The Ultimate Firearms Destination for the Gun Lifestyle

[VIST] The Submarine Force Museum



At RECOIL, we review every product fairly and without bias. Making a purchase through one of our links may earn us a small commission, and helps support independent gun reviews. Learn More

The Submarine Force Museum is an amazing place for all ages, with an extensive artifact collection. Nowhere else in the United States can the general public visit a nuclear-powered submarine. If you love history and visiting museums, this is a wonderful place to spend a day.

The museum is located in Groton, Connecticut, and was founded on April 11, 1986, 86 years to the day of the birth of America’s submarine force. It’s fully funded and operated by the U.S. Navy and features the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Nautilus. The museum typically receives over 100,000 visitors a year.

PRESERVING THE HISTORY OF AMERICA’S SILENT SERVICE

In 2021, U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander Derek Sutton became the Officer-In-Charge (OIC) of the USS Nautilus. He also serves as the director of the Submarine Force Museum. OIC Sutton is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and is a veteran submariner, having served aboard the USS Louisiana and the USS Florida. 

The “Model Wall” shows the progression of submarine development through the years.

The museum’s leadership and staff are proud of a new educational effort to bring the public and especially children more information about the museum and U.S. Navy’s Silent Service. They’ve visited schools in the Groton area and offered educational activities to children visiting the museum.

Admission is free, and the public is encouraged to explore the museum’s grounds, which contain various historical naval weapon displays. The artifacts include a deck gun, an air-launched anti-submarine weapon, a ballistic missile tube hatch, the SS X-1 submarine, and the Japanese HA-8 submarine. 

There’s also a swimmer delivery vehicle, sections of the disassembled NR-1 submarine, and the sail off the USS George Washington.

The propellers of the USS Nautilus are also located outside, just opposite of the museum building. The outdoor exhibits have plaques with information about the artifacts and their significance. 

One of the largest outdoor exhibits are two steel rings known as “hull rings,” located just above the walkway leading into the main entrance. These rings show the difference in width of an early model submarine, the USS Holland, as compared to a modern submarine, the USS Ohio.

Steel rings known as “Hull Rings” show the diameter of the USS Holland as compared to the USS Ohio.

INDOOR EXHIBITS

Just inside the doors of the main entrance, visitors will find a model featuring Jules Verne’s Nautilus hanging above them. Also located directly near the entrance is a gift shop where you can purchase submarine-related merchandise. 

The museum is assisted by a nonprofit, 501(c)(3) organization known as the Submarine Force Library and Museum Association. This organization operates the gift shop as part of their cooperation with the Submarine Force Museum.

The museum is essentially divided up into two major sections with a main hallway running between them. Visitors are free to take a self-guided tour, and staff members and volunteers are available to answer any questions.

In the northern section of the museum, a small theater offers guests the opportunity to watch a film about submarine history. This section of the museum also has exhibits featuring information about modern submarine technology, submarine activities, and the command structure of the U.S. submarine service. These displays are contained inside of large glass cases.

In the main hallway, exhibits include an interactive submarine model with cutaway sections illustrating the interior of a modern-day sub. A small room located off the main hallway is set up as a mock control room to give you a feel for steering a modern submarine. A second room off the main hallway is a “periscope room” with three periscopes that extend through the roof of the museum. They can be adjusted slightly to give a crosshair view of the area surrounding the museum.

One of the newest displays in the main hallway is a “model wall,” containing various submarine models. All of them are to scale with one another, presenting a progression in submarine development. OIC Sutton pointed out that the exhibit details the various classes of U.S. submarines “chronologically from the Holland up to what we think the Columbia class is going to look like.”

A 1/6th scale cutaway model of the USS Gato

The southern section of the museum has larger-scale artifacts on display. These exhibits include a cutaway display of Bushnell’s Turtle along with a 1/6th scale cutaway model of the USS Gato, an American World War II diesel-powered submarine. The display is fascinating for those interested in World War II naval warfare, as it allows visitors to get a glimpse of the living and working conditions for sailors at the time.

Additional eye-catching exhibits include a WWII submarine “Battle Flag,” a Submarine Rescue Vessel, an assortment of various types of torpedoes, and a Cold War-era Polaris A3 missile display. The Polaris A3 is a sizable exhibit at 32.3 feet in length and 54 inches in width. You’ll pause to wonder how such a large-scale missile could even fit inside of a submarine, but multiple A3 missiles did so. Within the realm of modern submarine warfare, the Polaris A3 is considered to be a relic. 

Cutaway display of Bushnell’s Turtle

The museum is especially proud of their new “Augmented Reality Experience” program. Visitors can utilize their smartphones to access QR codes located on exhibits around the museum. One such code is located on a WWII-era Navy diving helmet display. It allows viewers to bring up additional information about U.S. Navy divers, with a feature that allows visitors to portray themselves inside of a diving helmet. It’s great for children visiting the museum.

World War II-era Navy Diving helmet

BRIEF HISTORY OF THE USS NAUTILUS

Docked in the water next to the museum is the USS Nautilus, which was commissioned on September 30, 1954, and placed under the command of Commander Eugene P. Wilkinson. From the time of its commissioning, the Nautilus was continually breaking submarine records for speed, time spent underwater, and effectiveness in potential combat operations.

