The U.S. military is old and ever evolving, and because of that, ranks change with the times. Some are either no longer used, or used so rarely as to be extinct. Here are a look at discontinued military ranks, what they were, and what replaced them.
The rank of Commodore
Commodore is the most impressive-sounding rank that isn’t actually a rank anymore, and feels like the sort of title held exclusively by rakish, devil-may-care men of the sea. You’ve got a commodore on your boat or at your card table, and he’s going to win a war or win your money. The rank’s history in the United States goes back to the Continental Navy, when it was assigned as a temporary title for captains in charge of more than one ship.
During the Civil War, it was made a formal rank and stayed that way until 1899. The rank appeared again during World War II—a preemptive strike by the Navy to prevent a surplus of admirals when the war invariably ended. Again, the rank was discontinued and faded from use, only to be resurrected one final time in the 1980s as the Navy’s one-star rank. Eventually, O-7 was restored as “rear admiral lower half,” and again, commodore was made an honorary title for senior captains in major command assignments.
the unexpected Army rank of Sergeant-Major-General
According to The Brigade: A History, Its Organization and Employment in the U.S. Army, “sergeant major general” was a rank in the colonial militias. It was held by the top officer overseeing the disparate militias of an entire colony. (Some colonies used the title lieutenant general or general.) The rank derives from, and was more commonly used in 17th century England.
Admiral of the Navy
Technically, the rank of a “six star admiral” still exists, but don’t expect to see it any time soon—or at least, hope you don’t. The rank didn’t even see use in World War II, though the idea was considered. The only person to ever hold the rank was Commodore George Dewey, largely in honor of his victory against Spain at Manilla Bay in 1898 during the Spanish-American War. (Those commodores, man—there’s nothing they can’t do.) Dewey was formally promoted in 1903. Today, the highest plausible rank in the Navy is fleet admiral, a rank not held by anyone since 1949.
You won’t read about many army cornets because the rank—the equivalent of a second lieutenant in the cavalry—only lasted until 1815. (It would survive another fifty years in the British army, though they too eliminated it.). The name of the rank came from the item he carried: the troop’s “cornet”—today called its guidon.
the Army rank of Ensign
In addition to cornets, the Army also had O-1 ensigns. A lot of this strange rank business early in the nation’s history is totally understandable—just look at what the Space Force is dealing with right now, in peacetime. Now imagine building a continental army from farmers and militiamen while simultaneously going up against one of the most powerful empires in the world. Army ensigns vanished with the passage of the Army Organization Act of 1815. Notably, Army ensigns preceded Navy ensigns.
Airman Third Class
When the Air Force switched over from Army ranks in 1949, it had no buck sergeants. What we call “airmen basic” today were “privates” (though that would soon change), and in 1952, the E-2 rank became “airman third class”—today’s “airman.” Airman third class had some serious staying power, too, lasting until the late 1960s. The rank order went: airman basic, airman third class, airman second class, airman first class; staff sergeant, the remaining ranks through E-9 being the same as today.
Army Specialist Third Class
Every soldier has heard the phrase “spec 4,” (usually in the context of: “Who cares what he thinks? He’s just some spec 4,”) and might have just assumed it was a weird Army way of saying “Specialist, E-4.” But spec-4’s history is a lot more complicated than that. Before World War II, “specialist” was a rating for technical ability. (For example: “private first class, specialist.”) This was changed during World War II, replaced with a “technician” rank, as in “technician fourth grade,” who wore the three strips of a sergeant, but who was outranked by an actual sergeant.
The idea behind all of this was that that technical ability was highly valued, and it was a way to promote skilled soldiers who didn’t necessarily have the chops to be NCOs. In the 1950s, technician was again changed to “specialist,” starting at specialist 4, and going all the way up the enlisted ranks; you could be a “specialist 7” E-7 who wasn’t a noncommissioned officer, but who was really good at his or her job. Slowly through the 1980s, these “specialist” ranks fell away, with only the E-4 “spec 4” rank remaining. Today, both specialists and corporals are E-4, though only corporals are noncommissioned officers.
Airship Rigger Second Class
Enlisted ranks for the Navy are impossible to follow unless you were in the Navy. I’m not about to complicate things by getting into it here. (I wasn’t in the Navy.) Things like Sonar Technician Second Class or Aviation Maintenance Administrationman First Class—who even knows what is happening on those ships. But it does lend itself to a lovely look at the evolution of military technology. My favorite extinct rank is “Airship Rigger Second Class,” from the 1920s through the end of World War II, because the job was to keep dirigibles afloat. Fun fact: the top of the Empire State Building was designed for airships to dock there. It only happened once, but who knows: the Navy has brought airships back for reconnaissance missions. Maybe we’ll get our passenger zeppelins yet.
General of the Armies
There have only been two six-star “generals of the armies.” The first man promoted to it was John J. Pershing in 1919 in honor of his leadership during World War I. There were proposals to promote five-star general Douglas MacArthur to the rank from 1945 through his death in 1964, though those efforts failed. Later, in 1976, an accomplished three-star general named George Washington (yes, that one) was posthumously promoted by Congress to the rank of “General of the Armies of the United States,” with the note that he shall “have rank and precedence over all other grades of the Army, past or present.” In other words, when zombie Pershing and zombie Washington return to lead the American offensive against foreign zombies, Washington will again be calling the shots.
Air Force Warrant Officers
There’s never been a better time for the Air Force to have warrant officers than now. Its inevitable future, after all, is remotely piloted aerial vehicles, but that doesn’t seem to be in the cards. (There was never much of a reason to limit pilots to the officer ranks to begin with. With rank comes privileges, however. Pay, power, and private billeting aren’t enough, after all.) There was a time, however, when the Air Force did have warrant officers. Because the branch was the progeny of the Army, it inherited that officer grade. Still, it never seemed quite sure what to do with it. In the late 1950s, the branch added senior master sergeant and chief master sergeant to the enlisted ranks. It then ceased all promotions of airmen to the WO ranks. The last airman “chief” retired in 1992.
So what did I miss? Maybe you held one of these rare, extinct, or moribund ranks. Let us know in the comments!