US Military Rank and Insignia Chart - Officer

Military Officer Ranks and Insignia - How to Become an Officer

Image shows three people in various military uniforms. Text reads: "The main ways to become an officer in the military: reserve officer trainer corps (rotc); service academy; officer candidate school (OCS)"

Image by Jo Zixuan Zhou © The Balance 2019

The history of creating commissioned officers of the United States did not begin until George Washington was President and the United States was an actual country.  Before the making of a country, the Continental Army, Navy, and Marine Corps had officers and enlisted men as early as 1775. Eventually, many of these founding war-fighters were later members of the military of the newly founded country.  For instance, Commodore Barry was granted the first United States Naval commission by President George Washington.  He was tasked with creating a Navy and has shared the Father of the United States Navy title with John Paul Jones. Below are the ranks that were created since the founding of the country. 

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Officer Ranks of the Military

Commissioned Officer Rank

Since before the United States was officially a country, our first General George Washington saw the need of having ranks and noticeable insignia to differentiate the officers from the enlisted as there were no uniforms.  Since then, the insignia of ranks have included such symbols as feathers, sashes, stripes and showy uniforms. Even carrying different weapons has signified rank. The badges of rank have been worn on hats, shoulders and around the waist and chest.

The American military adapted most of its rank insignia from the British. Before the Revolutionary War, Americans drilled with militia outfits based on the British tradition. Sailors followed the example of the most successful navy of the time -- the Royal Navy.

So, the Continental Army had privates, sergeants, lieutenants, captains, colonels, generals for instance. 

The three branches of the service who share the same ranks by name and insignia are the Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps. Rank, title, and collar devices are the same for these branches. However, the Navy does share the same collar devices for their ranking system.

Army, Air Force, and USMC Officer Ranks

O-1:  Second Lieutenant (2nd Lt)

O-2:  First Lieutenant (1st Lt)

O-3:  Captain (Capt)

O-4: Major (Maj)

O-5: Lieutenant Colonel (Lt Col)

O-6: Colonel (Col)

O-7: Brigadier General (Brig Gen)

O-8:  Major General (Maj Gen)

O-9:  Lieutenant General (Lt Gen)

O-10: General (Gen)

O-11:  General of the Army - During time of war, the President can appoint a General of the Army (5 Star).  Previous five start Generals have been:

      •  George Marshall

      •  Douglas MacArthur

      •  Dwight D. Eisenhower    

      •  Henry H. Arnold

      •  Omar Bradley

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Navy and Coast Guard Officer Ranks

The ranks of the United States Navy are similar to the other services only in collar devices. The shoulder boards and sleeves use of bars signify the different ranks within the Navy and Coast Guard.

Below are the Navy and Coast Guard Officer Ranks listed from lowest to highest:

O-1:  Ensign (ENS)

O-2:  Lieutenant Junior Grade (LTjg)

O-3:  Lieutenant (LT)

O-4:  Lieutenant Commander (LCDR)

O-5:  Commander (CDR)

O-6:  Captain(CAPT)

O-7:  Rear Admiral (RADM lower half)

O-8:  Rear Admiral (RADM upper half)

O-9:  Vice Admiral (VADM)

O-10: Admiral (ADM)

O-11:  Fleet Admiral (FLT ADM) - During times of war, the President will appoint a Fleet Admiral and a fifth star to the deserving admiral to be in charge of all Naval Operations in a war.  The Fleet Admirals during World War Two were:  

  • William D. Leahy
  • Ernest J. King 
  • Chester W. Nimitz 
  • William F. Halsey, Jr. 
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How To Become An Officer

Becoming an officer has evolved over the years as well. There are many officer programs than a civilian or enlisted person can take part in to become an officer.  There are programs like the Seaman to Admiral program in the Navy or the Airman Education and Commissioning Program (AECP) where the Navy and Air Force will grant a college scholarship to an individual to attend college (while still enlisted) and receive pay and tuition, room and board. You must be an exceptional candidate as these programs are highly competitive. The other ways to become an officer are through the three main officer programs:

  • ROTC - Reserve Officer Training Corps - ROTC programs are attached to colleges and typically have selected branches of services represented. Some colleges have all branches available. You have to get selected into the college first and if you are highly qualified the military will pay for your college while you learn how to be a member in the military during your four years in the program.
  • Service Academy - The Air Force Academy, Naval Academy (Navy and USMC), Military Academy (Army), Coast Guard Academy, as well as the Merchant Marine Academy (option for military service) prepares young men and women to serve in the military in a four year college program that is free tuition, room, and board.
  • OCS - Officer Candidate School can be for both civilians and enlisted members with college degrees. Depending upon the branch of service, OCS is typically 14-16 weeks of intense training - both physical, academic, and tactical. 

The above list is the main ways to become an officer in the military. Most attend ROTC programs to prepare for leadership roles in the military services.  However, there are smaller programs such as the Limited Duty Officer for the Navy as well as Warrant Officer programs for enlisted personnel to advance their careers.