Insane work environments, low-income housing, cafeteria food, and a general tone of condescension from leadership, combined with big personalities from all over the United States and beyond, have produced the “best” rank in the Marines — the lance corporal. Also known as “third from the bottom,” lance corporal is one of the most common ranks in the Marine Corps. Despite the number of Marines who have received this humble endowment, the lance corporal is often called the “best” rank by those who have served in the Corps.
The origin of the rank’s title is both French and Italian and roughly translates to “one who has broken a lance in combat” and “leader.”
Today, this would be similar to calling a Marine salty. The rank spawned from a need to establish small-unit leadership on the ground. Lance Corporal, as a rank, was used in medieval Europe for the same purpose. When one became a Corporal, they would receive their own horse and lance with which to ride into battle.
The horse became a symbol of rank, but if the horse died and the soldier was grounded, what was there to separate them from the rest? Thus, lance corporal was established to distinguish corporals on the ground by giving them a lance.
In the U.S. Marine Corps, lance corporal didn’t officially become a rank until 1958, when Congress amended the Career Compensation Act of 1949. However, the rank has a much longer history than that. In the 1830’s, Lance Cpl. was used as a billet title for Marines that were on track to become corporal.
It wasn’t until the rank of private first class was established in 1917 that Lance Cpl. was almost totally removed from Marine rank structure. The U.S. Secretary of the Navy and Commandant of the Marine Corps, at the time, felt that the rank of Pfc. ended the usefulness of Lance Cpl., although the rank dies hard, and one writer on Marine Corps tradition asserts that privates were being detailed as lance corporals as recently as 1937.
Despite its turbulent past, the rank has been immortalized not only by heroic actions but also by the ridiculous conduct of Marines who wear its chevron with crossed rifles. Make no mistake — there is a reputation that goes along with this rank, and it has many sides.
Yes, it is the senior-junior rank, yes, many great leaders bear the mosquito wings with honor, however, the rank is also synonymous with those who will do anything to get out of a working party. They’re also the one ones who have the best liberty stories, barracks room socials, and an endless stream of comments ridiculing anything the Corps can come up with.
Every Marine who served as a Lance has stories detailing the debauchery consistent with the rank, and if they didn’t serve in the rank, like an officer, they have stories of a young Lance Criminal acting accordingly.
Lance Corporal is considered the best because of the distribution of responsibility amongst its ranks.
When you wear the rank, you are among the highest density of eligible working party Marines, creating an environment primed for skating. It is here that legends are born. These legends range in notoriety from the heroic medal of honor recipients to hilarious battalion level shit-baggery. One of them has even become a dark lord of the Star Wars universe.
Only those who have served in the USMC will ever really know just how much of an impact a Marine Lance Cpl. can have with the proper amount of motivation and creativity, and it is in the name of those hard chargers that we honor the history of the Corps’ best rank.
For more reference, check out the Terminal Lance comics by Maximilian Uriarte, a former Marine Lance who has been chronicling the mind and spirit of the USMC E-3 in the most comprehensive way (comic strips) for years.