The History of Navy Rank: Warrant Officers

Nicholas Roland, Historian
Naval History and Heritage Command

Showing from left: Private, Drummer (Marine Corps), Warrant Officer, Musician, Chief Petty Officer (Master-at- Arms), Private (Marine Corps), Corporal (Marine Corps). Lithograph by Werner, copyright in 1899 by The Werner Company.

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 warrant officer ranks. The other posts in the series discuss officer ranks and enlisted rates and ratings.

Modern warrant officer ranks trace their origins back to medieval England. As early as 1040, warships furnished to King Edward the Confessor included crews with permanent officers designated master, boatswain, carpenter, and cook. These officers were in charge of the sailing and maintenance of the ship, while the captains’ and lieutenants’ sole purpose was to command soldiers carried onboard and to lead their troops during combat.

By the fifteenth century, the captains and lieutenants began taking over the executive operation of the ships. Eventually they were considered naval rather than army officers, but a distinction was maintained between officers holding commissions and those holding warrants. Commissioned officers held a commission from the monarch authorizing them to exercise command of naval vessels and personnel. Warrant officers, on the other hand, held a warrant – derived from the French word warant, meaning variously a protector, a defense, and an authorization – issued by the admiralty.

Unlike commissioned officers, whose purpose was to command ships and Sailors, warrant officers were expert seamen who possessed special skills that were essential to the operation of sailing ships. In recognition of this expertise, these men received warrants to distinguish them from enlisted seamen and to confer lawful authority upon them, while not conveying the responsibility of command that was exercised by commissioned line officers. Although United States Navy warrant officers are now legally considered commissioned officers as well, their traditional role as expert technical specialists continues to this day.

Much like early commissioned officer ranks, Continental Navy warrant officer ranks were quite simple when established in 1775. The Continental Navy mirrored the British Navy’s rank structure at the time, and warrant officer ranks reflected the specialized knowledge required to keep a warship in operation: master (an expert navigator), purser, second master, surgeon’s mate, cook, “armourer,” gunsmith, master-at-arms, and sailmaker comprised the warrant ranks authorized by the Continental Congress.

Also like commissioned officer ranks, warrant ranks underwent considerable change during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with the same ranks classified at various times as enlisted, warranted, or commissioned. When the United States Navy was reestablished in 1794, the authorized warrant officer ranks were sailing-master, purser, boatswain, gunner, sailmaker, carpenter, and midshipmen. In contrast to the Continental Navy, the 1794 legislation considered cooks, armorers, gunsmiths, and masters-at-arms to be enlisted petty officers, while surgeon’s mates were considered commissioned officers. Legislation in 1813 made pursers commissioned staff officers and established master’s mates as warrant officers, although Navy registers did not list master’s mates as warrant officers at any time thereafter. In 1837 the title of master replaced that of sailing-master, and by at least 1838 master’s mates were definitely considered an enlisted rate.

Unlike commissioned officer ranks and excepting sailing-masters and master’s mates, until 1899 the warrant officer corps did not have an internal rank structure, with all warranted ranks equal to one another and subordinate to the commissioned officers of the ship. One minor and short-lived distinction between masters “in line of promotion” and masters not in line of promotion began in 1855.

Midshipman was a warranted rank in the pre-Civil War Navy and beginning in 1819 midshipmen were required to pass an examination to qualify for promotion to lieutenant. Masters in line of promotion were drawn from the ranks of those midshipmen who had passed their examinations. As vacancies occurred, these masters were then promoted to the commissioned office of lieutenant. An 1862 overhaul of the Navy’s rank structure eliminated the warrant officer rank of master, and it was converted into an officer rank below lieutenant and above ensign. This wartime legislation also ended midshipman as a warranted rank. Boatswains, gunners, carpenters, and sailmakers were the only warrant officers retained between the Civil War and 1898.

Around the turn of the twentieth century warrant officer ranks began to grow again. The first new warrant rank was that of pharmacist, created in 1898 with the legislation that established the Navy Hospital Corps. In 1899, Congress created the ranks of chief boatswain, chief gunner, chief carpenter, and chief sailmaker, who were to be commissioned and rank “with but after ensign.” Warrant officers could be promoted to chief warrant officer ten years after their date of rank and upon passage of a board of examination. The legislation automatically promoted currently serving warrant officers with fifteen years in-grade. For the first time, chief warrant officers appeared in the Navy and a warrant officer’s rank was no longer synonymous with his specialty.

