Can someone explain the archetypes of military rank?

The system I am familiar with is the US military’s designations, such as Private, Sergeant (and its ilk), Lieutenants, Captains, Generals, and so forth. Each rank is a ‘pay grade’ but I can’t help but think that there’s more to a Gunnery Sergeant than how much he makes per year…

Why does each branch have a different set of ranks? Most of them seem pretty similar, but I can’t help but wonder if an Army Captain has a significantly smaller presence than a Navy Captain. A Navy Captain is in charge of a ship, an Army Captain…well…uh, my dad was a Captain in the Army Reserves, and he spent most of his time behind a desk…which kind of seems like the ‘Army’ Captain is an entirely different animal compared to a ‘Navy’ Captain…:confused:

Also, I’m sure the US way is probably very widespread in other militaries (with their own wprd for private, sergeant, etc) but are some militaries run significantly differently? What about the USSR, did it take a different approach to rank and the respective responsibility?

R. Lee Earney answered a question about rank on his show Mail Call once, and the only significant thing I learned is how there seem to be a lot of different kinds of Sergeants, and a lot of recycling of names.

Finally, what about some ranks that aren’t in the US military, like Marshall, or Comissar? What exactly are these?

A captain in the Airforce or Army is an O-3. That means he is the third level of rank for officers. A captain in the Navy is an O-6. He’s the equivalent of an army Colonel.

this site will tell you more than you wanted to know about american military pay grades.

Sorry, I don’t really know much about foreign militaries, except that there is a standard equivalent, so that people know who needs to salute who. I went to tech school with an equivalent of a captain from Saudi Arabia ( not in same class, but was a few classes behind), but I don’t know what his actual rank was called.

As for the marshall, it depends. In the soviet army, marshall was a regular rank, above general ranks, and there were marshalls in time of peace. In the french army, marshall isn’t a rank but a “distinction”, IOW, purely honorific and only granted in time of war (or following a war), similar, I understand, to the US “general of the army”.

Weirdly enough, the only other “distinction” in the french army is “soldat de premiere classe” (first class private) at the opposite end of food chain.

When I checked, it seemed to me that officer ranks are generally very similar from an army to another. On the other hand, NCO ranks seem to vary much more widely, and the comparisons seem much more difficult.

When regular standing armies and navies were first formed in Europe in the 16th century, the title of “Captain” was awarded to the commander of the smallest independant military unit (the name “captain” comes from Spanish, as do most officer titles). In an army, the smallest independant unit was the company, which contained anything from 100 to 300 troops. The smallest independant naval unit was, of course, the ship, which at the time contained about the same amount of men. With times, ships got larger, while companies stayed the same size (or even got smaller). Thus, naval captains became relatively more important, while army captains stayed pretty much the same.

The U.S. Navy Historical Center has an interesting web site, Why is the Colonel Called “Kernal”? The Origin of the Ranks and Rank Insignia Now Used by the United States Armed Forces which describes the history of the rank system used by the U.S. and much of the rest of the world.

In short, the basic historical land fighting unit was the company, led by a captain who was assisted by a lieutenant and a sergeant. When numbers of companies fought together (a regiment), they were all led by a colonel (from Spanish for column) who was assisted by a lieutenant colonel and a sergeant major (later major). When a number of regiments fought together, they were led by a colonel general, assisted by a lieutenant general and a sergant major general (later major general).

When a company embarked on a ship (originally just a merchant ship before the development of the professional navies), the captain would be in military command, while the ship’s master would run the ship. Eventually military officers took over permanent command of naval ship, but the head of the permanent ship’s company was still known as the captain and he was assisted by one or more lieutenants. Eventually, the captain grades expanded to captain (commanding the largest ships) and commander (commanding smaller ships), and the lieutenant grades expanded to include “lieutenant commanding” (later lieutenant commander) for officers put in charge of the smallest ships that didn’t rate a full commander.

