The Way You Tell Who's Who in the Military
by Jim Garamone
[American Forces Press Service (22 Nov 1999)]
One big problem throughout military history has been identifying
who's in charge. From the earliest days of warfare to the
present, special rank badges meant survival. In the heat of
battle, knowing who to listen to was as important as the fighting
skills soldiers and sailors developed. They had to know at a
glance whose shouted orders to obey.
In the earliest times, rank was not an issue. "Do what Grog says"
was enough so long as everyone knew Grog. As armies and navies
started growing, however, that kind of intimacy wasn't possible.
The badge of rank, therefore, became important. Today's Army,
Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard rank insignia are
the result of thousands of years of tradition.
Through the ages, the badge of ranks have included such symbols
as feathers, sashes, stripes and showy uniforms. Even carrying
different weapons has signified rank. The badges of rank have
been worn on hats, shoulders, and around the waist and chest.
The American military adapted most of its rank insignia from the
British. Before the Revolutionary War, Americans drilled with
militia outfits based on the British tradition. Sailors followed
the example of the most successful navy of the time – the
So, the Continental Army had privates, sergeants, lieutenants,
captains, colonels, generals, and several now-obsolete ranks like
coronet, subaltern, and ensign. One thing the Army didn't have
was enough money to buy uniforms.
To solve this, General George Washington wrote, "As the
Continental Army has unfortunately no uniforms, and consequently
many inconveniences must arise from not being able to distinguish
the commissioned officers from the privates, it is desired that
some badge of distinction be immediately provided; for instance
that the field officers may have red or pink colored cockades in
their hats, the captains yellow or buff, and the subalterns
Even during the war, rank insignia evolved. In 1780, regulations
prescribed two stars for major generals and one star for
brigadiers, worn on shoulder boards, or epaulettes.
The use of most English ranks carried on even after the United
States won the war. The Army and Marine Corps used comparable
ranks, especially after 1840. The Navy took a different route.
The rank structure and insignia continued to evolve. Second
lieutenants replaced the Army's coronets, ensigns, and
subalterns, but they had no distinctive insignia until Congress
gave them butter bars in 1917. Colonels received the
eagle in 1832. From 1836, majors and lieutenant colonels were
denoted by oak leave; captains by double silver bars –
railroad tracks; and first lieutenants, single silver
In the Navy, captain was the highest rank until Congress created
flag officers in 1857 – before then, designating someone an
admiral in the republic had been deemed too royal for
the United States. Until 1857, the Navy had three grades of
captain, roughly equivalent to the Army's brigadier general,
colonel, and lieutenant colonel. Adding to the confusion, all
Navy ship commanders are called captain regardless of
With the onset of the Civil War, the highest grade captains
became commodores and rear admirals, and wore one-star and two-
star epaulettes, respectively. The lowest became commanders with
oak leaves while captains in the middle remained equal to Army
colonels and wore eagles.
At the same time, the Navy adopted a sleeve-stripe system that
became so complex that when David Glasgow Farragut became the
service's first full admiral in 1866, the stripes on his sleeves
extended from cuff to elbow. The smaller sleeve stripes used
today were introduced in 1869.
Chevrons are V-shaped stripes whose use in the military go back
to at least the 12th century. It was a badge of honor and used in
heraldry. The British and French used chevrons – from the
French word for roof – to signify length of
Chevrons officially denoted rank in the U.S. military for the
first time in 1817, when cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at
West Point, New York, wore them on their sleeves. From West
Point, chevrons spread to the Army and Marine Corps. The
difference then was chevrons were worn points down until 1902,
when Army and Marine Corps enlisted personnel switched to the
present points up configuration.
Navy and Coast Guard petty officers trace their insignia heritage
to the British. Petty officers were assistants to the officers
aboard ship. The title wasn't a permanent rank and the men served
at the captain's pleasure. Petty officers lost their rank when
the crew was paid off at the end of a voyage.
In 1841, Navy petty officers received their first rank insignia
– an eagle perched on an anchor. Ratings – job skills
– were incorporated into the insignia in 1866. In 1885, the
Navy designated three classes of petty officers – first,
second, and third. They added chevrons to designate the new
ranks. The rank of chief petty officer was established in 1894.
During World War II, the Army adopted technician grades.
Technicians of a given grade earned the same pay and wore the
same insignia as equivalent noncommissioned officers except for a
small "T" centered under the chevrons. Technicians, despite the
stripes, had no command authority over troops. This evolved into
the specialist ranks, pay grades E-4 to E-7. The last vestige
today survives plainly as specialist, pay grade E-4.
When there were such people as specialists 7, they wore the
current eagle symbol surmounted by three curved gold bars –
often called bird umbrellas.
When the Air Force became a separate service in 1947, it kept the
Army officer insignia and names, but adopted different enlisted
ranks and insignia.
Warrant officers went through several iterations before the
services arrived at today's configuration. The Navy had warrant
officers from the start – they were specialists who saw to
the care and running of the ship. The Army and Marines did not
have warrants until the 20th century. Rank insignia for warrants
last changed with the addition of Chief Warrant Officer 5. The
Air Force stopped appointing warrant officers in the 1950s and
has none on active duty today.
Other interesting rank tidbits include:
- Ensigns started with the Army but ended with the Navy. The
rank of Army ensign was long gone by the time the rank of Navy
ensign was established in 1862. Ensigns received gold bars in
1922, some five years after equivalent Army second lieutenants
- Lieutenant comes from the French lieu
meaning place and tenant meaning
holding. Literally, lieutenants are place holders.
- While majors outrank lieutenants, lieutenant generals
outrank major generals. This comes from British tradition:
Generals were appointed for campaigns and often called
captain generals. Their assistants were, naturally,
lieutenant generals. At the same time, the chief
administrative officer was the sergeant major general.
Somewhere along the way, sergeant was dropped.
- Gold is worth more than silver, but silver outranks gold.
This is because the Army decreed in 1832 that infantry colonels
would wear gold eagles on an epaulette of silver and all other
colonels would wear silver eagles on gold. When majors and
lieutenant colonels received the leaves, this tradition could not
continue. So silver leaves represented lieutenant colonels and
gold, majors. The case of lieutenants is different: First
lieutenants had been wearing silver bars for eighty years before
second lieutenants had any bars at all.
- Colonel is pronounced kernal because the British
adopted the French spelling colonel but Spanish
pronunciation coronel and then corrupted the
- While rank insignia are important, sometimes it isn't smart
to wear them. When the rifled musket made its appearance in the
Civil War, sharpshooters looked for officers. Officers soon
learned to take off their rank insignia as they approached the
- The Air Force actually took a vote on their enlisted
stripes. In 1948, then-Air Force Vice Chief of Staff General Hoyt
Vandenberg polled NCOs at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington
and 55 percent of them chose the basic design still used today.
Visit the The United States Military Rank Insignia
www.defenselink.mil/pubs/almanac/almanac/people/insignias/index.html; or the Department of Defense enlisted rank insignia
website at www.defense.gov/about/insignias/enlisted.aspx; or the
Department of Defense officer rank insignia website
at www.defense.gov/about/insignias/officers.aspx; or the U.S. Army Institute of
Heraldry website at www.tioh.hqda.pentagon.mil/tioh.htm; or
the Naval Historical Center
website at www.history.navy.mil/.