The History of Navy Rank (or Rate): Enlisted Personnel

By Nicholas Roland, Historian, Naval History and Heritage Command

From left: First Class Petty Officer, Third Class Petty Officer, Lieutenant (j.g.), Lieutenant Commander, and Commander. Uniforms of the U.S. Navy 1951-1952 

To outsiders, especially members of the non-maritime services, the U.S. Navy’s unique rank structure can be confusing. The history of Navy ranks is equally complicated, and includes an assortment of ranks that no longer exist and some that have disappeared, reappeared, and disappeared again! In this part of a three-part series, we look at the evolution of the Navy’s enlisted rate and rating structure. The other posts in the series discuss warrant officer and officer ranks.

The United States Navy’s enlisted rank and rate system is unique among the armed services. The first point of divergence is the term “rate,” used in the Navy rather than the more-familiar term “rank,” which is reserved for naval officers and warrant officers. The second unique aspect of Navy enlisted rates is the inextricable linkage of rates, which represent a Sailor’s pay grade, and ratings, which denote an occupational specialty. For example, where a notional Sergeant Smith may have a military occupational specialty (MOS) of infantryman in the Army, he would simply be designated Sergeant Smith, both in conversation and on official documents. A Sailor of equivalent rank/rate with a rating of boatswain’s mate would be Boatswain’s Mate Second Class Jones. Thus, the Navy combines rates and ratings in Sailors’ titles.

To complicate matters further, the Navy considers Sailors in the E-1 to E-3 pay grades “nonrated,” meaning they do not yet hold a rating. Most Sailors achieve their rating through qualification at advanced training schools after basic training. A portion of Sailors enter the fleet “undesignated,” and are assigned to general career paths such as aviation (airman), deck (seaman), and engineering (fireman). These Sailors can earn a rating through examination, a process known as “striking for rate.” Those who undertake this process are known as “strikers.”

The history of the Navy’s enlisted rate and rating system, like its counterparts in the officer and warrant officer corps’ rank structure, reflects the Navy’s evolution from a labor-intensive sailing fleet into a technologically-advanced, highly-specialized force with an established system for career advancement in a wide variety of occupational specialties.

Rates and ratings were one and the same in the eighteenth-century British navy. Common seamen of various grades of skill and experience comprised the vast majority of a ship’s crew and were organized as deemed necessary by the ship’s chain of command. Petty officers – a term derived from the French petit, meaning “small” – were appointed by a ship’s captain to fill specific roles onboard ship, and they did not retain their positions when they moved between ships. As in most administrative matters, the United States Navy followed the Royal Navy’s precedent when it was established.

Besides officers and warrant officers, the Continental Congress simply called for enlisted seamen in 1775. When the Navy was reestablished in 1794, petty officer complements were specified. Each frigate was to have as petty officers two master’s mates, a captain’s clerk, two boatswain’s mates, a coxswain, a sailmaker’s mate, two gunner’s mates, a yeoman of the gun-room, one quarter gunner for every four guns (amounting to eleven for each of the 44-gun, and nine for each of the 36-gun frigates), two carpenter’s mates, an armorer, a steward, a cooper, a master-at-arms, and a cook.

Additional rates were created early in the Navy’s history. For instance, “boy” began in 1798 as a rate for juvenile apprentice Sailors at a time when there was no minimum age for service in the Navy. The whimsically-named loblolly boy was the predecessor to today’s hospital corpsman. This rate derived its name from the thick porridge given to sick Sailors.

A rate structure for Sailors without a specialized rating emerged by 1838 at the latest, and it continued until the 1880s. Landsman — a Sailor with no nautical experience — rated above boy. Ordinary seaman rated above landsman but was inferior to seaman, the highest rate below petty officer.

Unlike commissioned and warrant officers, who received presidential appointments, with few exceptions in the Navy’s first century, a ship’s commanding officer appointed his petty officers. Petty officers served at his pleasure and did not retain their rate if they transferred to another station. The Navy assigned junior enlisted Sailors a rate based on their level of nautical experience and skill. The service placed little emphasis on training and retaining Sailors for a career, although bonuses were offered for reenlistment after 1855. Major ports hosted training ships beginning in 1826, but throughout the nineteenth century the Navy relied primarily upon prior experience in the merchant marine or on-the-job training aboard ship rather than a formal training program for rating enlisted Sailors.

With technological change ushered in by the age of steam came new enlisted ratings: coal heaver and fireman in 1842; boilermaker in 1869; engineer’s force seaman in 1871; engineer’s yeoman in 1874; engineer’s force blacksmith in 1880; electrician in 1883; oiler and watertender in 1884; and “plumber and fitter” in 1893. The Navy created a variety of other ratings in the nineteenth century, some of which survived only a few years. Jack of the dust, for instance, was a rating between 1876 and 1893 for the commissary man in charge of loading and keeping stores aboard ship. The term survives today to describe Sailors detailed to help load and break out food for a ship’s cooks.

From left: Seaman, Lieutenant, and Petty Officer.

The Navy implemented precedence by rating in 1863, creating a hierarchy among Sailors of the same rate but with different ratings. Despite the shift toward steam propulsion, petty officers with more traditional ratings, such as boatswain’s mates and gunner’s mates, rated ahead of Sailors in newer ratings such as machinists and boilermakers. This practice continued into the twentieth century.

Over time the Navy’s system of rates and ratings became more formalized. Petty officers first received distinctive uniform insignia in the Navy regulations of 1841, when they were instructed to wear an eagle perched on an anchor on one uniform sleeve. Boatswain’s mates, gunner’s mates, carpenter’s mates, masters at arms, ship’s stewards and ship’s cooks wore it on the right sleeve while quarter masters, quarter gunners, captains of the forecastle, captains of tops, captains of the afterguard, armorers, coopers, ship’s corporals and captains of the hold wore it on the left sleeve.

