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Military Rank and Its History

Updated: Apr 29

In all U.S. Military branches of services, rank determines who gets to tell whom what to do. The higher the rank, the more authority, and responsibility are obtained. U.S. Military personnel and their rank fall into one of three categories:

  1. Enlisted members—E1 through E9

  2. Warrant officers—W1 through W5

  3. Commissioned Officers—O1 through O10

Warrant officers outrank enlisted members and commissioned officers, both warrant officers, and enlisted members. Also, not all branches of the military have warrant officers.

Rank and Pay Grade

Rank and pay grades are closely related terms but not exactly the same. Pay grade is an administrative ordering associated with a member's pay and how much they receive in income. Rank is a title and signifies the member's level of authority and responsibility.

An E-1 is the lowest enlisted pay grade in the ranking system. This person's "rank" is a Private in the Army and Marine Corps, an Airman is the compared rank in the Air Force, and a Seaman Recruit in compared rate the Navy and Coast Guard. It is also worth noting that in the Navy and Coast Guard, the term "rank" is not used among enlisted Sailors. The proper term is "rate."

Through time, ranks have included such symbols as feathers, sashes, stripes, and showy uniforms. Even carrying different weapons has signified status and rank. Rank has been worn on hats, shoulders, and around the waist and chest of this member's uniform.

Revolutionary War

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 the coronet, subaltern, and ensign. One thing the Army didn't have was enough money to buy uniforms.

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 epaulets. 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.

Evolving Rank Structure

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 leaves, captains by double silver bars, or "railroad tracks"; and first lieutenants, single silver bars.

In the Navy, a 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 captain grades roughly equivalent to the Army's brigadier general, colonel, and lieutenant colonel. Adding to all of this confusion, all Navy ship commanders are called "captains," regardless of their rank.

Civil War

With the onset of the Civil War, the highest-grade captains became commodores and rear admirals wearing one-star and two-star epaulets, respectively. The lowest became commanders with oak leaves, while captains in the middle remained equal to Army colonels who wore eagles.

Simultaneously, the Navy adopted a sleeve stripe system, which became so complex that when David Glasgow Farragut assumed the service's first full admiral position in 1866, the stripes on his sleeves extended from his wrist to his elbow. The smaller sleeve stripes used today were eventually introduced in 1869.


Chevrons are V-shaped stripes that date back in the military to at least the 12th century. It was a symbol of honor and revered in heraldry. The British and French used chevrons, which comes from the French word for "roof," to signify the length of service for the service member.

Chevrons were officially used as a rank in the U.S. military for the first time in 1817 when cadets wore them on their sleeves at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. This practice then spread to the Army and Marine Corps. The orientation of the chevrons changes in 1902 from being points down when Army and Marine Corps enlisted personnel switched them to the present worn configuration of points up.

Both Navy and Coast Guard petty officers trace their insignia heritage back to the British. Petty officers were assistants to the officers aboard the ship. The title was not a permanent rank, and the men served the captain. Petty officers lost their rank when the crew ended their voyage.

New Ranks, New Insignia

In 1841, Navy petty officers received their first rank insignia—an eagle perched on an anchor. Ratings, or 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 a 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. It 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.

Ensign Facts

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.

While rank insignia is 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 battle line.

Lieutenants and Colonels

"Lieutenant" comes from the French "lieu" meaning "place" and "tenant" meaning "holding." Lieutenants are placeholders. The British originally corrupted the French pronunciation, pronouncing the word "lieuftenant," while Americans (probably because of French settler influence) maintained the original pronunciation.

While majors outrank lieutenants, lieutenant generals outrank major generals. It 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. It is because the Army decreed in 1832 that infantry colonels would wear gold eagles on an epaulet 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 the 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 pronunciation.

The Air Force Enlisted Stripes

The Air Force 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% of them chose the basic design still used today.

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.

Hopefully, this helps give you a better understanding of military rank and the system developed behind it. Attached are visual aids to help show the ranks in each of the military services to help give an even better understanding. Pictures are worth a thousand words, right?!

I hope you enjoyed it!

Military Rank
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Powers, R. (2019). The History of American Military Rank. The Balance Careers. Retrieved from

Image provided by Adobe Stock (April 2023).

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