There’s nothing I hate more than a story that didn’t even try to get its ranks right. Why is a major giving orders to a colonel? Why is a first sergeant working with a bunch of fuzzies? Why the hell did you just call the sergeant major ‘sir’?
Military ranks are different across the branches, but if your story features the U.S. Army, here’s a breakdown of enlisted ranks and rank etiquette. (other branches coming soon!)
Ranks in the army follow a numerical pattern, so if you’re ever not quite sure what the name of the rank higher is, you can reference them by nomenclature.
E-series: E stands for enlisted. This refers to soldiers from private to sergeant major.
O-series: O stands for officer. This refers to soldiers from second lieutenant to general. O-series post coming soon!
W-series: W stands for warrant officer. This refers to soldiers from warrant officer 1 to chief warrant officer 5. W-series post coming soon!
In ACUs, (army combat uniform) the rank is worn in the center of the chest via a velcro patch. In class-A uniforms, the rank is worn on the shoulder.
Each pay grade earns slightly more per month than the one before it. Officers make significantly more money per month than enlisted. Time in service also affects pay, meaning a sergeant who’s been in six years will make more than a staff sergeant who’s been in three years.
Most people who enlist come in at E-1 unless they were in JROTC, have a college degree, or performed some other feat with their recruiters prior to enlisting i.e. volunteer work, good P.T. scores, etc. This is the lowest pay grade and has no rank. Soldiers who are E-1s do not wear a rank.
also known as: PV1, fuzzy (because they wear no velcro rank, there’s a patch of bare fuzz in the middle of their uniform. You can buy a patch to cover it.)
Title: Private, PV1E-2: PrivateYes, there are two ranks by the name of private. You reach E-2 automatically after six months of enlistment. If you enroll in the Delayed Entry Program or have an acceptable P.T. card with your recruiter, you can enlist as an E-2 instead of an E-1. At E-2, you more or less have no more power than an E-1.
also known as : PV2
Title: Private, PV2
E-3: Private First Class
The final “private” class. You reach E-3 automatically after 12 months of enlistment, assuming you’ve been an E-2 for at least four months. If you were in JROTC for four years, you enter automatically at this rank. This rank still doesn’t have much power, but may be put in charge of other privates and may assist their team leader with tasks, and on occasion may be a team leader themselves.
also known as : PFC
Title: Private, PFC.E-4: Specialist/Corporal
The last “junior enlisted” class. You reach specialist automatically after 24 months of enlistment, assuming you’ve been a PFC for at least six months. If you enlist with a completed four year college degree, you can start out as an E-4 instead of an E-1. Specialists tend to be team leaders and may be in charge of other specialists and privates. When no NCOs are present, the senior specialist is in charge.
Corporal, while technically the same pay grade as specialist, is actually an essentially higher rank. It’s a special rank only bestowed on those who are in leadership positions and are awaiting the appropriate time in service/time in grade to be promoted to sergeant. Corporals are considered NCOs while specialists are considered junior enlisted. Strictly speaking corporals and specialists are the same rank, but in most situations, corporals out rank specialists.
also known as: shamshields, (specialist only) SPC, CPL
Title: Specialist, Corporal
Man, all of that text is boring. Let’s break it up a bit with some rank etiquette, shall we?
• Lower enlisted (E-1 thru E-4) tend to call each other by their surname regardless of rank. Even an E-1 will probably be calling a specialist just by their name. The exception is Corporals, who are considered NCOs and are referred to by rank.
• E-5 and above are referred to as “NCOs,” or non-commissioned officers.
• NCOs with similar ranks might call each other by their surnames and will call lower enlisted by their surnames. When discussing another NCO with a lower enlisted, they will use that NCO’s proper rank. So a sergeant speaking to a PFC will say “Sergeant Smith needs you,” not “Smith needs you.” Freshly promoted sergeants who still hang out with lower enlisted might not mind their friends calling them their surnames in private, but formally and professionally they’re expected to address their senior properly.
• Lower enlisted ranks are often called “joes,” especially when an NCO is addressing another NCO about their squad or platoon. “Have your joes had chow yet?” = “Have the soldiers directly under your command eaten yet?”
• It’s considered inappropriate for lower enlisted to hang out with NCOs and it’s discouraged, especially in the work place.