Rating marks were approved in 1869, although they may have been in use informally already. In 1885, the Navy created first, second, and third class petty officer rates, and seaman first, second, and third class rates for non-petty officers. Rate and rating thus became distinct categories for the first time. Enlisted Sailors were also grouped into three branches —seaman, artificer, or special — that were predecessors to the career paths Sailors enter today.

In 1886, petty officers were authorized to wear insignia consisting of a spread eagle over a downward-pointing chevron with a rating mark. Over time, the petty officer’s insignia came to be referred to as the “crow.” The 1886 regulations also specified that petty officers of the starboard watch were to wear rating badges on their right sleeves, while the left sleeve was to be used by those on the port watch. Beginning in 1913, Sailors in the seaman branch were required to wear their insignia on the right arm, while all other ratings wore their insignia on the left. This practice gave rise to the term “right arm rate,” signifying a member of the seaman branch. In Navy culture, right arm rates are traditionally held to be more “salty” — tough and seamanlike — than Sailors in the more technical ratings.

In addition to fighting for cutting-edge ships and weapon systems, reformers worked to modernize the Navy’s personnel system in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The creation of the chief petty officer rate in 1893 was the final major change to rates and ratings in the nineteenth century and signified the increasing organizational complexity required by the steam-driven Navy.

Beginning in the same year, petty officers of all ratings became eligible for permanent appointments, enabling them to maintain their rate when moving from one station to another. This policy aided in the retention of experienced Sailors, who could now hope to advance in rate over time. The establishment in 1899 of a retirement pension for men who completed a thirty-year career was another key development in the Navy’s professionalization.

Finally, in 1920 Congress standardized pay so that all equivalent rates received the same pay. Previously, Sailors of the same rate but with different ratings had received varying levels of pay. For example, in 1919, petty officers first class in the seaman branch received a monthly base pay between $40 and $50, those in the artificer branch were paid between $40 and $80, and those in the special branch received between $36 and $60. Legislation in 1922 went one step further and implemented seven enlisted pay grades, with the first grade receiving the highest pay and the seventh grade the lowest. However, the Navy retained precedence by rating, and maintained a pay difference between petty officers and chief petty officers with permanent appointments and those with acting appointments.

The increasingly rapid pace of technological change in the twentieth century saw the creation of many new ratings and the abolition of others to suit the Navy’s personnel needs. Between the beginning and end of the First World War, the Navy’s ratings increased from 29 to 39. By 1930, there were 47 ratings. Ratings numbers spiked during the Second World War, when the Navy added nearly 200 emergency service ratings to facilitate the integration of already-skilled workers and decrease the time required for technical training.

The personnel system as we know it today emerged in a series of post-Second World War reforms. The Career Compensation Act of 1949 established the current pay grade system of E-1 to E-7, reversing the pay grade numbering system from 1922 and eliminating the distinction between pay for Sailors holding acting or permanent appointments. Uniform regulations changed in the same year to mandate that all rate insignia would be worn on the left arm, though the term “right-arm rate” continues to the present to describe Sailors in the seaman branch.

The Navy also streamlined its rating system for the Cold War era. A new ratings plan was implemented on January 1, 1948, and over the next year the Navy completed the process of consolidating the 48 general service ratings and nearly 200 emergency service ratings from the Second World War era into 83 general service ratings. These numbers continued to fluctuate over the course of the Cold War. In 1958, an amendment to the Career Compensation Act of 1949 established the senior chief (SCPO/E-8) and master chief petty officer (MCPO/E-9) rates. Acting petty officer appointments were ended in 1965, and a 1968 change to the 1959 Bureau of Naval Personnel (BUPERS) Manual eliminated precedence among ratings and established a precedence system for military and non-military matters based solely on pay grade and time in grade.

After the Cold War, the Navy reduced and consolidated a number of ratings to reflect the changes driven by the Navy’s technological needs. In September 2016, the Navy announced that it was ending the tradition of referring to Sailors by their rating as part of an enlisted career management modernization plan. Under this plan, Sailors would be referred to by their rate: “Second Class Petty Officer” or “Petty Officer,” for example, rather than “Yeoman Second Class,” a practice identical to that of the other uniformed services. This change was meant to reflect the replacement of rating titles with new Navy Occupational Specialty (NOS) codes, a move intended to facilitate a personnel management system that would allow Sailors to move back and forth between occupations and allow greater credentialing opportunities. The plan was also part of an effort to move toward gender-neutral titles, in recognition of the twenty-first century Navy’s diversity. Many Sailors responded by vigorously defending the tradition of rating titles, and in December 2016 the Navy reversed course and announced that the rating system would remain in place. As of this writing, there are 56 general service ratings.

The Navy’s system of enlisted rates and ratings is one of the most distinctive features of the service, with roots that extend back to the Revolutionary War and beyond. Although many ratings have come and gone over time, boatswain’s mate and gunner’s mate have been in continuous use since the reestablishment of the Navy in 1794, and they are a direct link to that historic event for the Sailors who wear those ratings. (The yeoman rating was disestablished from 1884 to 1893).

As the Navy and its personnel needs have evolved, a system originating in the age of sail has modernized and aligned itself with the other American armed services, while maintaining the service’s distinctive traditions. Striking the balance between tradition and adaptability is a crucial aspect of the twenty-first century U.S. Navy, and a task that will surely continue in a rapidly changing operating environment.

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