Some navies (France, Germany ) have as the ranks under a full ships Captain ranks that seem to indicate command of smaller vessels. In the USN a Captain holds a major command. A Commander or Lieutenant Commander or even Lieutenant could be “Captain” of a smaller vessel.

  1. Capitaine de vaisseau
    (GB/US): Captain
    (D): Kapitän zur See

  2. Capitaine de frégate
    (GB/US): Commander
    (D): Fregattenkapitän

  3. Capitaine de Corvette
    (GB/US): Lieutenant-Commander
    (D): Korvettenkapitän

The Navy title Commodore was for some time used to designate the lowest ranked admiral. Mid- to late-'80s this was replaced with “Rear Admiral, Lower Half” (yeah, we called them half-assed admirals. So sue me.) Commodore, though, has a long history as the senior ranking officer of a group of ships. Goes back to the days of the British Empire Navy, where quite a lot of US Navy traditions and conventions come from.

Navy ranks were rather slow to develop - originally I believe, you had ensigns (occassionally), lieutenants, captains, and admirals. Captain Bligh was a lieutenant while in command of the Bounty (I believe Mr. Christian was actually still a midshipman). It wasn’t until relatively recenlty that we had so many ranks.

If I remember right, a non-sailor - Abraham Lincoln, inadvertantly created the rank of lieutenant commander. He wanted to send a letter to the captain of the Monitor, whom he knew to hold the rank of lieutenant. Being a landlubber, and not sure of how to address someone who was both a lieutenant (his rank) and a captain (his position) he fudged a bit and addressed him as the lieutenant commander of the Monitor. I guess that this also led to the rank of commander.

Minor etymological note: Captain, from capitán/capitain, from the Latin capitas, head. Literally, the head of the unit. Lieutenant, literally he who holds the place (of the person in charge).

As to one of the OP questions: Most nations’ military organizational schemes derive at least in part from Prussian/Napoleonic models (plus British, in the case of navies), either by direct copy or by copy-of-copy, and thus have many of their components, and the names given them, be a legacy of Frederick the Great’s or Bonaparte’s armies; e.g. Russia adopted a modified version of the Prussian rank system (with Field Marshalls and Colonels-General at the top), translating those ranks that had an approximate translation to a traditional title of Russian warriors, but just transcribing others.

The ranks pattern for junior and field-grade land-forces officers is pretty much universal along Western armies. General Officer ranks have two major historic versions: a Prussian one: major general - lt. general - col. general - Field Marshall, and a French (Napoleonic?) one: brigade general - division general - corps general - army general. Modern armies pick and choose variations and combinations thereon.

The main divergence in Navies is in the middle grades, where there’s the RN/USN pattern: Lt. Commander, Commander, Captain; and a Continental European pattern of 3 grades of Captain (Corvette/Frigate/Ship-o-the-Line ;or 3rd, 2d, 1st Class; or Lt. Captain, Captain, Senior Captain). doesn’t have a whole lot in the way of history, but it’s got a whole bunch of rank insignia. Everything from the Mexican Army to Star Trek.

I was under the impression that Colonel is derived from “corona”, or crown, and Major comes from “Capitan Major”, or senior captain.

During the American Civil War, when there were more than 1,000 generals between the two sides, the army was large enough to require rank above lieutentant general (3-stars) If you look at photos of Grant taken at the end of the war, and when he deigned to dress up more than usual, you’ll see that the buttons on his coat are grouped in fours. His title (and later Sherman and Sheridan) was “General of the Army of the United States.”

During WWII, when the US Army became even bigger (and looked like it would stay bigger even after the shooting stopped,) five-star rank was required. Like the French and British, tradition held that this title would be “Marshall” (orignianlly, during the Capetan Dynasty of Franch, the guy in charge of the royal stable, but somewhat aggrandized over the years).

However, the person in line to be the first Marshall of the United States was named George C. Marshall. And he didn’t want to be known as “Marshall Marshall.” So he, and Eisenhower, MacAurthur, Hap Arnold and Omar Bradley were each called “General of the Army.”