During its operational lifetime, the Nautilus underwent various upgrades and proved highly effective at staying at sea and traveling for prolonged distances. With the advent of nuclear propulsion, the need to enter a port became a matter of needing more food and supplies rather than diesel fuel, as was the case in previous submarine models.

USS Nautilus Propellers

On June 9, 1958, the Nautilus began its journey on what’s known as “Operation Sunshine.” The goal was to travel submerged under the North Pole, but due to difficulties navigating through drifting ice, the first attempt was called off.

On July 23, 1958, the Nautilus again set out for a second attempt to travel under the North Pole. The mission was ultimately successful on August 3, 1958, when the Nautilus sailed under the North Pole and surfaced 96 hours later. OIC Sutton explained that the North Pole trip was to prove that the Nautilus could make it and stated that “she was the first vessel” and “the first nuclear-powered vessel to ever make it to the North Pole.”

During the 1960s, the Nautilus became part of the U.S. Sixth Fleet and participated in numerous naval exercises. By the time the Nautilus was decommissioned, the submarine had traveled over 500,000 miles. Despite the fact that the Nautilus was a prototype submarine, it certainly impressed American leadership with its capabilities.

Polaris A3 missile

On March 3, 1980, the Nautilus was decommissioned, and on May 20, 1982, the submarine received a National Historic Landmark designation. The Nautilus’ groundbreakingly safe and effective use of nuclear propulsion would lead to the construction of generations of American nuclear-powered submarines. On July 6, 1985, the Nautilus arrived in Groton, Connecticut, and opened to the public as a museum ship on April 11, 1986.

TOURING THE USS NAUTILUS

For security purposes, all of the displays within the USS Nautilus are kept behind glass cases, and visitors can only tour the forward section of the submarine. The engine room remains off limits to the public as it’s still classified. 

The entrance and exit for the Nautilus are through the deckhouse, located toward the bow of the boat. Upon entering the Nautilus, visitors immediately see the submarine’s torpedo room and a bunk area. Various life-size mannequin displays are located throughout the Nautilus to provide perspective of the working and living conditions in the submarine.

The Nautilus is 319 feet long and had a crew of 116 sailors. Any available space on a submarine, whether on the Nautilus or a modern submarine, is considered very valuable. If a space can be repurposed for multiple tasks, it usually will be. OIC Sutton explained that “the size of the boat is based around its capabilities.”

Jules Verne’s Nautilus

Proceeding toward the midsection of the Nautilus, you’ll find the galley, the chief’s quarters, and enlisted sailors’ bunkrooms. A battery well is visible through a glass hatch in the floor, which could provide backup power if required. The crew’s mess is a large room typically used for dining but can also be used for relaxing, studying, training, meetings, religious services, and casualty staging.

A very important safety issue for submariners is the ability to get fresh air during an emergency, such as in the event of a fire. Therefore, the Emergency Air Breathing (EAB) mask was developed. 

It’s fed through a hose that connects into a manifold. Special hard piped pressurized air tanks keep fresh air available, and EAB manifolds can be found running throughout the Nautilus. The system was developed during preparations for the Nautilus’s North Pole mission. The concern was that if there was an emergency while under the ice, the Nautilus wouldn’t be able to surface. Modern submarines still utilize EAB systems.

World War II submarine “Battle Flag”

Inside the attack center, there’s an Officer-Of-the-Deck (OOD) display that features a uniformed mannequin looking through one of the Nautilus’s periscopes. This is the command center for the submarine. The Nautilus was outfitted with a specialized brass speaker called a voice tube located toward the forward section of the attack center. It was designed to relay orders to the control room below.

In addition to larger-scale weaponry like torpedoes, the Nautilus also has a small arms locker aboard. It contains an assortment of shotguns and rifles, which were available for personnel carrying out security while in port. To this day, modern submarines carry small arms for security purposes.

The Captain’s stateroom and XO’s stateroom are located in close proximity to the wardroom and other officer staterooms. The wardroom is primarily used as an officer’s dining room but can also accommodate small meetings or small training sessions. Visitors aren’t permitted further aft of the forward compartment.

The Nautilus remained in the water from 1986 to 2002, when the submarine underwent maintenance in dry dock, then again from 2021 to 2022. OIC Sutton emphasized that the Nautilus “should not have to go back into the dry dock for another 30 years.” 

Enter Your E-Mail to Receieve a Free 50-Target Pack from RECOIL!

NEXT STEP: Download Your Free Target Pack from RECOIL

For years, RECOIL magazine has treated its readers to a full-size (sometimes full color!) shooting target tucked into each big issue. Now we've compiled over 50 of our most popular targets into this one digital PDF download. From handgun drills to AR-15 practice, these 50+ targets have you covered. Print off as many as you like (ammo not included).

Get your pack of 50 Print-at-Home targets when you subscribe to the RECOIL email newsletter. We'll send you weekly updates on guns, gear, industry news, and special offers from leading manufacturers - your guide to the firearms lifestyle.

You want this. Trust Us.



Add a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to the Free
Newsletter