The Military Issue Rolex Submariner or "Milsub" as it has become known is a collector's item for one very good reason: unlike most Submariner timepieces, these watches were never available for public sale. They were created, manufactured and distributed solely for military use. The manual issued to divers and other military personnel often include references to the Rolex watches that were part of the standard issue for these military personnel. Today, people are willing to pay good sums to own one of these pieces of history.
The BR 2806 Military Diving Manual, known as the "Diver's Bible," makes mention of the Rolex in the 1972 issue. According to Section 3334 of this book, divers were issued a Rolex as part of their standard equipment. Divers are reminded that all watches were to be check "before and after use" for possible cracked glass which could prove to be dangerous. However, since these watches were rated to at least 200 meters, it is likely that few divers ever faced this problem.
The Rolex Milsub was used by both "clearance" divers who engaged in shallow, attack-type swimming as well as deep, minehunting divers.
The Reference 5517 was specific to the Submariners ordered for the military and was not available to the public for sale. Today, the 5517 is a much sought-after Rolex due to its rarity.
However, the Holy Grail of Military Submariner Rolex watches is the 5513. This watch was created particularly for the Royal Navy in the 1970s. Conventional wisdom says that approximately 1200 watches were manufactured, but unfortunately many of them did not survive in their original form.
The 5513 was also made especially for the Navy and was supplied to divers in 1976. This watch featured solid bars fitted into the nylon strap so that divers could attach to the swimboard (a rectangular piece of equipment that measures depth and includes a compass). Navy divers used swimboards for basic navigational purposes, particularly when they were swimming underwater to implant mines or attack ships. This watch also contains less metallic material so that it would not influence or be influenced by mines containing magnetic material.
The Royal Navy Milsub has some special identifying factors that make it easy to spot if you are fortunate enough to find one. These special modifications include:
The 5513 and 5517 were delivered to the military in well-identified and documented batches. Serial numbers for these watches were recorded, so it is possible to find one and trace its history, although there is no guarantee of this. The caseback numbers may vary with delivery date, so it is important to compare the watch to the known information about serial numbers to determine authenticity. Further, some watches were issued with Mercedes hands and some with 15 minute bezels rather than the 60 minute variety. A few 5517s were issued as a double reference 5513/5517.
To help keep things straight, it may be helpful to remember the following facts:
One other Milsub that has gained popularity is the COMEX 5514. These watches were made specifically for combat situations and many have seen hard duty. However, the correct Milsub designation is applied to the Rolex 5513 and 5517 issued to the Royal Navy.
Finding a Milsub reference 5513 or 5517 is not easy. Since so few of these watches were made, there are even fewer of them available for sale. Collectors tend to hoard them to a certain extent, although you may find one as the result of an estate sale. In order to keep the price reasonable on one of these collector pieces, it may be necessary to be patient.
Engaging the services of a reputable dealer is never more important than when you are thinking of buying a relatively rare Rolex. In addition, it is usually wise to demand documentation from Rolex Geneva or Rolex UK before accepting a Rolex Milsub as "real." There are many convincing fakes on the market since they are expensive timepieces, so it is important to do business with a reputable dealer if you want to ensure that your Rolex Milsub is genuine and to demand proof that the watch is genuine.
There is another good reason to research your Rolex. These watches have a fascinating history and each has its own special story to tell. Find out the history of your own Rolex Submariner!