Military Ranks, Units and Weapons

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Even the best and most popular authors get facts wrong sometimes (often because they leave research to others and don’t vet it, or are careless in their own investigations), but that’s no excuse for shoddy writing that contradicts what a large segment of the readership knows to be true. One area that’s a minefield, so to speak, for writers is the military. It’s easy to find detailed information about military ranks, units, and weaponry, not to mention history, but here’s some basic training:

Military Rank
Various nations follow differing conventions of nomenclature for military ranks, which specify an individual’s place in the military hierarchy. Charts that compare various military ranks among and within countries abound in print and online, but the major distinction is between commissioned officers, noncommissioned officers, and enlisted personnel. The first category is for personnel, often college graduates, who command units of various sizes depending on seniority. Noncoms are experienced enlisted personnel who supervise smaller groups of lower-ranking personnel.

The term captain is a common point of confusion. A captain (the word is from the Latin for “head”) originally led a company of soldiers of indeterminate size. In modern armies, marine units, and air forces, captains are relatively low-ranking officers probably in their late 20s or early 30s. Naval captains, however, for reasons I won’t detail here, are much higher in equivalent seniority and usually much older. Furthermore, the commanding officer of most vessels is, by tradition, called the captain, though they may not hold that specific rank.

In books, films, and television programs, the creators often stretch the bounds of probability as far as rank is concerned. In the original Star Trek TV series, for example, Captain Kirk was very young to be commanding a starship, though the 2009 big-screen reboot gives a plausible explanation for his precocious promotion. (Well, as plausible as anything is concerned when the subject is Star Trek.) By contrast, Brad Pitt’s character in Quentin Tarantino’s World War II action flick Inglourious Basterds [sic] is a mere army lieutenant. People who hold that beginner’s rank are likely to be in their early to mid-20s, but Pitt is old enough to be a lieutenant’s father.

Military-style ranks are used in American police and fire departments. In large cities, a captain is a fairly high rank (while lieutenants are fairly common, especially among detectives), but in smaller departments, the chief may hold the rank of captain, and there may be only one lieutenant, or up to several. Similarly, a captain or a lieutenant heads up a fire company, which may consist of only a few firefighters, but a small-town fire department with a single station may be headed by a captain.

Military Units
You’ve seen it before: a book or movie synopsis that goes something like “A tough sergeant leads a platoon of commandos behind enemy lines . . . .” The military has a very specific organizational structure, and a platoon, which consists of several dozen soldiers, is never led by a sergeant, who in combat would be responsible for no more than a dozen or so men.

As it turns out, the story’s commando unit consists of eight guys. There’s no military unit ordinarily consisting of eight soldiers, but an ad hoc assemblage could informally be called a squad. But if it’s on a special mission, even a mere eight-man unit would likely be led not by a sergeant but by a fairly junior officer, like Tom Hanks’s Captain Miller in Saving Private Ryan (who is assisted by a sergeant, who would take charge if his commanding officer were killed or incapacitated).

Military Weapons
Plenty of derision has been aimed over the years at war and cop movies and westerns, and at genre fiction, in which the hero’s magic gun never runs out of bullets, but it still happens. (I was annoyed too, while watching an already annoying fantasy film, when a character ambled through a crowded market square with an uncovered double-bladed battle-ax strapped to his back. All he had to do was inadvertently back into somebody to perform an instant nose-ectomy.)

Follow the Drill
Details like these may seem trivial to civilians, but they’re distracting to millions of service members and veterans, and many others, who know a sergeant major from a major general, a division from a detachment, and a Luger from a Ruger. The same problem afflicts people with firsthand or secondhand knowledge of any other system or profession or industry or avocation. So, if you’re going to write about the military, or about any other topic, do your research, and write it right.

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9 thoughts on “Military Ranks, Units and Weapons”

  1. THANK YOU! As a sergeant in US Armed Forces I can tell you first hand that you hit the nail on the head. The confusion is also understandable. A Sergeant (paygrade E5), Staff Sergeant (E6), Sergeant First Class (E7) and Master Sergeant (E8) are all referred to as “Sergeant” when addressing them. First Sergeant’s (also an E8) are addressed as “First Sergeant” (or “Top” in less than formal situations). A lieutenant is most often a “platoon leader” with the platoon sergeant (most often an E7 but can be an E6) acting as his wing man. The Officer gives the mission, the platoon sergeant makes sure it happens, but also must be ready to take over command at a moments notice. The platoon sergeant has to know everything the LT does in case of such an event. He also provides purpose and motivation to the junior NCO’s, who in turn pass that down to the soldiers.

