U.S. Military Rank Insignia

The U.S. Military Rank Insignia has a long and proud history. 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.

Evolution of U.S. Military Rank Insignia

There are general rules for ranks that can help those unfamiliar with ranks to get a broad idea. The US Military rank insignia has humble beginnings. 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 enlisted men’s appearance 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 the enlisted ranks were renamed and given new insignia.

U.S. Military Rank Insignia at Different Historical Eras

During major military conflict times, the rapidly-expanding US military necessarily had to restructure itself to better coordinate large-scale operations. For example, before the Civil War, the US Navy’s highest rank was Flag Officer, which did not have a designated rank insignia. However, this changed several times during the war. Initially, in 1862, there were promotions for higher-grade Captains to Commodore and Rear Admiral ranks, with one-star and two-star epaulettes, equivalent in rank to the Army’s Brigadier Generals and Major Generals. These changes were in response to coordinating tactics with Army officers that tended to outrank even the most experienced Navy officers, as Captains were only equivalent to Colonels in seniority. The issue was that American naval warfare doctrine was shifting to include more fleet battles, such as the Battle of Port Royal, instead of single ship-on-ship conflicts. This system was amended again in 1865, with Vice Admirals becoming the new highest rank for naval officers, with three-star epaulettes, equivalent to Lieutenant Generals.

In World War II, again, the rapid expansion of the US Armed Forces (and the need to establish parity of rank with the States’ wartime allies) necessitated a restructuring of the rank system, especially after the Normandy Landings of June 1944 escalated the logistical complexities weighing on Army leadership. The Army’s previously-extant rank was reconfigured to be a five-star rank and a temporary position. The position of Fleet Admiral was similarly updated.

U.S. Military Enlisted Rank Insignia Tables

Since the time of the Revolutionary War, the United States military has had a formal structure. Over time, that has helped it develop from a stoic collection of patriots with a cause to the world’s most powerful armed forces. Over time, new branches of the Armed Forces have been added to the United States Army and Navy, and its structure has been altered, but the tradition of proud service has not abated.

This is a series of charts depicting the ranks and insignias of the enlisted personnel that join the military. There are several notable similarities between different branches of service.

