The Rolex Military Submariner

During the 1970s, military specification Rolex Submariners (often referred to as Milsubs by collectors) were delivered to the British Ministry of Defence (MOD) by the Rolex Watch Company & made available to both the UKSF Special Boat Service (SBS) & Special Air Service (SAS) divers.

The features of the Rolex Military Submariner or Milsub differed to the standard production Rolex Submariner sold by Rolex via authorised retail outlets, as the military versions had been modified to meet the needs of the MODs elite units specific requirements, thus replacing the previously supplied Omega 300 Seamaster as the MODs approved dive watch.

Approximately 1200 modified military spec Rolex Submariners were delivered by Rolex to the Royal Navy & British Army between 1972 & 1979.

Because they were used in such challenging environments, the survival rate for watches in their original configuration is low, thus rarity along with their fascinating & important military provenance is the reason they have become so sought after by vintage watch collectors.

Rolex Military Submariner

The Model References

The original Rolex Military Submariner’s were issued using 3 different references 5513, 5513/5517 (Double Ref) & 5517. Each engraved as follows:-

5513 (engraved between the lugs at 12:00)
5513/5517 (5513 engraved between the lugs at 12:00 & 5517 engraved under the 7:00 lug)
5517 (engraved between the lugs at 12:00)

NOTE: Whereas model ref. 5513 was a modified version of the existing standard production Rolex Submariner. Model ref. 5517 was unique to the military Submariner. This particular model reference was never sold commercially & hence is the most sought after of the 3 references by collectors.

Fixed bars

Full Specification

Each reference of the Rolex Military Submariner had the same modified specification:

  • Matt Dial with circled T logo – denoting the use of Tritium within the luminous compound
  • Sword or Gladiator Hands – for greater visibility
  • Continually graduated 60 minute bezel – for more accurate measurement of time underwater
  • Anti reflective satin case finish
  • Military fixed bars – for enhanced durability, to be used in conjunction with a NATO strap
  • Military, crown property & unique issue, case back engravings

As mentioned earlier due to the environments they were often exposed to, Milsubs would often need to be serviced more regularly than their standard civilian counterparts. Unfortunately this has resulted in far fewer watches surviving with their original configuration, thus affecting their value. Watches in original condition with the full military specification as defined above continue to be the most sought after.

The Dials

The dials of the Rolex issued military Submariner were standard Submariner dials with a circled T (denoting the use of tritium) added below the hands & before the ‘SUBMARINER’ model designation.

Between 1972 & 1979 4 versions of dials were used, as follows:-

Serif

Non Serif

Smudge Crown

Maxi Mk 1

The different dial types were not exclusive to any particular model reference, but were relevant to the date of issue of the watch. For example a Serif dial should really be found on certain batches of the model ref. 5513 until 77 & the last batch of 5513/5517 (double ref). A Smudge & Maxi dial will feature on watches issued post 77. (unless the dial was changed on an earlier watch during service)

Outer Case Backs

The outer case back on a correct full specification Rolex Milsub will be engraved, depending on whether it was a British Navy (0552) or British Army issue (W10).

Contrary to popular belief all watches would have been used for diving, as although the W10 deliveries were Army or SAS issue, during the 1970s both units were trained divers, thus the watches were available to divers of either unit.

0552 (RN MOD service code)
923-7697 (NATO code for divers watches)
Broad Arrow
Issue Number / Year for Issue
OR
W10 (MOD code for the Army)
6645 (NATO code for time measuring instruments)
99 (NATO code UK)
923-7697 (NATO code for divers watches)
Broad Arrow
Issue Number / Year for Issue

Milsub engravings

Inner Case Backs

The inner case back on a correct Rolex Milsub will include the following engravings:-

  • Model ref. ‘5513’
  • Date of case/case back manufacture
  • Serial number matching the case (depending on the particular batch. Some known batches did not have the case serial number engraved in the case back)

IMPORTANT: Milsubs sometimes surface with mis-matching serials in the case back, meaning that at some point the case back of one Milsub was incorrectly fitted to the case of another during service by MOD or independent watchmaker. Whilst the mistake is easy to understand, it has a significant impact on the value & desirability of the watch.

Documentation

The original 1970s Military Rolex Submariner special deliveries to the MOD for issue to the UKSF were not delivered with the traditional box & papers which occupy the standard model Submariners sold via retailers. However some later documentation can accompany watches, which is interesting to collectors. This is either in the form of:

  • Documented provenance from the original owner on his service as well as photographs & dive logs. It must be noted though that due to the covert nature of the original owners occupation many prefer to remain anonymous, thus documentation is not easy to acquire.
  • Rolex delivery confirmation letters signed by the former general manager of Rolex UK, Henry Hudson.

In the 1970s it was Mr Hudson’s department who were responsible for delivering the military spec Submariner to the UK military. Although later assuming the post of general manager of Rolex UK, he still retained the original delivery information for each of the issued watches (serial, case back number, unit or dockyard) & until his retirement a few years ago would kindly provide the information where available to owners of the watch via a signed letter on Rolex headed paper.

Unfortunately since his retirement this service is no longer possible. Rolex no longer confirm the original delivery information. Whilst watches with the HH papers as they are referred to do not carry a significant financial premium, collectors like the re-assurance relating to the original issue, that it offers. However perfectly correct & collectable examples will continue to surface in the market, sans paper. That does not mean they should not be acquired & enjoyed. We would just advise & recommend that you consult with one of a handful of known specialists (ourselves included) who have been collating the model ref, serial, case back & delivery information for many years & should be able to re-assure you regarding the batch that your watch belongs to and any specific nuances you should expect to find.

We are always interested to hear from collectors or original owners who have a vintage Rolex, Omega or Blancpain watch which was issued by the military or used during military service.

Please do not hesitate to contact us should you wish to discuss selling your watch via sales@vintage-db.com or +44 7977 469 568

Milsub advert

4 thoughts on “Introducing the Rolex Milsub

  1. Ray Fox says:

    It is so sad that since Mr.Hudson has retired, this service is no longer available. I would have thought that providing this information for collectors and researchers was vital in retaining excellent customer relations.
    i am afraid that Rolex are now so large, that personal service is fast becoming a “lost art”.
    Long live vintage watches and gentlemen like Mr.Hudson.

  2. Giuliano Bizziocchi says:

    Great site. I own a milsub W10 and did not have the case serial number engraved in the case back.
    Can you help me to be sure that the back was not incorrectly fitted to the case of another?
    In your article it is written : ” Some known batches did not have the case serial number engraved in the case back)
    Of course I can provide the serial number. If the service cost, I am ready to pay for it.
    Thanks for your kind reply. Giuliano from Italy

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