Say MilSub to some watch enthusiasts and you might get an inquisitive glance. But say MilSub to a MilSub fanatic and they most probably will need a bib to maintain dry that freshly pressed shirt they put on this morning.
The Rolex MilSub or military Submariner was produced in the 70’s in very small quantities, estimates varying between a 1000 and 1200, with less than 200 believed to still be in existence. That is precisely why a Rolex MilSub in good condition with perfect ancestry, can push you into the six-figure range. An impressive dollar increases when you consider that originally the Rolex MilSub was merely a piece of standard issue equipment for the British Ministry of Defense divers (MOD).
The MilSubs history, although produced in the 70’s, began much earlier during WWII. Underwater offensives were waged frequently during WWII and the British were one of the earliest militaries, along with the Italians who wore Panerai watches, to utilize divers for ongoing offensive and defensive missions. After the war the MOD realized that a hearty and reliable dive watch was a must for such units.
At the time Rolex was clearly the leader in waterproof watch technology so naturally The Ministry of Defense went knocking on Rolex door. Around 1957 MOD was ready to commit after the Submariner had already gone through several upgraded references. The Ministry of Defense had requested several features which would distinguish it from a normal Submariner. Ref. 6538 which was by now known as the Bond Sub, was made into the spec version going by ref. A6538.
Changes on the 6538 included a larger bezel allowing it to be easily operated with gloved hands, a bezel made of German silver, a material which would generally dent instead of crack upon impact, and fixed bars so the Military Submariner could only be worn on a strap insuring its return to the surface with the diver. The luminescent factory installed dials whose luminescence was powered by radium had to be replaced because of high radiation levels. Tritium was the new material chosen and such dials are marked with an encircled “T” above the depth rating mark. Probably making the MilSub the only vintage Rolex worth more with a refinished dial.
It was never given its own reference number probably due to the low production numbers so it defaulted to ref. A/6538. There are however documented cases showing a crossed out stamped “ref 6540 ” inside the case back with “A/6538″stamped alongside it.
The Omega Seamaster was the MOD issued watch between 1967 and 1971 after which they approached Rolex asking them to produce a Submariner ref. 5513 incorporating some of the modifications found on the Omega Seamaster. Out of all of that came 3 references, 5513 ,5517, and a double stamped 5513/5517 all with same specs of fixed bars, tritium “T” on the dial, sword hands, a 60-minute bezel with hash marks for all 60 minutes, instead of the usual first 15 seconds as is found on most dive watches.
So, if you have now been bitten by the MilSub bug, even after all that confusion, it is one of those watches you have you really do your homework on. With such a small production run and so few left in the world, many have been modified with newer bezel inserts all the way to installing Mercedes hands. But if you happen across the real deal one day rest assured, you have become a member of a very small club indeed.