NATO CodeBranchInsigniaAbbreviationRankNotes
OR-1ArmyPvtPrivateThe lowest Army rank. Most soldiers start at this rank.
USMCPvtPrivateMarine Privates must follow orders and learn for six months before progressing.
Coast GuardSRSeaman RecruitTwo separate pay grades exist at this rank. Higher pay scale for recruits with four months of service.
Air ForceABAirman BasicEligible for promotion to airman after six months.
NavySRSeaman RecruitMay be a seaman/hospitalman/fireman/airman or constructionman recruit based on assignment.
NATO CodeBranchInsigniaAbbreviationRankNotes
OR-2ArmyPV2Private Second ClassUsually attained after six months in service.
USMCPFCPrivate First ClassAttained after six months in service. Must continue to learn and develop new skills.
Coast GuardSASeaman ApprenticeActual title and color group depends on assignment.
Air ForceAmnAirmanCan enlist at this rank after two years of Junior ROTC or 20 college semester credit hours.
NavySASeaman ApprenticeMay have completed requirements for a rating (designated strikers) or be ‘undesignated’.
NATO CodeBranchInsigniaAbbreviationRankNotes
OR-3ArmyPFCPrivate First ClassUsually attained after a year of service. Associate degree graduates and Eagle Scouts may enter service at this pay grade.
USMCLCplLance CorporalMost common rank in the USMC. Awarded based on time in service, conduct, and time in grade.
Coast GuardSNSeamanMost commonly seaman rate, but hospitalman, fireman, or airman also exist.
Air ForceA1CAirman First ClassOn promotion to this rank after basic, recruits get back-pay at this pay grade.
NavySNSeamanMust be selected for a rating before being eligible for advancement, if not already rated.
NATO CodeBranchInsigniaAbbreviationRankNotes
OR-4ArmyCplCorporalFirst non-commissioned officer rank. May direct activities of other soldiers.
ArmySPCSpecialistNot considered junior NCOs.
USMCCplCorporalLowest grade of NCO. Generally lead four-man fire teams.
Coast GuardPO3Petty Officer Third ClassFirst NCO rank in US Coast Guard. Advancement typically dependent on performance.
Air ForceSrASenior AirmanMust attend six-week Airman Leadership School.
NavyPO3Petty Officer Third ClassFirst rank of NCO. All PO3s have a rating and should be technical experts.
NATO CodeBranchInsigniaAbbreviationRankNotes
OR-5ArmySgtSergeantTypically command fire teams (around 5 soldiers). Oversee and set a standard for lower ranks.
USMCSgtSergeantBackbone of the Marine Corps. May serve as squad leader.
Coast GuardPO2Petty Officer Second ClassServes as technical expert and leader.
Air ForceSSgtStaff SergeantUS Air Force’s first NCO rank. Promotion gained on competitive basis.
NavyPO2Petty Officer Second ClassEach rating has an official abbreviation to which the petty officer level is usually appended in common practice (e.g. GM2 for gunner’s mate).
NATO CodeBranchInsigniaAbbreviationRankNotes
OR-6ArmySSGStaff SergeantCommands a squad (9-10 soldiers). May also lead Sergeants.
USMCSSgtStaff SergeantNormally achieved after 4 years of service. Leads 8-27 Marines in platoons.
Coast GuardPO1Petty officer first classNormally, leading petty officer of a division.
Air ForceTSgtTechnical SergeantTakes between 10 and 12 total years service to attain.
NavyPO1Petty Officer First ClassRequires three years in rate as PO2, recommendation for advancement, and an established performance mark average.
NATO CodeBranchInsigniaAbbreviationRankNotes
OR-7ArmySFCSergeant First ClassMay command up to 40 soldiers, depending on platoon. Senior tactical advisor to the platoon leader.
USMCGySgtGunnery SergeantSupervisory position for up to 94 in a platoon. Advises officers, mentors subordinates.
Coast GuardCPOChief Petty OfficerMost significant enlisted grade promotion. Officer takes on more administrative duties.
Air ForceMSgtMaster SergeantFirst senior NCO role. Operational leader.
NavyCPOChief Petty OfficerTransition more to leadership than technical expertise. Gain privileges to separate living and dining areas.
NATO CodeBranchInsigniaAbbreviationRankNotes
OR-8ArmyMSGMaster SergeantTypically a battalion-level NCO.
Army1SGFirst SergeantPrincipal NCO of a company. Administrates and develops junior NCOs and soldiers.
USMCMSgtMaster SergeantGenerally operations chief of a weapons company.
USMC1stSgtFirst SergeantSenior enlisted adviser to a commander at company, battery, or detachment level.
Coast GuardSCPOSenior Chief Petty OfficerRank requires time in service, superior eval scores, and peer review.
Air ForceSMSgtSenior Master SergeantSuperintendents for enlisted members and mentors for NCOs/junior COs.
NavySCPOSenior Chief Petty OfficerAdvancement to this rank contingent on opinion of a board of master chiefs.
NavyCMDCSCommand Senior Chief Petty OfficerRating introduced in 2015, to give chiefs opportunity to experience command.
NATO CodeBranchInsigniaAbbreviationRankNotes
OR-9ArmySGMSergeant MajorChief admin for an Army HQ. Work at battalion level or higher.
ArmyCSMCommand Sergeant MajorSenior enlisted advisor for a commanding officer at battalion level or higher.
ArmySMASergeant Major of the ArmyUnique role overseeing all enlisted soldiers in the Army. Consultant to Army’s Chief of Staff.
USMCMGySgtMaster Gunnery SergeantProvide military leadership and mastery of a Military Occupational Specialty.
USMCSgtMajSergeant MajorUnit commander’s senior enlisted advisor. Handles discipline & morale among enlisted Marines
USMCSMMCSergeant Major of the Marine CorpsUnique role overseeing all enlisted Marines in the USMC. Consultant to the Commandant of the Marine Corps.
Coast GuardMCPOMaster Chief Petty OfficerTechnical experts in their fields, serving in commands of all sizes.
Coast GuardCMCCommand Master ChiefDesignated directly by either the Commandant of the Coast Guard or the MCPOCG.
Coast GuardMCPOCGMaster Chief Petty Officer of the Coast GuardUnique role overseeing all enlisted seamen in the Coast Guard. Consultant to the Commandant of the Coast Guard.
Air ForceCMSgtChief Master SergeantManages all enlisted personnel in their unit/subsection, or at higher HQ levels, run major staff functions.
Air ForceCCMCommand Chief Master SergeantSenior advisor to key level commander on all enlisted matters.
Air ForceCMSAFChief Master Sergeant of the Air ForceUnique role overseeing all enlisted airmen in the Air Force. Senior enlisted advisor to the Air Force Chief of Staff and the Secretary of the Air Force.
NavyMCPOMaster Chief Petty OfficerThe technical experts in their fields, serving in commands of all sizes.
NavyCMDCMCommand Master Chief Petty OfficerSenior enlisted person at a command. Liaises between CO and the ranks.
NavyFORCM/FLTCMForce Master Chief Petty Officer/ Fleet Master Chief Petty OfficerResponsibilities similar to a CMDCM, but for a larger force command, or fleet command.
NavyMCPONMaster Chief Petty Officer of the NavyUnique role overseeing all enlisted sailors in the Navy. Senior enlisted advisor to the Chief of Naval Operations and the Chief of Naval Personnel.

Record Your Military Service History and Insignia

Together We Served has recorded the military service history of over 2 million veterans including those from the Second World War, Korean War, Cold War, Vietnam War, Gulf War, OIF and OEF eras. If you served reconnect with people you served with and record your own military service history, including all your ranks and promotions, on Together We Served.

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Tags: Air Force, Armed Forces, Army, Brigadier Generals, British and French forces, Civil War, Coast Guard, Cold War, Commodore, Continental Army, Flag Officer, Fleet Admiral, General George Washington, Gulf War, Korean War, Lieutenant Generals, Major Generals, Marine Corps, Normandy Landings, OIF and OEF eras, Rear Admiral, Revolutionary War, Revolutionary War in 1775, Second World War, the Battle of Port Royal, Together We Served, United Stated Navy, United States Army, United States Marine Corps, United States Military, Veterans, Vice Admirals, Vietnam War, World War II

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