There were also two “General of the Armies of the United States” (slightly different that the two titles above): George Washington and Pershing.

There is some overlap. The English pronunciation of “colonel” seems to derive from the Spanish (coronel – indeed, officer of the crown) while the spelling seems from the Italian (colonello). And in the Mexican and Italian armies there are still two ranks of Captain/Senior Captain but there is also the “Major” field rank.

Calling the lowest field-officer rank “Major” and deriving that from an old officer post of Sergeant Major (as opposed to the modern enlisted post of SGM) may be following Northern European/Prussian style. Spain and France call [the land-forces rank 2 steps down from colonel] “commander” and maintain “major” as the title of the highest enlisted-adjutant rank. Across the world you have various armies (that speak Western languages) using “major/mayor” or “commandant/commander” mostly based on whether they had more or less Franco/Spanish or US/UK/German/Russian influence when they adopted it.

Considering that both Spanish-crown armies AND Italian mercenary forces were all over Europe during Renaissance times, it would not surprise me that a lot of the terms in these linguistically-similar languages would eventually get turned into a common cognate when borrowed by other nations to describe the then-novel infantry-based standing armies. Then after that, during the enlightenment and the 19th Century, you get these replaced as most-influential armies by the Prussians and French so you get their terminology (and structures) added. But that’s just pure speculation on my part as I have not studied military history or etymology to THAT extent.

Then of course there’s the RAF who decided to scratch it all and just put in their job descriptions…

The Red Armies (Soviet between the Revolution and WW2, Chinese during Mao’s lifetime) did try to adopt a “socialist” authority structure. Didn’t work, eventually they reverted to a conventional rank structure.

However, due to the way the USSR (and Eastern-bloc armies in general) Army drafted and trained their forces, they had trouble developing a decent professional-NCO cadre. They eventually had to create a class of “Praporschiki”, variously translated as Warrant Officers or Ensigns, to take that role.

I’d really like to know why the British etc. call Ensigns “Leftenants”.

Their pronounciation can’t be all that bad. :wink:

I’ve never heard anyone call an ensign “leftenant”. The Brits do, however, pronounce “Lieutenant” as “Lef-tenant”, just like they pronounce “Aluminum” as “AH-loo-MINNY-um”

Almost, but off.

Prior to 1863, the American army had a Lieutenant General rank (i.e., 3-stars), but the only person who had ever held it was George Washington. Winfield Scott (hero of the Mexican War) was made a brevet Lieutenant General, but it was felt that giving him the actual rank would be a dishonor to Washington. When Lincoln decided to give Grant full command of the Union Armies, Grant was made the first Lieutenant General since George Washington. (see

The first Full General (i.e., 4-stars) was John “Black Jack” Pershing, commander of the American Expiditionary Force during World War One. Whether it was a matter of the size of force (Pershing was in charge of a 3 million man army, compared to Grant’s 1.5 million), or whether it was a matter of prestige (some felt that the French and British Field Marshalls looked down upon our commander as he was only a Lieutenant General), it was decided to create the 4-star General rank and give it to Pershing (after conveniently posthumously promoting George Washington to it). (see

Oh, also: technically, the United States Army has a 6 star General. Public Law 94-474, passed in 1976, stated that there would be created the grade “General of the Armies of the United States”, which would be superior to all other grades of the Armed Forces, past and present. The appointee to this position? George Washington, posthumously. Thus, no matter what new ranks the U.S. Armed Forces come up with, Washington will always outrank them.

Yeah, I was wondering this the other day.

We’ve got our pronounciation differences either side of the Atlantic, obviously, but this one is beyond all the others.

Crazy yanks pronouncing the word how it’s spelt. Whatever next…

I was wondering about the pronounciation of Lieutenant, btw.

And it’s ah-loo-min-yum. There’s no ‘yummy’ in there. Well, there isn’t in the way I say it. Which is the right way. Obviously.