Rank is a symbol or badge of military leadership. Rank distinguishes who is in charge, who has authority, and level of responsibility.

The United States Armed Forces has a system of ranks for all of those serving in the military. The United States military's rank system is a result of many centuries of tradition. The earliest rank systems in the United States date back to the Revolutionary War, when America first had need of its own soldiers and sailors. The rank systems then drew heavily upon the British. The system evolved over time and ranks were dropped and added and insignia changed. The earliest rank insignia that still exists today is that of Brigadier and Major General.

Each of the four Armed Forces branches (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps) has their own rank system. The Coast Guard is under the Department of Transportation during times of peace, however their rank system follows that of the US Navy.

The rank systems are divided up into three categories: Enlisted, Warrant Officers, and Commissioned Officers. Each rank also has a pay grade. This is the number that specifies which rank is higher than the other, and true to its namesake, determines how much that person gets paid. E# stands for Enlisted, W# for Warrant Officers, and O# for Commissioned Officers. The higher the number, the higher the rank in the structure. Pay grade is how ranks can be quickly compared to a rank of different title and insignia from another branch.

Enlisted personnel run the military. They are the people who perform the jobs, carry out the orders, operate the machinery, equipment, and vehicles. They are the infantry soldiers, the cooks, the ordnance loaders, the tank drivers, the maintenance specialists. The Enlisted people are the backbone of the military. Each branch has a single enlisted rank which is higher than all the others, and is held by only one person at a time (Sergeant Major of the Army, Chief Petty Officer of the Navy, etc.). This person represents all of the enlisted personnel of the branch to the commander.

Warrant Officers hold warrants from the secretary of their branch and are specialists or experts in a particular field (whereas Commissioned Officers are generalists and don't specialize). Commonly in the Army, many Warrant Officers are helicopter pilots. The lowest warrants serve under a Chief Warrant Officer (W2 and up); Chief Warrants are commissioned and are direct representatives of the President of the United States. The Air Force is the only branch in the U.S. to not have Warrant Officers.

Commissioned Officers are the leaders of the Armed Forces and have the highest ranks. Commissioned Officers (generally referred to as just "officers") are the management and leadership of the military. Officers supervise the enlisted personnel and warrant officers, and they direct the services. Every commissioned officer is commissioned by the President and is then confirmed by the Senate. The first three officer ranks (O1 to O3) are considered company grade officers, O4 to O6 field grade officers, and O7 and higher are general officers. The Navy calls these groupings junior grade, mid-grade, and flag officers respectively. The highest commissioned officer rank is General of the Army/General of the Air Force/Fleet Admiral (represented by 5 stars). This is only awarded in times of serious warfare (the last notable time officers were thus promoted was World War II, in order to put our military commanders on equal footing with Europe's Field Marshals). The highest ranked officer in US military history is, and will always remain, General George Washington. By act of Congress, Washington is technically ranked higher than any other military officer in the United States past, present, and future, even though he only held the title of "Lieutenant General" during his life.

Below you can find a reference chart that lists each of the ranks for the four Armed Forces branches. The key for the chart is as follows:   PayGrade - Title (Official Abbreviation). Each branch has their own set of official abbrevations for each rank (which are often ignored by the public and media).

ARMY

Enlisted Warrant Officers
Commissioned Officer

NAVY

General Enlisted Warrant Officers
  • W1 - --no longer used--
  • W2 - Chief Warrant Officer 2 (CWO2)
  • W3 - Chief Warrant Officer 3 (CWO3)
  • W4 - Chief Warrant Officer 4 (CWO4)
Commissioned Officer

AIR FORCE

Enlisted No Warrant Officers

Commissioned Officer
  • O1 - Second Lieutenant (2nd Lt)
  • O2 - First Lieutenant (1st Lt)
  • O3 - Captain (Capt)
  • O4 - Major (Maj)
  • O5 - Lieutenant Colonel (Lt Col)
  • O6 - Colonel (Col)
  • O7 - Brigadier General (Brig Gen)
  • O8 - Major General (Maj Gen)
  • O9 - Lieutenant General (Lt Gen)
  • O10 - General (Gen)
  • O11 - General of the Air Force - Only used in times of major war.

MARINE CORPS

Enlisted Warrant Officers
  • W1 - Warrant Officer 1 (WO1)
  • W2 - Chief Warrant Officer 2 (CWO2)
  • W3 - Chief Warrant Officer 3 (CWO3)
  • W4 - Chief Warrant Officer 4 (CWO4)
  • W5 - Chief Warrant Officer 5 (CWO5)
Commissioned Officer
  • O1 - Second Lieutenant (2Lt)
  • O2 - First Lieutenant (1Lt)
  • O3 - Captain (Cpt)
  • O4 - Major (Maj)
  • O5 - Lieutenant Colonel (Lt. Col.)
  • O6 - Colonel (Col)
  • O7 - Brigadier General (Brig. Gen.)
  • O8 - Major General (Maj. Gen.)
  • O9 - Lieutenant General (Lt. Gen.)
  • O10 - General (Gen.)


In the US Army, every military unit larger than a squad (specialty units are an exception) has at its head an enlisted/officer pair.

In a platoon, made up of 4 or 5 squads, the head officer is a 2nd (often called a "butter-bar" for the gold of the insignia and the incredible lack of experience) or 1st Lieutenant (O1-O2) and the senior enlisted is a buck or staff sergeant (E5-E6).

In a company, there is a 1st Lt. or Captain (O2-O3) with a Sergeant First Class or Master sergeant (E7-E8). A Master Sergeant in charge of a company gets a diamond-shaped mark in the middle of their rank insignia to designate them as "First" Sergeant. (they are often called "Top" as a nickname.) A 1st Lieutenant (often called a "one-el-tee") has a single silver bar, a Captain, two.

Officers up to the rank of Captain are called company-grade officers, for obvious reasons.

In a battalion, usually made up of 3-5 companies, there is a Major (or a very, very up-and-coming Captain) or a (not very up-and-coming) Lieutenant-Colonel, (also called a "Light" Colonel) (O4-O5,)with a Master Sergeant or Sergeant-Major (E8-E9). A Sergeant-Major has a star in the center of their insignia. One in charge of a unit is called a Command Sergeant-Major and has a wreath around that star.

Majors and Colonels are called "Field-Grade" officers, as they manage multiple units on the field of battle. Majors have a gold oak leaf, and Light Colonels a silver one.

Full Colonels (O6, the equivalent of a Government GS-15) have a silver eagle on each shoulder, hence their nickname, "Bird Colonel".

At higher levels, the officer ranks go up, but the enlisted ranks are capped at Sergeant-Major. From this point, they are referred to by the size of the unit they are the senior enlisted of, up to and including the Sergeant-Major of the Army (he gets to have two stars in his insignia.)

Generals are called "Flag" officers, as they actually have their own flag. This dates from the days when the only way to communicate on the battlefield was with drums, horns, or messengers, and the troops needed to know where their commander was. The flag carries the number of stars the General (Or Admiral, this also applies to the Navy) has, and is displayed on the building they are currently occupying and on their vehicle. (You have to salute the vehicle when it drives past.)

It should be noted that in the Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeants are either promoted to Master Sergeant or First Sergeant. Master Sgts stay in their field of specialty while First Sgts hold more of an administrative billet, not limited to their field, on the company level. Master Sgts are promoted to Master Gunnery Sergeant and First Sgts are promoted to Sergeant Major. Sergeants Major hold billets from the battalion level on up. The senior enlisted man in the Marine Corps is the Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps.

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