United States Army Rank Insignia
Military insignia is an outward sign of an individual's rank. Military rank is a badge of leadership, command, and determines whom has authority over others. The rank structure is a ladder system, which means that one ascends in rank and gains leadership, responsibility, and authority. The insignia that represents the rank is a symbol designed to immediately identify the rank of someone without ambiguity. All branches of the United States Armed Forces use rank insignia, but with different appearance and regulations for wear and location. The United States Army, as the oldest branch of the US military, thus has the longest history and heritage of military rank.
Insignia for rank dates back to the early armies of Europe, in which almost anything may have been used as a symbol of a person's power or position, from swords to horses. In the United States, the tradition of rank insignia dates back to the first American soldiers during the Revolutionary War.
General George Washington began the long heritage of US Army rank insignia when he said in 1775: "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 green." Washington further directed his Brigadier and Major Generals to wear one and two silver stars on epaulets repectively, thus starting the current system of insignia. These are the oldest surviving military insignia in the United States.
Instead of using extravagent uniforms or other strange forms of rank identification, the United States has used a system of symbols, worn as pins or patches, to designate rank. Furthermore, the location of rank is standardized on each uniform. This makes it easy to take a quick glance at a uniformed soldier and immediatley identify their rank and correlating level of authority.
The rank structure of the US Army is broken up into three main sections: Enlisted, Warrant Officers, and Commissioned Officers. Every servicemember (even those of other branches) falls into one of these categories and has a corresponding rank. Enlisted pesonnel are the backbone of the military and are the ones who perform the functions and carry out the orders. Enlisted soldiers are the drivers, infantry soldiers, cooks, bomb loaders, mechanics, et cetera. Warrant Officers are people who are specialists in a particular area, but do not have a commission. Often times you will see Warrant Officers who are pilots or technicians in a certain field. Commissioned Officers are the leaders, supervisors, and management of the military. Usually just referred to as "officers," these people are in charge, have the authority, and direct the actions of the military. Each set of ranks has a distinctive set of insignia and oftentimes their insignia will be located in different places to further differentiate between the divisions.
The Insignia used in each branch of the Armed Forces is different, but steeped in tradition and meaning. I will explain briefly the history of the Army rank insignia, and detail the current rank insignia including appearance and location.
Being that the United States Army is the oldest of the service branches, the history of its rank insignia is long and very detailed. Throughout the course of the Revolutionary War and afterwards, numerous ranks were created, modified and abolished. During that time period, many enlisted ranks were specific to one's specialty or position. There were ranks such as: Principal musician, Driver of Artillery, artificer, subaltern, dragoon, trumpeter, and so on. Ranks that still exist today were also in use, such as corporal, private, and sergeant. Insignia varied greatly in form and appearence throughout this period. In 1775, Sergeants had a red cloth stripe upon their shoulders, and corporals green stripes. Colored hat plumes were also prescribed for certain officers.
The system of ranks and insignia has been redone, revised, and refined since the beginning. By World War I there were 128 different rank insignias in the Army. The system of ranks and their insignia were finally simplified in August 1920, by War Department Circular No. 303. This is what today's system is based upon.
Army enlisted personnel have chevrons as their rank insignia. The use of the chevron as a symbol of rank and status dates back to feudal times, where knights and men-at-arms had chevrons to denote their authority. The United States Army historically had downward pointing chevrons from 1820 to 1905, at which point the chevrons were changed to upward pointing and sewn to the sleeve.
War Department Circular No. 303 established the basis for today's rank enlisted insignia for reducing it all to seven insignia worn on the left sleeve, point up, and constructed of olive drab material on a dark blue background. The enlisted ranks became generic. That is, a soldier could be an artillery driver or a cook, but still hold the same rank. This system has been slightly modified, adding some senior NCO ranks, and making other changes since then. However, this is the basis for today's ranks and insignia.
