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Naval Rate Insignia: Honoring Our Sailors

To civilians, and even members of other military services, the U.S. Navy’s naval rate insignia can be confusing. The history of naval rate insignia is complicated, and has ebbed and flowed like the tides of the seas the Navy cruises on.

The naval rate insignia is unique and one of the first things that is noticeable is the use of the term “rate” instead of using the term “rank.” Rank is used to define officers. The second unique aspect of naval rate insignia is how a Sailor’s pay grade is linked to his or her rate. Ratings, it is important to note, also denote an occupational specialty.

For example, in the Army, a fictional infantry sergeant might be called Sergeant Smith. A sailor of equivalent rank/rate with a rating of boatswain’s mate would be Boatswain’s Mate Second Class Jones. The Navy combines rates and ratings in Sailors’ titles and this is represented in a person’s naval rate insignia.

History of Naval Rate Insignia 1700 to 1800s
The history of the naval rate insignia and rating system reflects the Navy’s historical evolution from a labor-intensive sailing fleet into a technologically-specialized force with a system for career progression.

Rates and ratings were one and the same in the 18th-century British navy. Common sailors of various skills and experience comprised the majority of a ship’s crew. Petty officers, derived from the French petit, meaning “small,” were appointed by a ship’s captain to fill key leadership positions amongst the common sailors.

In 1794, when the Navy was reestablished, petty officers were specifically requested and positional requirements were noted with the creation of rates to better manage the operation of the vessel. Naval rate insignia had begun to take root in the new American navy.

A rate structure without a specialized rating emerged and it continued until the 1880s and for the Navy’s first century, petty officers were appointed by the ship’s commander. They did not retain their rate if they were reassigned.

When steam engines were introduced, new naval rate insignia followed and rates like coal heaver, fireman, boilermaker, engineer’s force seaman and engineer’s yeoman, all started. Despite the pivot toward steam propulsion, petty officers with ratings like boatswain’s mates and gunner’s mates, rated ahead of sailors like machinists and boilermakers. This continued into the 20th century.

Over time the Navy’s system of rates and ratings became more formalized. Petty officers first received distinctive naval rate insignia in 1841, when they were instructed to wear an eagle perched on an anchor on one uniform sleeve. Naval rate insignia 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. In 1886, petty officers were authorized to wear naval rate insignia consisting of a spread eagle over a downward-pointing chevron with a rating mark.

History of Naval Rate Insignia 1900s
In 1913, Sailors in the seaman branch were required to wear their naval rate insignia on the right arm, while all other ratings wore their naval rate 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.

The creation of the chief petty officer rate in 1893 was the final major change to rates and ratings in the 19th century and signified the increasing organizational complexity required by the steam-driven Navy. Petty officers were also allowed to keep their ratings upon reassignment.

In 1920, standardized pay was instituted so that all equivalent rates received the same pay. Regardless of what naval rate insignia a person wore, they now got paid the same. In 1922, uniform regulations changed to mandate that all naval 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.

History of Naval Rate Insignia Today
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 naval rate insignia.

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.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: The information used in this post is from a U.S. Navy release and it is public information, but given the caliber and quality of the information, USAMM believes it is important to credit the original author, Nicholas Roland, a historian with the Naval History and Heritage Command.)

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