The same legislation also created warrant officer machinists to help meet the modernizing United States fleet’s increasing requirements for mechanical expertise. Legislation in 1904 reduced the time in-grade requirement for promotion to chief warrant officer to six years, and after 1909 all warrant machinists were commissioned as chief machinists. This legislation increased the warrant officer corps to 10 ranks in six specialties.

As the Navy approached the First World War, warrant officer ranks and specialties continued to expand. Warrant pay clerk was established in 1915, with promotion to chief pay clerk possible after six years in-grade. The chief pharmacist rank was created the following year. Remnants of the age of sail began to disappear: the last chief sailmaker left active Navy service in 1918, although Chief Sailmaker Charles E. Tallman remained on the retired list until 1934. With the increase in shipboard electricity and radio communications, electrician, chief electrician, radio electrician, and chief radio electrician joined the warrant officer corps in 1925. On the eve of the Second World War, the Navy had 15 warrant officer ranks in eight specialties.

After the United States’ entry into the Second World War, eight new warrant officer ranks were created: torpedoman, chief torpedoman, ship’s clerk, chief ship’s clerk, photographer, chief photographer, aerographer, chief aerographer. Although some of the roles of these new specialties had been previously carried out by Sailors in other fields – gunners had formerly done the duties of the new torpedomen, for instance – the Navy recognized that the rapid acceleration of technological change and the increasing specialization required for technical fields demanded a growth in the warrant officer corps. By 1948, there were 12 warrant officer specialties: boatswain, gunner, torpedoman, electrician, radio electrician, machinist, carpenter, ships clerk, aerographer, photographer, hospital corpsman (formerly pharmacist), and pay clerk. The Career Compensation Act of 1949 established the pay grades of warrant officer-1 through chief warrant officer-4, for the first time expanding warrant officer grades beyond simply warrant officer and chief warrant officer in a given specialty.

On the recommendation of a board convened by the Chief of Naval Operations, the Navy decided to phase out warrant officers beginning in 1959. This decision was spurred by two developments: the establishment of the limited duty officer (LDO) program in 1947 and the creation of senior chief (SCPO/E-8) and master chief petty officer (MCPO/E-9) rates in 1958. LDOs are commissioned officers with special technical training, who exercise authority and responsibility greater than that expected of warrant officers, but whose career path is outside the normal pattern for line officers. The board concluded that between the new senior enlisted ranks and the creation of LDOs, warrant officers no longer had a role in the Navy.

These beliefs did not pan out. Over time it became evident that E-8s and E-9s lacked the statutory authority necessary to carry out the duties formerly belonging to warrant officers, while LDOs were typically in managerial positions that did not allow for direct supervision of enlisted technicians. Clearly, warrant officers were still needed to fill this gap in expertise, authority, and management. In 1963, another board reversed course and recommended the reinstatement of the warrant officer program.

Eleven years later yet another board examined the warrant officer and limited duty officer programs and recommended several changes, including clearly defined roles for warrant officers and limited duty officers and specific billets for each. Pay was another issue at the time: a senior enlisted Sailor who became a warrant officer-1 would suffer a pay decrease, a situation which worked against the Navy’s efforts to maintain its warrant officer manning. To alleviate this problem, the Navy eliminated the warrant officer-1 rank in 1975. Eventually promotion from senior enlisted directly to higher warrant officer grades also helped to alleviate the problem.

Warrant officer ranks and specialties have continued to change up to the present day to improve retention, meet the Navy’s manning needs in certain specialties, and maintain expertise in critical fields. Congress established the grade of chief warrant officer-5 in 1991. However, the Navy did not institute it until October 2002, a move that was aimed at retaining warrant officers for a full 30-year career.

In 2006, a trial program created a pathway for chief warrant officers to serve as pilots and naval flight officers with the intent to create flying specialists unencumbered by the traditional career paths of the officer unrestricted line community. Due to changes in the naval aviator population, the flying CWO program was subsequently eliminated in 2013.

Most recently, in an effort to retain cyber specialists, the Navy has announced that beginning in 2019 the rank of warrant officer-1 will be brought back from its 44-year absence for Sailors in this specialized field. Those eligible must be of the rank of petty officer second class or higher, hold a cryptologic technician networks rating, and have between six and 12 years in service.

Warrant officer specialties grew from 12 in the Second World War to 26 by 1979. Presently, the Navy has 31 billet codes for warrant officers, with two (nuclear power technician and explosive ordnance disposal technician) in the process of being phased out. As technologies constantly change and manning requirements fluctuate, the warrant officer corps will continue to expand and contract in various fields. In the twenty-first century Navy, perhaps more than ever before in its history, the technical expertise and wealth of experience held by warrant officers continues to be an essential ingredient in maintaining the fleet’s fighting edge.

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