Military Life Resources

Military ranks: Chevrons, stars and bars, oh my!

Ever wondered about military ranks and what they mean? From chevrons to bars, diamonds to arcs, here's a definitive guide.
Jessica Evans Avatar
army rank promotion
Photo by Ken Scar. (DVIDS)

Ever wondered about military ranks and what they mean? From chevrons to bars, diamonds to arcs, here’s a definitive guide.

Army ranks – from private to general

There are enlisted folks, warrant officers and officers in the U.S. Army. The top dog is the General of the Army. However, only two soldiers in all of history have ever held that rank – George Washington and John J. Pershing. Most often, you’ll see peach fuzz on the uniform of a new recruit who hasn’t yet earned a rank. Then, as a person moves through their Army career, their rank will continue to change. Warrant officers have ranks like Warrant Officer 1 and Chief Warrant Officer 5. Meanwhile, officers range from Second Lieutenant to General.

Looking for a deep dive? Here’s our review of all Army ranks.

Marine Corps ranks – the few, the proud

marine corps promotion
Birmingham, Ala., native Cpl. Thaddeus V. Bridges was pinned on to his present rank by Col. Christopher McCarthy, the commanding officer at MCSCG and Sgt. Maj. Carl Gantt, the unit sergeant major. Bridges is currently serving as a motor transportation dispatcher in the unit.

The United States Marine Corps is world-renowned for its prowess as an elite fighting force. So, it’s no surprise that it also has its own unique ranking structure. Just like other branches, the Marine ranks include enlisted, warrant officers, and commissioned officers. The highest rank in the Marine Corps is the Commandant. That’s the Marine in charge of leading the entire Corps.

Just like the Army and other branches, enlisted Marines range from private to corporal to sergeant major. Warrant officers are grouped by number, with Chief Warrant Officer 5 being the highest and most difficult to achieve. Commissioned officers start with Second Lieutenant and go all the way up to General.

Marine Corps rank insignia combine elements like anchors, eagles, and stars to signify rank and role within the Corps. Enlisted Marines wear chevrons, with the number of chevrons increasing with rank. For example, a Lance Corporal has one chevron, while a Gunnery Sergeant has three chevrons above two rockers.

Get all the details about Marine ranks here.

Navy ranks – Sailors and Admirals

navy promotion ceremony
210716-N-PC065-1002 NORFOLK, Va. (July 16, 2021) Sailors assigned to the San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock ship USS Arlington (LPD 24) stand in ranks as they prepare to pin on their new collar devices during a frocking ceremony on the flight deck, July 16, 2021. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class John D. Bellino/Released)

The U.S. Navy also has enlisted personnel, warrant officers, and commissioned officers. The highest rank is Fleet Admiral, but we haven’t seen one since WWII. Enlisted ranks include Seaman Recruit, Petty Officer First Class, and Master Chief Petty Officer. Warrant officers go from Chief Warrant Officer 2 to Chief Warrant Officer 5. As for commissioned officers, they range from Ensign to Admiral.

Navy ranks sound complex, but they’re really not. Find out more.

Air Force ranks – Airmen and Generals

air force military ranks
Two rank patches worn on the same day by 2nd Lt. Jasmine Scott, Aug. 10, 2018, at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo. Scott commissioned into the medical services corps, after serving as an enlisted armorer at the 509th Security Forces Squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Alexander W. Riedel)

The U.S. Air Force has enlisted ranks like Airman Basic, Staff Sergeant, and Command Chief Master Sergeant. Officers start with Second Lieutenant and go all the way up to General. Fun fact: the highest rank in the Air Force is the General of the Air Force (GAF). It’s equivalent to the Marine Commandant rank and the General of the Army. Find out more about Air Force ranks here.

Coast Guard ranks – defenders of the homeland

coast guard military ranks
Vice Adm. Linda L. Fagan is promoted to the rank of admiral during a ceremony at Coast Guard Headquarters, June 18, 2021. Fagan is the Coast Guard’s first woman to serve as a four-star admiral. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Lt. j.g. Pamela Manns)

The U.S. Coast Guard is unique because it falls under the Department of Homeland Security. They have enlisted ranks like Seaman Recruit, Chief Petty Officer, and Command Master Chief Petty Officer. Warrant officers range from Chief Warrant Officer 2 to Chief Warrant Officer 4. Commissioned officers start as Ensigns and top off as Admiral. Like other branches, they use chevrons to denote specific ranks, too.

Check out all of the Coastie ranks here.

Space Force ranks – guardians of the cosmos

space force military ranks
Guardians from Space Operations Command and U.S. Space Command pose for portraits wearing the U.S. Space Force rank insignia, June 10, 2022. (U.S. Space Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Kirsten Brandes)

The United States Space Force, the newest branch of the military, is a little different in how it groups its Guardians. Instead of the standard names for ranks, they’ve put their own unique twist on the names! Enlisted ranks start with Specialist, comparable to private ranks.

Enlisted Guardians are grouped into three levels – specialists, NCOs and SNCOs. Senior NCOs are grouped by skill level and the Space Force even has staff and tech sergeants, too.

Rank insignia – stripes, stars and bars, oh my!

Insignia help identify a person’s rank and role within the military. They’re worn on uniforms, collars, or headgear. Different ranks have insignia like stripes, chevrons, stars, and bars.

Enlisted folks usually wear chevrons, stripes, or bars. The number of these symbols shows their rank. For example, a U.S. Army Private First Class has one chevron, while a Master Sergeant has three chevrons above three arcs.

Warrant officers have insignia with bars or lozenges. The number of these symbols shows their rank. In the U.S. Navy, a Chief Warrant Officer 4 has one silver bar, while a Chief Warrant Officer 5 has one gold bar.

Officer insignia varies based on the branch. For example, the Army uses bars and oak leaves. But the Air Force uses silver and gold bars and stars.

Roles and responsibilities – who does what?

It’s no secret that enlisted service members are the backbone of their branches. They take care of daily tasks and help train new recruits. Warrant officers are like the unicorns of the military. They’re technical experts and trusted advisors. They help bridge the gap between enlisted and officer personnel. Finally, officers are at the helm of their units. They help guarantee mission readiness and make critical decisions. All service members’ responsibilities grow as they climb their ranks.

The bottom line

Military ranks and insignia are super crucial for establishing the military hierarchy and ensuring everyone knows who’s in charge. While each branch has its own rank structure, they all have specific roles and responsibilities. So, whether you’re just curious or planning to join the military, understanding ranks and insignia is crucial.

Now you’ve got a solid grasp on military ranks and their insignia, from enlisted personnel to top-ranking officers. Remember, these ranks help create order and structure in the military, and knowing them helps everyone work together smoothly.