|History of Military
Insignia: The Way You Tell Who's
Who in the Military
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Nov. 22, 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 Royal Navy.
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, Gen. 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
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
"butterbars" 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 bars.
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 rank.
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, N.Y., 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
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:
o 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 received theirs.
o "Lieutenant" comes from the French
"lieu" meaning "place" and "tenant"
meaning "holding." Literally, lieutenants
are place holders.
o 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"
o 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 80 years before second lieutenants
had any bars at all.
o Colonel is pronounced "kernal" because
the British adopted the French spelling
"colonel" but Spanish pronuniciation
"coronel" and then corrupted the
o 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
o The Air Force actually took a vote on
their enlisted stripes. In 1948, then-Air
Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Hoyt
Vandenberg polled NCOs at Bolling Air
Force Base in Washington and 55
percent of them chose the basic design
still used today.
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