Are you all rested up? Great! Let’s get back to the ranks.
Finally: the NCO ranks! Unlike the previous ranks, you cannot automatically rank up to sergeant. You must attend special courses and be seen by a promotion board where you’ll be expected to recite the NCO creed and have knowledge appropriate for an non-commissioned officer. From this rank on, lower-ranked soldiers will refer to you as “sergeant” and you will likely be a squad leader or in another leadership position.
• Lower enlisted do NOT refer to sergeants by their surname unless it is paired with their rank. “Sergeant Smith,” not just “Smith,” or your private will be doing a lot of push-ups.
• No one calls them “Sarge.” Like… just don’t do it friends.
• Some pronounce sergeant in such a way it sounds as though the g is dropped entirely. Ser-eant, or phonetically, “saarnt.”
also known as: SGT
E-6: Staff Sergeant
Sergeant Plus. You probably will have similar responsibilities to an E-5, meaning probably a squad leader unless you need to fill in for a platoon sergeant. Don’t misunderstand; in lower enlisted ranks, private and private first class aren’t that much of a difference. E-5 and E-6 are a definite difference though. It is acceptable to call an E-6 either “sergeant” or “sergeant (name)” instead of staff sergeant.
also known as: SSG
E-7: Sergeant First Class
At this point the ranks become known as “senior NCO.” E-7 and above cannot be demoted by normal means. It actually requires a court martial or congressional approval to demote an E-7. Like, it’s surprisingly hard to demote people after this point. I once knew an E-7 who got busted with a DUI and STILL didn’t lose his rank.
Anyway, it’s still appropriate to call an E-7 “sergeant” or “sergeant (name)” instead of sergeant first class. SFCs may be platoon sergeants or in some circumstances may hold a first sergeant position. While positioned as a first sergeant, they should be referred to as “first sergeant.” Unless you work at battalion level or higher, this is probably the highest NCO rank you’ll interact with regularly, and in some cases interacting with an E-7 can be as big a deal as interacting with an E-8.
also known as: SFC
E-8: First Sergeant/Master Sergeant
Another dual-rank. First sergeants are the NCO in charge of a company and are usually the highest ranking NCO soldiers will interact with regularly. They run the company alongside the company commander. All NCOs answer to them and most beginning of the day and end of the day formations will be initiated and ended with them. It is only appropriate to refer to a first sergeant as “first sergeant” or “first sergeant (name).” Do not just call them “sergeant.”
Master sergeants are E-8s who are not in a first sergeant position. Typically these people wind up working in offices in battalion or brigade. It’s only appropriate to refer to a master sergeant as “master sergeant” or “master sergeant (name).”
also known as: 1SG, FSG, (first sergeant only) MSG (master sergeant only)
Titles: First Sergeant, Master Sergeant.
E-9: Sergeant Major or Command Sergeant Major
We finally reach the end of the list: Sergeant Major, the highest ranking NCO. Sergeant Majors will be found at battalion level and higher. Command Sergeant Majors are those that hold a leadership position in a battalion, brigade, etc, like first sergeant vs master sergeant. It is appropriate to refer to E-9s as “sergeant major” or “sergeant major (name).” Typically, a command sergeant major will be referred to AS command sergeant major.
In the U.S., the plural form of sergeant major is “sergeants major.” Outside the U.S., “sergeant majors” can be correct.
also known as: SGM, CSM
Title: Sergeant Major
Now, for the most important announcement:
Soldiers NEVER, and I mean NEVER, refer to an NCO as “sir” or “ma’am.” Forget what the movies tell you; if your first sergeant is chewing you out, you do not say “ma’am, yes ma’am!” You’ll earn yourself some push-ups and some cleaning duty and probably a counseling. Do you see how under every rank I’ve provided a “title” section? That’s how your soldiers address that rank. Period. The only people who get called “sir” and “ma’am” are civilians and officers. Cannot tell you how many movies I’ve rolled my eyes into my skull because some snot-nosed private is calling their squad leader “sir.” Please cease this immediately. Thank you.
That’s all for scriptsoldier’s rank breakdown of enlisted ranks! Stay tuned for our breakdown of officers, warrant officers, and how your rank affects your standing in your unit!