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Rolex Milsub - 5 Affordable Alternatives to the Military Submariner

Posted on October 07 2021

Rolex Milsub Homage Watches

When I encourage buyers on a budget to get a homage model I'm often told the same things.

"Just save up for the watch you really want".

"Don't be a cheapskate! Buy the luxury watch"

"If you can't afford it - tough!"

But there are many legitimate reasons for buying an affordable alternative or homage model. And Rolex's Milsub pretty much covers them all.

It was released in small numbers and very few still exist. The price? A nice example will cost you six figures.

And even if you wanted a modern Rolex Submariner, they're now so expensive that they're out of the reach of many.

So this is a perfect case for shopping for a similar watch at a fraction of the price.

Let's see why the Rolex Military Submariner is so desirable and then I'll show you five affordable alternatives.

Why is the Rolex Milsub so Expensive?


All the most desirable watches have an interesting backstory and that is true of the Rolex Military Submariner. A brief look at its history will explain why the watch is a holy grail for many.

By the 1950s Rolex was well-established as a dive watch manufacturer. The Submariner was released in 1954, a year after the Blancpain Fifty-Fathoms and Zodiac Sea Wolf.

Britain's Ministry of Defence had taken note and in 1957 Rolex began supplying the MOD with watches for the military.

The Royal Navy began wearing the Rolex Submariner.

Then something happened that answers the question about why the Rolex Milsub is so expensive. The MOD requested that Rolex make changes to the watch. They had ideas about how the watch could be improved for use by the Navy.

Imagine that happening now? A client dictating to Rolex how a watch should look and function. This in itself makes for an interesting story.

After a few iterations, the MOD had the watch that they needed.

The modifications included:

  • A larger bezel with 60 minutes of markers
  • Sword hands
  • Fixed strap bars

The larger bezel - now made of German silver - was easier to turn with gloves. The additional minute markers also made it easier to read. It was also more durable.

The sword hands were bigger than the previous Mercedes style. This allowed for more lume to be applied. The lume was tritium so a letter 'T' was also added to the dial.

And the fixed strap bars? Welded-in bars were much stronger than spring bars. However, it does mean that the Milsub can only be worn with a NATO-style strap.

Those changes and the fact that it was issued to the military would make this a very desirable watch. But there's more.

Only 1200 were ever issued. Many of these were lost, damaged or repaired with the use of none-Rolex parts. Less than 200 watches exist now.

So this watch ticks a number of boxes. It's a dive watch. It was issued to the military. The changes requested by the MOD give it a distinctive appearance. And it's incredibly scarce.



The Five Best Rolex Milsub Alternatives


Let's be honest. You'll not be buying an original. So what are your alternatives? I'd suggest that it's either a modern Rolex Submariner or a watch that recreates the styling of the original MilSub.

There aren't many watches that do that. But here is my list of five watches that pay homage to this handsome and rare Rolex.

Walter Mitt Royal Marine Milsub Homage Watch

The first watch that I'd like to highlight closely resembles the Rolex, without being an outright homage.

I can't decide if the brand name is ironic. Walter Mitty did indulge in fantasies where he imagined being much more exciting than he actually was. But maybe it's just an unfortunate choice. Either way, this is a great place to start with a Milsub alternative.

It certainly looks the part. The details aren't exact, but the rough aesthetic is right. It's been given an aged look too. That's not for everyone, but it works for me.

It's surprising how much this Chinese watch reminds me of the Rolex without any of the details being historically accurate. The bezel doesn't have the minute markers and, on this model, the sword hands aren't like the Milsub.

The dial markers are a little different too.

But that is ok. It's not mimicking the Rolex too closely. But it is recreating a vintage Rolex look.

As for specs, they're pretty good. It has a reliable Japanese automatic movement, an Italian leather strap and a domed acrylic crystal that consolidates the vintage appeal.

This looks like a vintage piece and would be a great choice if you don't want an exact homage.

Walter Mitt Royal Marine

  • 39.5mm Diameter
  • 14.8mm Thick
  • 20mm Lug Width
  • Stainless Steel
  • Automatic Movement
  • Domed Mineral Crystal
  • 100M Water Resistance


MWC 1982 Diver's Watch

The next watch on my list is from MWC - it stands for Military Watch Company.

I'm biased here. As an Authorised Dealer of the Swiss company, I may not be best placed to judge them. Still, I think the watch should be on this list.

MWC is known for producing classic military watches. This has included the British Army G10 and W10 and their remakes of US watches from the Vietnam era.

Although you're after watches that recreate the Rolex Milsub style, this is an updated version of a watch from MWC's back catalogue. Their original was released in 1982 and conformed to the MOD specification for automatic divers watches - DEF STAN 66-4 [Part 1] Issue 3.

In practice that resulted in a watch that looks like a Rolex Submariner clone.

This variant - and they do several - most resembles the Milsub. It has sword style hands, an aged-looking lume and has a non-date dial. There's also a circled T logo which is a nice touch.

