All About U.S. Military Rank Insignia

Many of the ranks adopted by the United States military at the start of the Revolutionary War in 1775 are still in use today. The early military took a lot of inspiration from the British and French forces. Over time, the military rank insignia has come to represent American Valor. These emblems, worn on the uniform to denote rank, help people identify military personnel’s rank and pay-grade at a glance.

Military Rank Insignia & Terms You Should Know

There are general rules for ranks that can help those unfamiliar with ranks to get a broad idea of things. 

  • Chevrons: In every military service branch, enlisted members wear chevrons (v-shaped stripes). In the Army and Marine Corps, these chevrons are inverted. The Navy and Coast Guard’s lower enlisted ranks wear diagonal stripes on black (Navy) or blue (Coast Guard) backgrounds, while the very lowest-ranked enlisted personnel do not have rank insignia. A deviation from this theme is the enlisted rank of Specialist in the Army. While Specialist is at the same pay-grade as Corporal (E-4), they are ranked slightly lower and bear a gold eagle’s rank insignia. As enlisted personnel advance, the insignia grow more intricate: an Army Sergeant’s insignia is three chevrons. In comparison, a Sergeant Major’s includes the three chevrons and three more lines below encircling a gold five-pointed star. 
  • Striped Bars: Insignia of striped bars indicate warrant officer ranks. In the Army, warrant officer insignia is black and white, while the USMC’s warrant officers wear red and yellow (or at higher ranks, red and white). Navy and Coast Guard warrant officers wear blue and white. A thin vertical bar of color indicates the rank of Chief Warrant Officer.
  • Metallic Bars: Insignia of metallic bars indicate junior commissioned officers (pay-grades O-1 to O-3). Interestingly, gold indicates a lower rank than silver. One gold bar indicates Second Lieutenant rank (in the Navy and Coast Guard, the equivalent rank is Ensign). One silver bar indicates First Lieutenant rank (Lieutenant Junior Grade in the Navy and Coast Guard). Two bars indicate the rank of Captain (Lieutenant, in the Navy and Coast Guard).
  • Oak Leaves & Eagles: Oakleaf or eagle insignia indicate field officer ranks (pay-grades O-4 to O-6). Gold oak leaves are for Majors/Lieutenant Commanders, while silver oak leaves designate Lieutenant Colonels/Commanders. Eagles are reserved for Colonels, while the equivalent Navy and Coast Guard rank is Captain.
  • Stars: The ‘star ranks’ are reserved for the most senior military members, the ranks of General (pay-grades O-7 to O-10). The number of stars denotes seniority, from Brigadier General, Major General, Lieutenant General, up to General. In the Navy and Coast Guard, these instead denote Rear Admiral Lower Half, Rear Admiral Upper Half, Vice Admiral, and Admiral. There are theoretically five-star ranks, but these are reserved for periods of immense crisis such as the Civil War and World War II.
Medal Pinning Ceremony

History of American Military Rank Insignia

Initially, while the Continental Army had militia with a rank structure based on British tradition, they lacked uniforms or the money to buy them. At the time, General George Washington proposed “badges of distinction” to separate the appearance of enlisted men from the commissioned officers. He recommended a color-coding system. This system changed as the Armed Forces were restructured. Colonels received their eagles in 1832, while majors and lieutenant colonels got their oak leaves in 1836, while captains were appointed double silver bars, and first lieutenants single silver bars. Second lieutenants didn’t receive their gold bars until 1917. Chevrons were officially introduced into the US military in 1817 when cadets at West Point wore them. They spread to the Army and Marine Corps. They were initially worn points-down until 1902, when they switched. When the Army Air Force became its own service in 1947, it retained the Army officer insignia and names, but its enlisted service members were given new ranks and insignia.

Evolution of Military Insignia

The US Armed Forces’ depiction of rank insignia has changed over time, as efficiency and practicality have allowed. The modern US military strikes a balance between respecting military tradition and managing an efficient modern defense force.

  • From the creation of the United States Army from 1775 until 1821, NCOs and SNCOs wore worsted epaulets. Until 1779, one epaulet was worn on the right shoulder: Corporals in green, Sergeants in red. When SNCOs were created in 1778, they wore two red epaulets. The epaulettes’ colors and configuration often changed over the next thirty or so years until chevrons were introduced in the 1820s.
  • Similarly, to distinguish the Continental Army’s commissioned officers, badges of distinction that were clear but cheap to produce were advocated by General George Washington. Generals wore colored sashes diagonally between their coats and waistcoats. Brigadier Generals wore purple sashes, Major Generals pink, and the Commander-in-Chief, light blue. The Generals’ Aides wore green sashes. In 1780 epaulets were substituted with silver stars for general officers.
  • The Navy did not have flag officers until 1857. Historically, the rank of Admiral was felt to be uncomfortably adjacent to royalty for the nascent republic. The early US Navy instead had a complicated system of different echelons of Captains. In 1862, Navy officials recommended to Congress that Admiral ranks be created so that senior Naval officers were on a level with senior officers from other countries’ navies. The previous lack of parity had apparently caused “…serious difficulties and embarrassments in the interchange of civilities with those of other nations”. At first, nine Rear Admirals were appointed, then in 1864, a Vice-Admiral was selected from their ranks. This Vice Admiral, David Glasgow Farragut, was later appointed Admiral in 1866, the United States’ first, and another Vice Admiral promoted. However, Congress would not appoint any more Admirals or Vice Admirals until 1915, when each of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Asiatic fleets were authorized to have one Admiral and one Vice Admiral. In 1899 a different rank, Admiral of the Navy, was given to George Dewey to recognize his accomplishments during the Spanish-American War.

Together We Served Records Your Military Achievements

If you are a veteran or custodian for an elderly or infirm veteran, you are eligible to open a free account with Together We Served, the largest website of its kind in the world. American veterans can sign up and fill out their service history, including insignia, badges, medal ribbons, memories, and photos. You can also find others that you served alongside and look at the service histories of the more than 1.95 million other veteran members from WW2 to the present day. Together We Served is an incredible resource for military history researchers, a great place to rekindle old friendships, or even forge new ones.

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Tags: Armed Forces, Army, Civil War, Coast Guard, Continental Army, George Dewey, Marine Corps, Military Rank Insignia, Navy, Vice Admiral David Glasgow Farragut, West Point

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