The History of American Military Rank


The American military has a fairly wide variety of ranks, which vary between the different branches. The majority of those ranks are traditional titles which the country inherited from its days as a British colony, while a few did arise later in response to the military’s needs. Even members of the military rarely know the full history of the ranks themselves. That is a pity, since their history reflects the history of the nation and the armed forces that protect it.


The American military began as an offshoot of the British military, both in the form of militia units that were structured according to British traditions and from officers who began their careers in the British army. The American military saw no reason to change its rank structure when the Revolutionary War broke out, since it was already working perfectly well. As such, the American military took most of its ranks from the British forces.

Where the American forces did differ from the British counterparts was in their rank insignia. The new military simply could not afford enough uniforms to follow the British model for marking out officers and specialists in most cases. As such, it adopted a system of rank insignia which forms the basis of the modern system.

Ranks in the Army

The army’s ranks generally followed the original model until the 1800’s, when they started to evolve. In particular, the army lost most of its lower officer ranks by consolidated them into the position of second lieutenant. The remains the entry rank for the vast majority of commissioned officers in the army to this day.

The next major shift in the army’s rank structure came during the second world war. That conflict involved specialized technology and military roles to a much greater degree than the wars of the past, which forced the army to adapt its structure by creating ranks for technicians. They were wore insignia as though they were officers, but they did not actually hold any position of command. The technician ranks eventually fell out of use, but they survive as the modern rank of specialist, which fills the same role. The American army began to appoint warrant officers, who exist to hold authority in areas that need precise technical knowledge, at roughly the same time.

Ranks in the Navy

The nation’s naval ranks show a similar degree of influence from the British system, but the early ranks had one huge difference from the British version. The American navy initially refused to use any rank above that of captain, since they believed that admirals were too strongly connected to the monarchy to be appropriate for a republic. That changed in 1857, by which point that government was no longer quite as concerned with looking different from other nations. Until that time, the naval rank structure included several different grades of captain, which filled the same practical role as appointing admirals.

The navy started appointing ensigns at roughly the same time. The rank actually originated in the army, but it fell out of use when that branch decided to consolidate its lower officer ranks. Most naval commissioned officers begin their careers as ensigns to this day.

Other Branches

The other branches of the American military use rank structures that are broadly similar to those of the army and the navy, although they often use a small number of unique titles as a result of their own traditions. The similarities are the result of both the shared heritage of the branches and the similar pressures that have shaped them over the course of the nation’s history.

The Coast Guard uses the same ranks as the American navy, since they are both descended from the Continental Navy that served during the Revolutionary War. The Marine Corps is closely associated with the naval service, but it shares most of its rank with the land-based army.

The Air Force shares some ranks with the Army as well, because they were originally part of the same branch. That having been said, there has been significant divergence because of the Air Force’s unique technical needs. In particular, the Air Force has not appointed warrant officers since 1958, even though it inherited those ranks when it was created.

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Kevin Schultz is a professional journalist with over 15 years of writing and media experience. He is a full-time contributor to the Themocracy Online News Blog and his insightful writing has been enjoyed by thousands.