Like the Walter Mitt, this model is also powered by a Japanese automatic movement. This time the ever-popular NH35A.

It's mid-sized with a 40mm case, has a 20mm NATO strap and a sapphire crystal. Unlike the Walter Mitt, this is a legitimate diver's watch with 300M of water resistance.

The 1982 Diver from MWC gives you the Milsub aesthetic, but with a little of its own history too.

MWC 1982 DIV/82SS/AU/ND

  • 40mm Diameter
  • 15mm Thick
  • 20mm Lug Width
  • Stainless Steel
  • Japanese Automatic Movement
  • Sapphire Crystal
  • 300M Water Resistance

 


Squale 20 Atmos Militaire 1545 Watch

Before creating their own dive watches, Squale made its name supplying cases to the likes of Blancpain, Sinn, Tag Heuer, Doxa and Zeno. Now Italian-owned, the brand still produces Swiss-made watches.

This is their homage to the Rolex Milsub.

If you have a bigger budget, the Squale is a step up from the previous two watches. It's Swiss-made, has a Swiss ETA movement and has been upgraded to include a ceramic bezel.

Again, it has retro-looking lume. I'm a fan, but I understand that it's not for everyone. Everything else is close to the Rolex. It has bold sword hands and the typical Submariner case.

But it does have a date window. Ideally, I'd have preferred a non-date version, but like the MWC, this isn't an exact replica of the Rolex.

As you'd expect, the size is comfortable. It's 40mm wide and less than 14mm thick. The sapphire crystal is domed to enhance the vintage appeal and there is 200M of water resistance.

Squale were a Swiss brand that worked with some of the biggest names in the industry. They're now owned by the Italian family that distributed their watches in Italy. So there is some real watchmaking heritage here.

The 20 Atmos is pricier than the first two watches. But it's Swiss-made and Swiss-powered. That counts for a lot.

Squale 20 Atmos Militaire 1545

  • 40mm Diameter
  • 13.5mm Thick
  • 20mm Lug Width
  • Stainless Steel
  • Swiss Automatic Movement
  • Domed Sapphire Crystal
  • 200M Water Resistance


Steinhart Ocean Vintage Military

German brand Steinhart made its name releasing higher-end Rolex homage watches. It was the company's bread and butter. Not so much now, but you'll still see Rolex DNA among Steinhart's collections.

The Ocean Vintage Military is one such watch. The inspiration is clear. A real attempt has been made to recreate the Milsub's styling. And it's successful. Of the watches on my list, this is the most faithful to the original.

It doesn't just recreate the ethos of Rolex's military dive watch, it includes the small details. For example, the text on the dial is very similar. Although the circled T is now a circled 1.

But the bezel is correct. It includes the important minute markers specified by the MOD. And the hands too. They're big, bold and filled with an aged-looking lume.

And there's no date window. That preserves the dial symmetry that worked so well on the original.

Again, all this detail and the high specs come with a slightly raised price. But it's probably less than you'd expect. Particularly, when you factor in the Swiss ETA movement and Swiss-made label.

This is the most authentic recreation of the Rolex Milsub. And it's very affordable.

Steinhart Ocean Vintage Military OVM39

  • 42mm Diameter
  • 14mm Thick
  • 22mm Lug Width
  • Stainless Steel
  • Swiss Automatic Movement
  • Sapphire Crystal
  • 300M Water Resistance


Cooper Submaster Milsub Homage Watch

The Cooper Submaster is another Chinese release that hints at the Milsub without trying to copy the design.

It's a cheap and cheerful watch that you can pick up for a little over £100. It's the most inexpensive way to get the vintage Submariner styling.

And the specs aren't bad either.

Like the Walter Mitt, it's powered by a Miyota automatic movement. It's a calibre - the 8215 - that you'll see in more expensive watches. Along with the mineral crystal and 200M of water resistance, this makes for a good everyday watch.

Stylistically, nothing jumps out. It's a Submariner homage, with sword hands and a bezel with minute markers.

It has a date window and the dial markers are similar, but not the same, as the Rolex.

If you're shopping on a tight budget for a Milsub style watch, this could be your answer. It's not authentic or flash, but it still represents good value for money.

Cooper Submaster SM8017

  • 40mm Diameter
  • 13mm Thick
  • 20mm Lug Width
  • Stainless Steel
  • Japanese Automatic Movement
  • Sapphire Crystal
  • 200M Water Resistance


Conclusion


There are many reasons why some watches become collectable. Rolex's Military Submariner, or Milsub, seems to have ticked a few of the most important boxes.

It's made by the world's most coveted watch manufacturer. It was issued to the military and it is incredibly scarce. Taken together, that gives you a watch priced around the same price as a house.

It's not a watch many of us could ever own.

Buying a homage watch is the obvious answer. A watch that recreates the Milsub style but at a much more affordable price.

This list contains my five favourites. It includes inexpensive Chinese models and a couple of higher-spec Swiss-made watches.

Let me know what you think about these watches in the comments below.


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