 5513, the 5517, and a double-stamped 5513/5517. All examples were to leave the factory with the MOD specs: fixed bars, the tritium “T” on the dial, sword hands, and a 60-minute bezel, which has a hash mark for each of the 60 minutes versus the first 15 minutes on your average diver.
However, over time, many MilSub examples have felt the effects of time and are often found with replaced parts, i.e., Mercedes hands or the standard bezel — a product of servicing. In other cases, the mismatched parts are a sign of an untrustworthy seller pawning off a “Frankenwatch” to naive buyers.
While the three 5513-based MilSubs are very similar, their subtle differences are based on markings and date of release. The early 1970s saw the release of the 5513 MilSub, which, as you can guess, is stamped with a 5513 between the lugs. As the mid-70s wore on, the 5513/5517 began production, adding a small 5517 marking on the backside of one of the lugs — hence the term “double-stamped”. Finally, the most sought-after reference, the 5517, followed the 5513/5517 and replaced the 5513 marking between the 12:00 lugs to simply read “5517.” Clear as mud, right?
The MilSub is one of the priciest vintage Rolex watches, the result of having serious military provenance combined with such low production numbers. All told, from 1971 through 1979, only about 1,200 MilSubs were issued, of which an estimated 180 or so still exist today. Regardless of whether it’s a 5513, 5513/5517, or 5517, purchasing a MilSub takes patience, lots of research, a trustworthy seller, and a healthy bank account. In good condition and with documentation, don’t be surprised to see a MilSub fetch six figures. That’s a lot of coin for a modified Submariner that can only be worn on a nylon strap.
Trying to understand the MilSub from an outsider’s perspective, the high prices and obsessive collectors may seem odd, maybe even ridiculous. But after digging into the details, the picture gets somewhat clearer; the history is there, and it’s nothing short of impressive. Over a short span, MilSubs provided a clear link between watchmaking and world history. As the existing examples get lost with time, the link slowly fades away with them. So, you know what? Forget the Queen. God save the remaining MilSubs.