Bulova Brings Back The MIL-SHIPS With New W-2181

Back in February 1958, under the heading of Project NS186-200, three pre-production samples of a new Bulova ‘submersible wristwatch’ were delivered into the charge of the US Navy’s Lieutenant Commander W F Searle in Building 214 in Washington Navy Yard. They were there to undergo trials of  ‘watertightness, readability in darkness and various subjective tests…’  They’d be tested at 392ft in the lab and then on some working dives to be checked for watertightness, usability and legibility. This was the second trial of the new watch; the first had been in May 1957.

Two of the three failed; the watches had a tell-tale patch on the dial that would change colour if moisture entered the case and, although there was no sign of moisture and the watches ran happily, the patches changed.


Bulova, perhaps mindful of the cost of yet again re-engineering the cases and seals to pass (LCDR Searle also recommended re-siting the winding crown to make it less vulnerable), quietly shelved the idea, put the prototypes on a shelf.

The firm has now remedied their failure in the late fifties and relaunched the MIL-SHIPS-W-2181 in two models; an $895 version powered by a self-winding Miyota 82S0 and a 1,000 watch limited run with a Sellita SW200 at $1,990. No need to be worried this time – Bulova have given it a 200m water resistance rating and, let’s face it, like so many things, seals and engineering today have come on a long way since the 1950s.

There’s a lot to like about this new Bulova. For a start – and to state the bleeding obvious – it’s a diver’s watch and who doesn’t like divers’ watches? The very nature of them means there’s no need to wrap them in cotton wool and worry – just wear and enjoy. In fact, a few scratches and dings just improve them – scratches on a diver are cool.


The 41mm case, relatively thick at 16mm deep (14.5mm on the Miyota movement watch), is media-blasted, so even if you’re scratch-phobic, they won’t show up as badly as on a mirror-polished finish. 41mm back in 1957 was a seriously chunky watch, one designed to do a job. Most everyday watches around at the time were around 36mm.

The lugs are drilled, so strap changes don’t require major surgery, just a paper clip if you don’t have a strap tool. Interesting choice of lug width from Bulova though – 16mm. It’s following the design of the original 1950s watch – it’d be fascinating to know why Bulova chose it back then. The MIL’s lugs are substantial enough to not look out of place and 16mm NATO straps are easy to come by, so you won’t be restricted.

The caseback is where things get interesting. For a start, there’s the diver’s helmet motif and model name on the inner part. There’s also, if you opt for the limited edition, the /1000 individual number. Then, rather than going for a conventional screw-down back, Bulova have opted for a two-piece case back. We haven’t taken a case-opener to it, but it looks as though there’s a separate locking ring that snugs the case back itself down to the case. If that’s right, it’s a cracking good design. Conventional screwbacks always put a torsional strain on sealing rings (one of the reasons to use gasket grease when you put a caseback on), so using a locking ring and a separate back is much neater engineering. It’d be interesting to take an opener to it and see how Bulova have used seals; have they gone for the thick, flat Vostok-style seal or tried something different?

The front of the case carries the bezel. It’s aluminium with SuperLuminova lume, which will be a great deal more robust than the original acrylic and a lot less likely to make you glow in the dark; the 1950s watch used radium. Unusually, rather than just giving the bezel a twist, you push this one in to unlock and then turn it, just like the original. Again, it’s a neat and different piece of engineering.

Then there’s the crystal. If it was any more domed you could probably set up home underneath it. It adds a huge amount of presence to the watch. Again, the domed crystal was a feature of the original MIL, but Bulova have ditched the original acrylic and gone for an updated sapphire.

You could probably publish some modern diving watch dials in paperback, there’s so much verbiage on them, but the MIL’s carries just three words; the maker’s name and the country of manufacture. The rest is pure clarity. The lume looks as though it’s just walked out of a 1950s bar, cigarette in hand, but it’s absolutely modern – SuperLuminova makes an ‘old radium’ shade  that fits the MIL well. And, just like the original, the dial has a sensitive paper moisture tell-tale. This changes colour if the case is breached and moisture gets inside – so no need to wait for the whole thing to steam up, just check the tell-tale.

The limited edition watch arrives in a case styled to look similar to the caseback’s diving helmet whereas the ‘standard’ model comes in a neat box. The Sellita-powered watch has a black NATO, the Miyota a blue, slightly thinner strap.

If a watch like this floats your boat (sorry), getting your hands on an original prototype will require midnight negotiations at a crossroads with a bloke with horns and a tail – and even then we don’t fancy your chances. The ‘new’ MIL-SHIPS is a rather simpler way of doing it. The $895 and $1,990 are canny choices of price too. One for the serious milwatch/Bulova//vintage diver collectors and the other for enthusiasts who simply like the look of the watch and fancy something different. Bulova

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Mark developed a passion for watches at a young age. At 9, he was gifted an Omega Time Computer manual from a local watch maker and he finagled Rolex brochures from a local dealer. Today, residing in the Oxfordshire village of Bampton, Mark brings his technical expertise and robust watch knowledge to worn&wound.
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