The Rolex Military Submariner

The Rolex Military Submariner

In 1972 the Rolex Submariner replaced the Omega Seamaster as the watch of choice for its the UK military by the Ministry of Defence (MOD). Military specification Rolex Submariners (often referred to as ‘Milsubs’ by collectors) were then delivered to the British Ministry of Defence (MOD) by the Rolex Watch Company and made available to both the UKSF Special Boat Service (SBS) and Special Air Service (SAS) divers.

The features of the Rolex military Submariner differed to the standard production Rolex Submariner sold by Rolex via their authorised retail outlets, as the military versions were modified to meet the needs of the MOD elite units specific requirements.

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

Due to their use in challenging environments, the survival rate for Milsubs in their original configuration is low. Thus rarity along with their fascinating and important military provenance is the reason they have become so sought after by vintage and military watch collectors.

Rolex Military Submariner

The Model References

The original Rolex military Submariners were issued using 3 different references 5513, 5513/5517 (referred to as a double reference) and 5517. Each reference is engraved as follows:-

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

NOTE: Whereas model reference. 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, and thus has become the most sought after of the 3 references by collectors.

Fixed bars

Full Specification

Each reference of the Rolex military Submariner has the same modified specification:

  • A 600 ft = 200m matt dial with circled T – denoting the use of Tritium within the luminous compound
  • Sword or gladiator Hands – for greater visibility
  • A 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 an admiralty strap
  • Military, crown property and unique issue, case back engravings

As mentioned earlier due to the conditions they were often exposed to, Milsubs would need to be serviced more regularly than their standard civilian counterparts. Unfortunately this resulted in far fewer watches surviving in their original configuration. Watches in original condition with the full military specification as defined above continue therefore to attract significant premiums.

The Dials

The dials of the Rolex issued military Submariner were standard Submariner dials with a circled T added below the hands and before the ‘SUBMARINER’ model designation.

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


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 particular batches of the model ref. 5513 until 1977, and then the last batch of 3.9 million double references (5513/5517) issued in 1979. The ‘non-serif’ dial is most often found on watches with serials in the 3.7 and 3.8 million range. The so-called ‘smudge’ or ‘pre-comex’ dials are generally found on watches issued circa 1976/77. The ‘maxi’ dial will feature on watches issued from 1977 onwards. It should be noted that variations on the above exist, as dials may have been swapped or replaced during servicing, especially by MOD watchmakers.

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 (W10) issue.

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
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 and desirability of the watch.


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

  • Documented provenance from the original owner on his service as well as photographs and 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) and 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 and collectable examples will continue to surface in the market, sans paper. That does not mean they should not be acquired and enjoyed. We would just advise and recommend that you consult with one of a handful of known specialists (ourselves included) who have been collating the model ref, serial, case back and delivery information for many years and should be able to reassure 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, understand or SELL your military watch via:

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