The current US Army Enlisted Rank Insignia uses gold chevrons on dark green background to identify rank. The insignia is worn as a patch upon the sleeve on the Class A service coat and other dress uniforms. It is worn on epaulets on the shoulders with the Class B green service shirts. The rank is also worn as miniature, gold, metal pins on the collars with other uniforms, including the lightweight jacket, the cooks uniform, and so on. It is worn as a miniatured, subdued patch on the collar of the BDUs. The upward pointing chevrons are sometimes accompanied by a downward arc. As one ascends in rank, more chevrons - or stripes as they are often called - are added.
The use of Warrant Officer's dates back to Napoleon's armies, who used warrants as a communication link between his officers and enlisted men. The United States did not have Warrant Officers until July 9, 1918, when they were established by Congress to oversee the Army Mine Planter Service. Originally, they only wore a simply brown band of cloth as their rank insignia. In 1942, the Warrant Officer's role was expanded to the whole Army and the levels of Warrant Officer and Chief Warrant were established. Furthermore, the current insignia began to evolve as colored squares on gold bars. The revised and current system was established by Department of the Army Circular 611-7 in April of 1960.
United States Army Warrant Officers insignia is a very simple system. The ranks are a series of colored squares on a silver, rectangular bar identical to that of a First Lieutenant. The Warrant Officer insignia is worn like that of an officer's insignia. It can be found as a metal pin insignia, worn upon the collar or as embroidered on epaulets for all other dress uniforms. The insignia is as follows:
Commissioned Officer insignia is the only system that does not follow a natural progression of insignia. Enlisted and Warrant Officer insignia show an increasing system of stripes or squares which will indicate which rank is higher than another. The Commissioned Officer insignia rather is a random sampling of symbols, stemming from a long history of tradition. One cannot, without prior knowledge, discern which rank is above another, and therefore memorization is in order. Recruits are infused with the system in Basic Training, so there is little room for confusion later on even though the insignia may be very confusing to civilians. The officer insignia varies greatly from simple rectangular bars to eagles, leaves, and stars.
Officer ranks are found embroidered to epaulets and worn on the Class B uniform (the green dress shirts). The insignia is worn as metal pin insignia upon the epaulet on the Class A service coat. The insignia is worn as embroidered in subdued colors on cloth patches and sewn to the collar of the BDU or the shoulders of a flight suit. All ranks are sewn in black thread when subdued (for camoflage purposes), except gold colored ranks which become tan.
- Second Lieutenant - 1 gold, rectangular bar.
- First Lieutenant - 1 silver, rectangular bar.
- Captain - 2 parallel, silver, rectangular bars with two perpendicular connecting silver rods. (Appearance of "railroad tracks")
- Major - 1 gold, oak leaf.
- Lieutenant Colonel - 1 silver, oak leaf.
- Colonel - 1 silver, eagle, wing's spread, perched on a branch.
- Brigadier General - 1 silver, 5-point star.
- Major General - 2 silver, 5-point stars in a row.
- Lieutenant General - 3 silver, 5-point stars in a row.
- General - 4 silver, 5-point stars in a row.
- General of the Army - 5 silver, 5-point stars in a circular fashion.
The reason each symbol was selected is often a vague area in military history. It is known that General George Washington personally picked stars for General Officers in 1780. Most insignia, however, has no specific reason for why it is associated with that particular rank. Even though the eagle that represents Colonels is taken from the Great Seal of the United States, there exists no known reason why it was used for Colonel instead of say, Captain. The officer insignia has simply been part of a long tradition, and in the Army tradition is a very, very difficult thing to change.
The rank insignia of today's Army has been refined over the more than 200 years of the Army's existence. There haven't been many recent changes to the insignia, except the production of desert subdued patches for use on the new Desert BDUs. The current structure of ranks and insignia to represent them seems very stable and will probably survive well for the years to come.
- Majority of insignia information from personal knowledge
- "US Army Rank Insignia" - https://www-perscom.army.mil/tagd/tioh/Rank%20page/USArmyRankInsignia.htm
- "Enlisted Rank Insignia" - http://www.defenselink.mil/pubs/almanac/almanac/people/insignias/enlisted.html
Diagarm of Sample Rank Insignia:
An ASCII representation of Sergeant First Class, to show both upward chevrons and downward arcs in the Enlisted insignia.