September 20, 2019

Naval Ranks - Warrant and Enlisted

I've previously covered the origins and structure of naval officer ranks. Now, it's time to turn our attention to those who lack commissions, the warrant officers, petty officers, and enlisted men. But first, we need to understand the organization of a late sailing warship, as the influence of said structure is still visible today.

A Boatswain

In the very early days, sailing warships had two sets of officers: the commissioned officers, the captain and his lieutenants, who were usually entirely ignorant of the sea and primarily there to command the troops the ships used to board each other; and the warrant officers,1 who were nautical specialists responsible for sailing the ship. These were usually former enlisted men who had worked their way up to their positions of Boatswain,2 Gunner, and Carpenter. All were required to be literate, as they had to keep an account of the stores under their control.

Below them came the men collectively known as ratings, because their position on the ship was based on the Captain's rating of them and not on an external source like a warrant or commission. The most senior were the warrant officer's assistants, known as mates (Boatswain's Mate, Gunner's Mate, etc), who were experienced in that field and who might one day become warrant officers themselves. These men were collectively known as petty officers, the term coming from a medieval title for a junior village official. Men who were not petty officers fell into one of three ratings: landsmen, ordinary seamen and able seamen. A landsman was new to the sea, and unfamiliar with all of the varied skills a seaman needed to be really useful in running a ship. Men who had some experience were rated as ordinary seaman and paid more, while a man who could "hand, reef, and steer"3 would be rated as an able seaman. Many men who were pressed were already ordinary or able seamen, and it was often difficult for landsmen to advance. One drawback of the rating scheme was that ratings were not preserved when men moved between ships, and it was particularly easy for a petty officer to end up back at Able if the ship he was going to already had enough mates.

The same basic structure is visible today, even to the point that the term rank is technically incorrect when referring to an enlisted sailor, who has a rate instead. There have been only two major changes. First, with the proliferation of specialized technical skills, the days of an Able Seaman who can manage all of the basic duties running a ship are long gone. Today, every sailor has, besides his rate, a rating4 for his specialized job that forms part of his formal title. Second, a new category for senior enlisted has been created, the Chief Petty Officer, who are generally agreed to form the backbone of the modern USN.

Unlike when we broke down officer ranks, we'll start at the bottom. A new sailor will generally enter as an E-1, a Recruit. His actual rate will depend on what career field he's going into. Sailors headed for general positions are known as Seaman Recruits, while those going into engineering, aviation, construction and medical are known as Fireman, Airman, Constructionman and Hospitalman Recruits respectively. Upon promotion, the rate changes to Seaman (or whatever) Apprentice, and the sailor wears two stripes of a color corresponding to his rate. An E-3, the highest rate below petty officer, wears three stripes and has the rate of Seaman (or whatever).

Petty Officers run from E-4 to E-6 (Petty Officer 3rd Class to Petty Officer 1st Class, PO3 to PO1) and form the bulk of the Navy's active workforce. And while low-ranking sailors form five different groups, Petty Officers have their full rating as part of their rate, meaning that there are over 50 different titles for POs. So a PO3 who is a Boatswain's Mate would be a Bosun's Mate Third Class (BM3) and a Gunner's Mate who's a 1st Class would be Gunner's Mate First Class (GM1). Petty officers are expected to perform leadership duties, but the bulk of enlisted leadership is provided by the senior enlisted men, the Chief Petty Officers (CPOs).

Chiefs, as they are near-universally known, are nearly unique in their selection and living conditions. To become a chief, a PO1 must not only have sufficient service time and good evaluations, but he must also be selected by a board of serving Chiefs. The next step is known as Initiation or Induction, a six-week process by which Chief Selectees are turned into the leaders that make the USN what it is. They also change uniforms, going from enlisted blues or whites to officer-style whites or khakis. They have their own mess, formally know as the Chief's Mess, but usually called the Goat Locker.5 I can't do justice to this amazing group, so I'll send you to someone who can. There are three grades of Chief, with the rates of Senior Chief and Master Chief being the pinnacle of an enlisted sailor's career.

But what of warrant officers? They still exist, although their role has shrunk, along with their numbers. Today, a warrant officer is usually a senior specialist in a technical field who transitioned after they made Chief. They have leadership responsibilities and often fill roles that would otherwise go to junior officers, but in positions that require more skill and experience. These range from running an engine room to feeding everyone on a big ship.

Like every other part of the Navy, the rate/rank structure is a product of history. This can make it confusing, but it's also vital to understanding the modern USN, and most other Anglophone navies use similar systems.

1 So called because they held their officer positions through a warrant from the Admiralty instead of a commission from the King. The Master, discussed last time, was among them.

2 The title of the man responsible for the ship's boats, sails, anchors, cables, and all the other moving bits. It's pronounced "bosun", for reasons that I'm not clear on.

3 Or, in plain English, use a sounding line, work aloft on the sails, and steer the ship.

4 Yes, I am well aware that the terminology here is terrible and confusing. I did not invent it, and the last attempt to change it prompted such a massive backlash that it is unlikely to be attempted again any time soon.

5 This is said to go back to the days of sail. The goats were kept in the quarters of the senior enlisted men because they could be trusted not to eat them. I have some suspicions that this isn't true.


  1. September 20, 2019Jade Nekotenshi said...

    Slight correction - a Seaman Apprentice wears two stripes and a Seaman 3. The single stripe is used for a Seaman Recruit, but only in the Coast Guard for reasons entirely unclear to me.

  2. September 20, 2019bean said...

    Oops. Fixed now.

  3. September 20, 2019ADifferentAnonymous said...

    ...And now I know why Chief O'Brien on Star Trek is always outranked by every other cast member.

  4. September 26, 2019Alex said...

    Do USN vessels still have boatswains? I know they have lots of "boatswain's mates", but I never hear about boatswains.

  5. September 26, 2019bean said...

    I believe they do, and it's the title of either a warrant officer or a chief who is probably the most experienced BM in the ship.

  6. September 26, 2019Jade Nekotenshi said...

    On ships that have a Deck Department (as opposed to the Deck Division one might find on a destroyer or cruiser),yeah, there'll be a boatswain. For weird hysterical raisins, the department head or division officer of Deck is called the 1st Lieutenant, however. (That's true even if they're a LCDR, although even on a carrier it'd be rare to have an O-4 in that slot.)

  7. May 13, 2024Ian Argent said...

    Boatswain is shortened to bosun because some forecastle smooth the extra syllables out of any multisyllable word...

    (Bosun and fo’csle, respectively)

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