| May 23, 2018

Last updated: May 24, 2018

Manly Knowledge, Travel & Leisure

A Civilian’s Primer on Military Rank and Insignia

If you’re a regular ol’ civilian like me, you might have a lot of respect for the military, but you don’t know much about military culture. For example, military ranking. Thanks to television, books, and movies, and simply absorbing stuff from the ether by living in America all of my life, I’d picked up a bit on how ranking works in the various branches of the armed forces. But my knowledge was pretty cursory. I could tell you that stars on a shoulder meant the person in uniform was a general or that a single chevron on the sleeve meant they were a private, but that’s about it.

You might think that military rank isn’t something you need to know if you’re not in the service yourself, but as someone who reads a lot of biographies and military history books, I’ve found myself getting lost and a bit confused with the different ranks thrown around, the significance of moving from one rank to the next, or the authority that a certain figure did or did not have over another. 

So I decided to study up and learn about ranks in the different branches of the U.S. Armed Forces, their respective insignia, and where to look on uniforms to locate this insignia. I’ve got to say, it’s been one of the most fruitful, knowledge-building exercises I’ve done in awhile; I’m already seeing payoffs with my historical reading. And it’s nice to know that should I run into a member of the military, I’d be able to know at a glance where they fall in the hierarchy. 

In the course of my research, I discovered that there really didn’t exist a guide to rank out there that I found sufficiently comprehensive and useful. So I decided to create my own and share it with all you fellow clueless civilians. Ten-hut! And read up.

United States Army Ranks and Insignia

Where to Look

With all branches of the military, where rank insignia is placed on the body depends on two factors: 1) the type of uniform (combat, dress, etc.), and 2) whether the individual is enlisted or an officer.

All the branches follow pretty much the same pattern in regards to both factors, but there are some subtle differences.

Combat Uniform

Center of the chest: Whether he’s an officer or enlisted, the Soldier’s rank will be on a patch in the middle of the chest on a combat uniform.

Service Dress Uniform

Enlisted: Both sleeves.

Officers: Shoulders. While the Marines and Air Force use pins on the shoulders of the uniform to indicate officer rank, the Army uses shoulder boards similar to the Navy. They’re pieces of fabric that have the officer’s rank embroidered on it. 

Army Enlisted Ranks & Insignia (from lowest to highest)

RankInsignia
Private
Private First Class
Specialist
Corporal (From corporal on, all ranks are considered non-commissioned officers. Unlike commissioned officers who receive their authority via a commission from the President, non-commissioned officers get their authority simply from their rank.)
Sergeant
Staff Sergeant
Sergeant First Class
Master Sergeant
First Sergeant
Sergeant Major
Command Sergeant Major
Sergeant Major of the Army

Army Warrant Officer Ranks & Insignia

Warrant officers are technical leaders and specialists. There are warrant officers for intelligence, aviation, and military police. They take the same oath as commissioned officers, but they are ranked below commissioned officers.

RankInsignia
Warrant Officer
Chief Warrant Officer Two
Chief Warrant Officer Three
Chief Warrant Officer Four
Chief Warrant Officer Five

Army Commissioned Officer Ranks & Insignia

Commissioned officers receive their authority from the President of the United States and take part in executive leadership training.

Note that the highest rank in the Army — General of the Army or what is often called a “five-star general” — is a wartime rank. It is not currently active in the U.S. military and hasn’t been held since the mid-20th century. The same applies to the General of the Air Force and the Fleet Admiral of the U.S. Navy.

RankInsigniaShoulder Board
Second Lieutenant
First Lieutenant
Captain
Major
Lieutenant Colonel
Colonel
Brigadier General
Major General
Lieutenant General
General
General of the Army

United States Marine Corps Ranks and Insignia

Where to Look

Combat Uniform

Enlisted and officers: Collar. For both enlisted and officers, rank insignia is pinned on the collar of the combat uniform. Enlisted ranking insignia is black metal. Officer ranking insignia are polished pins while in garrison; subdued black in the field. 

Service Uniform 

Enlisted: Both sleeves.

Officers: Pins on both jacket epaulets and/or both shirt collars.

The same protocols apply to blue dress, blue-white dress, red dress, and evening dress uniforms. Enlisted Marines wear insignia on sleeves; officers wear pins on shoulders.