    Sorry for the ranting a bit. It just really drives me nuts when I encounter these simple errors. By the way, a “squad” is 4 to 6 people and a “team” sized element is anything from 3 to 12, generally speaking of course.

    I read these everyday and have found them very useful! Keep up the good work!

  2. Very good information, Mr. Nichol, and well written. While my knowledge of military rank is limited (I know several ex-military men whom I can consult if I need such informaton) my understanding of weaponry is probably somewhat better than many civilians’. Like yourself I’ve been dismayed by the inaccurate way weapons are handled in the media, from the cowboy’s Peacemaker revolver that fires more than a dozen shots without reloading and couldn’t miss at less than a mile, to the Claymore mine used as a car bomb in the season finale of Hawaii 5-0 (wouldn’t YOU notice an unfamiliar package the size of a hardbound book wired to the steering wheel of your car?), and everything in between. You are quite correct that such errors make those of us who know better scratch our heads and wonder ‘Who writes this slop and what were they thinking?’

  3. I have been “writing” a war story since the early 1980s. My problem is that I get bogged down in research, in hopes that I won’t make any egregious errors in the nuts and bolts of military life and war-time.

    So I’ve gone from a grand sweeping novel to a short story, because is was easier to create a fictitious rife company and set it down in the middle of a real army, in a real place. But even with all that, I’m certain that someone would write to tell me that it wasn’t snowing in such and such place, on Christmas Eve in1944, in France, and excoriate me for making such a terrible mistake.

  4. I’d cut some slack for the screenwriters of Inglourious Basterds. Brad Pitt’s character seemed like the type who not only would have avoided promotion, but also would have encountered a demotion or two. (He anticipated that he’d be “chewed out” for his actions at the end of the film.)

  5. If you really want some help in this kind of research, I would recommend a book by Louis Rubin, call the Writer’s Companion.

    Here’s a linke to the B&N site:

    The book is a composite of tips and research Rubin developed over the years and is a very hand desk reference for just the kinds of things this article refers to.

  6. Ray:

    Good point. I’d thought of that, and it’s also possible he was promoted from the ranks. (Sometimes, sergeants are offered commissions after years of service.) But it’s annoyingly common for middle-age actors to take on youngsters’ roles (Russell Crowe in Robin Hood, for instance). It would have been better, I think, for Pitt to have been at least a captain.

  7. Dear Mark

    I am currently starting research on a battle that the US Air Force fought in Asia. Which is the best contact point within the US Air Force where I can get permission to access historical materials. The battle was over 60 years ago so I don’t think that secrecy would be an issue. Thank you


  8. As a “mustang” someone who was enlisted before being an officer, I can tell you that there are older junior officers aplenty. I was 31 when commissioned as a 2LT.

    In earlier days, such as pre-WWII, promotions were very slow. They didn’t hav the up or out rules of today. A senior 1LT could hav been well into his thirties. So one must keep in mind the time period as well.

    BTW, the standard Army infantry squad nowadays is 11 men … two five-man fire teams + Sqd Ldr. In the Marines it is 13 … three four-man teams + the Sqd Ldr … that may hav chang’d in recent years too.

    For the Army, the team is a sergeant (E5) and the squad leader is a staff sergeant (E6) with the platoon sergeant (aka SFC — Sergeant First Class) being an E7. If there is no plt leader (normally a 2LT or 1LT) then the E7 is in charge. And it happens quite often if there is a shortage of officers. So a plt sgt (E7) … address’d as sergeant … in charge of plt would not be unreasonable. I was once in a company that when I first came to it as the XO, the only officer was the captain and two of the platoons as Staff Sergeants (E6) as plt leaders. In combat, with casualties, a sgt could wind up in charge of a plt. By the book, they shouldn’t be … but when is reality always by the book?

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