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This Affordable Dive Watch Was a 1950s Prototype for the U.S. Navy

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Photo by Johnny Brayson

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We go hands-on with Bulova’s modern reissue of the MIL-SHIPS-W-2181.

In the 1950s, dive watches were still a novel idea. The Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, with its high depth rating, rotating bezel and luminous hands and indices, had only debuted in 1953, built at the request of the French Navy. But Blancpain was a small company and wasn’t capable of producing dive watches for all the world’s militaries that needed them. The first Rolex MilSub went into action in 1957, enlisted by the British Military. Also in 1950s, the U.S. Navy went in search of its own diver for its fledgling frogmen.

In late 1955, the American Navy’s Bureau of Ships created Contract Specification: Wristwatch Submersible, MIL-SHIPS-W-2181 that stipulated the requirements needed for its divers’ wristwatches. The wishlist will look familiar to anyone familiar with modern dive watches: legibility in the dark, a rotating bezel and water tightness to a certain depth, among other requirements. Naturally, the Navy turned to an American company, Bulova, to make the watch.

In 1957, Bulova delivered the first MIL-SHIPS-W-2181 prototypes to the Navy’s experimental diving unit for testing. Several more prototypes were delivered between 1957 and 1958, and by all accounts, the Bulovas withstood the Navy’s battery of tests and were on the fast-track to becoming the Navy’s first purpose-built modern mil-spec diver. But by 1959, Bulova, for reasons that aren’t full known, pulled out of contention and designed not to produce dive watches for the Navy. As a result, a production version of the Bulova MIL-SHIPS never materialized, and only a few prototypes survive today.

But in 2021, Bulova decided to resurrect the MIL-SHIPS, creating for the first time a production version of the mid-century watch that so impressed the U.S. Navy. Using the surviving originals for inspiration, the new MIL-SHIPS faithfully recreated the 1950s prototype, only altering and modernizing aspects that really needed to be altered and modernized. I was intrigued by the MIL-SHIPS story and, attracted by its sub-$1,000 price tag, wanted to see if this retro military diver can cut it as a modern watch or if it should’ve been left in the Eisenhower era.

Bulova MIL SHIPS: What We Think

The Bulova MIL SHIPS is one of the best watches Bulova has produced in years. It has a killer retro design that reads as authentic, and that’s due to the watch’s prototype ancestor and real mid-century military provenance. It’s also funky, with features like a locking push-to-turn bezel, massive double-domed crystal, skinny strap and functioning moisture indicator all providing lots of charm at a very reasonable price.

Like any watch, it isn’t perfect though. That crystal makes the matte black dial hard to read, that strap is too long and hard to replace, and the lume is far below where it should be for a dive watch. But overall, there aren’t many watches that are as charming or that have a history as interesting as the MIL SHIPS for under a thousand bucks.



It’s tough to beat a mid-century mil-spec diver when it comes to cool factor, and this Bulova has coolness to spare. Based on a 1950s prototype diver for the U.S. Navy, the MIL SHIPS is loaded with period-correct quirks you simply won’t find on any other modern watch.


Case Size



Miyota 82S0 automatic

Water Resistance



Rare mid-century mil-spec provenance most brands would kill for

Functioning moisture indicator and other unique quirks

Looks like a Blancpain Fifty Fathoms for about 1/20 the price

Suprisingly comfortable for being rather large


Giant domed crystal is crazy reflective

Hard to find straps to fit the 16mm lug width

The crown could stand to be a bit bigger

Lume is about as bad as lume gets

It’s damn cool

Old-school military divers are about as cool as cool watches get. The Fifty Fathoms, the MilSub and ’60s-era Omega Seamaster 300s all rank near the top of most watch enthusiasts’ lists with regards to looks and heritage, and the Bulova MIL SHIPS makes for a fitting affordable replacement for those unattainable unicorns.

The watch looks the business. It has obvious Fifty Fathoms DNA — even though Blancpain had nothing to do with its production, it’s clear the two came from the same era and were built for the same purpose. With its thin strap, it’s also got a little bit of that “Dr. No Submariner on the too-small NATO strap” thing going for it. It’s retro and rugged, with its blasted 41mm stainless steel case and drilled lugs, and is clearly meant to be used as a tool.

But it’s also quite attractive with its symmetrical dial and bezel and with the warm fauxtina tones playing against the black of the dial and bezel. The bezel is especially beautiful. It has an anodized aluminum insert that reads warm, and the inner and outer steel rings of the bezel really pop when hit with light.

It’s not hard to imagine 1950s Navy divers strapping this Bulova on their wrist; the watch definitely has that X factor.Photo by Johnny Brayson

The lume is atrocious

The MIL SHIPS is a dive watch. Dive watches, typically speaking, have the best lume of any genre of watch. It’s historically been a requirement for mil-spec divers especially, in the tradition of watches like the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, to have luminous hands and hour markers and at least the pip on the bezel lumed, if not the entire bezel. The MIL SHIPS has lume on its pip, its hands and its hour markers — but it is so faint and so weak that I found myself questioning whether it was there or not.

My first few days with the watch, I thought it had no lume. In the dark, it was completely invisible. It was only after charging the lume in direct light for a time and immediately transitioning the watch to a pitch-black space was I able to make out the faintest hint of a glow, and even then it was so light that it could have been my eyes playing tricks on me.

Point blank, the MIL SHIPS has the worst lume of any watch I’ve handled that professes to have lume. I have no idea why that is — The original from the ’50s had tritium lume and I’m sure it glowed just fine — and I would happily pay a few bucks more to get some functioning lume on this watch. If Swatch can make the Blancpain x Swatch Scuba Fifty Fathoms glow like a torch, then I don’t see why Bulova can’t do the same with the MIL SHIPS.

The many quirks make it interesting

The MIL SHIPS is a weird watch, and I mean that in a (mostly) good way. Its adherence to the blueprint established by the original 1950s prototype is beyond admirable: It would’ve been easier for Bulova to replace some of its more unusual quirks with more mainstream features, but it didn’t do that.

I’ll give you some examples. First, there’s a functioning moisture indicator on the dial. An old mil-spec standard seen on some military-issued dive watches of the period, this piece of paper will change color if moisture gets onto the dial, letting you know your watch is compromised. It’s a feature you’ll hopefully never use and that Bulova could’ve omitted or faked without many raising a fuss, but they didn’t.

Next is the bezel. You’re thinking dive bezel, it’s probably unidirectional and ratcheted. But you’d be wrong. Instead, the bezel is a locking bidirectional bezel that must be pushed down and turned to unlock. It’s sort of like opening a childproof pill bottle and is a carryover from the original prototype. It may not offer the tactile, fidget-friendly feedback of a normal dive bezel, but I enjoyed the novelty of it and actually found it to be both easy to operate and quite useful.

Then there’s the strap. Despite being a 41mm watch, the lug width is just 16mm. That is quite tiny, and in images, I thought the watch would look absurd on its tiny strap. But in the metal, it actually looks quite good and provides a sort of retro flair that suits the watch perfectly. A 20mm lug width would make the watch appear more modern, but the slim 16mm strap suits it better for what Bulova is going for.

Now, that’s not to say the 16mm strap is perfect. I found the included single-pass nylon strap to be a bit rough to the touch and too long, and the keeper — a single bulky piece of fabric — was difficult to use properly. It’s also worth noting that shopping for 16mm aftermarket straps is no picnic, as they’re a lot harder to find than 18, 20 or 22mm straps.

The crystal is fun but annoying