Marine Enlisted Ranks & Insignia (from lowest to highest)

RankInsignia
Private First Class
Lance Corporal
Corporal (From here on out, all ranks are considered non-commissioned officers.)
Sergeant
Staff Sergeant
Gunnery Sergeant
Master Sergeant
First Sergeant
Master Gunnery Sergeant
Sergeant Major
Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps

Marine Warrant Officer Ranks & Insignia

RankInsignia
Warrant Officer
Chief Warrant Officer Two
Chief Warrant Officer Three
Chief Warrant Officer Four
Chief Warrant Officer Five

Marine Commissioned Officer Ranks & Insignia

RankInsigniaShoulder Strap
Second Lieutenant
First Lieutenant
Captain
Major
Lieutenant Colonel
Colonel
Brigadier General
Major General
Lieutenant General
General

United States Air Force Ranks and Insignia

Where to Look

Air Combat Uniform

Enlisted: Both sleeves will have a black embroidered patch of the enlisted Airman’s rank.

Officer: Rank insignia is embroidered on both sides of the collar.

Service Dress Uniform

Enlisted: Both sleeves. You’ll see a blue and white patch on both the upper sleeves of the uniform.

Officers: Shoulder pins. 

Air Force Enlisted Ranks & Insignia (from lowest to highest)

RankInsignia
Airman
Airman First Class
Senior Airman
Staff Sergeant (From here on out, all ranks are considered non-commissioned officers.)
Technical Sergeant
Master Sergeant
Senior Master Sergeant
Chief Master Sergeant
Command Chief Master Sergeant
Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force

Air Force Warrant Officer Ranks & Insignia

The Air Force discontinued the Warrant Officer grade in 1958.

Air Force Commissioned Officer Ranks & Insignia

RankInsigniaShoulder Strap
Second Lieutenant
First Lieutenant
Captain
Major
Lieutenant Colonel
Colonel
Brigadier General
Major General
Lieutenant General
General
General of the Air Force

United States Navy Rates and Insignia

Where to Look

Thanks to its rich nautical history, the Navy has some subtle differences on how they display rank, particularly on the dress uniforms of officers.

Navy Working Uniform 

Enlisted and officers: Patch on center of chest. Both enlisted Sailors and officers have an insignia patch sewn onto the center of the chest of the working uniform. 

Navy Service Uniform

Enlisted and officers: Pin on shirt collars. Both enlisted Seamen and officers display rank on the collar of their shirt when in service uniform.

Service/Full Dress Blue

Enlisted: Patch on the left sleeve.

Chief Petty Officers: Patch on the left sleeve.

Officers: Stripes on the bottom of both jacket sleeves.

Service/Full Dress White

Enlisted: Patch on the upper left sleeve.

Chief Petty Officer: Pins on both sides of the collar.

Officers: Boards on shoulders.

Navy Enlisted Rates & Insignia (from lowest to highest)

RankSleeve InsigniaCollar Device
Seaman Apprentice
Seaman
Petty Officer Third Class (From here on out, all ranks are considered non-commissioned officers.)
Petty Officer Second Class
Petty Officer First Class
Chief Petty Officer (Chief Petty Officers are non-commissioned offers, but form a separate community within the Navy. There's a lot of speciality exams, a peer review process, and even an approval by Congress before a Seaman can become a Chief Petty Officer.)
Senior Chief Petty Officer
Master Chief Petty Officer
Command Senior Chief Petty Officer
Command Master Chief Petty Officer
Fleet/Force Master Chief Petty Officer
Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy

Navy Warrant Officer Rates & Insignia

RankInsigniaShoulder Board
Chief Warrant Officer Two
Chief Warrant Officer Three
Chief Warrant Officer Four
Chief Warrant Officer Five

Navy Commissioned Officer Rates & Insignia

RankInsigniaShoulder Board
(Dress White)
Sleeve Cuff
(Dress Blues)
Ensign
Lieutenant Junior Grade
Lieutenant
Lieutenant Commander
Commander
Captain
Rear Admiral (lower half)
Rear Admiral
Vice Admiral
Admiral
Fleet Admiral

United States Coast Guard Ranks and Insignia

It’s very similar to the Navy rankings and insignia with a few style changes to differentiate the two branches.