Navy Traditions and Customs

Proud Beginnings: History of Warrant Officers in the US Navy

By John Reilly, Ships' History Branch

The warrant officer provides our Navy with a vital and invaluable form of leadership - an officer technical specialist who has expertise and authority to direct the most difficult and exacting technical operations in a given occupational area. He has done so since our beginnings as a naval force over 200 years ago.

The warrant's traditions are much older than our seagoing service. Over two centuries before Columbus sailed, the comparatively small ships of England were each under the command of a boatswain. The boatswain is the oldest known title of any seagoing officer or man and is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word "batsuen" - meaning boat's "swain" or husband.

The British later developed a systematic group of officers, starting with the boatswain and the later-appearing master, known as "swabbers" to distinguish them from the nobles who came at a later date bearing such army titles as captain and lieutenant. The boatswain is recognized as the first true "sea officer" of England and he, along with the master and their mates, was appointed by a warrant issued by the Admiralty.

Navies, during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, were not full-time services. Ships, including the "king's ships" - those actually owned by the sovereign - normally made commercial voyages in time of peace with crews of merchant seamen. When war threatened, these merchantmen were taken over for emergency service and fitted with fighting platforms. After the introduction of gunpowder, guns were also added.

As the ship was prepared for war, a detachment of soldiers was ordered on board under the command of an officer - normally a knight or nobleman - who had overall command and led the fighting while the civilian crew handled the ship. The military commander, who came to be called the captain, received his orders in the name of the sovereign and "held the king's commission". WE thus find a distinction between the captain, who held a commission and had responsibility for the movements and activities of a ship, and the master, who held a warrant and had charge of navigation and shiphandling.

Full-time national navies began to evolve during the second half of the seventeenth century, with ships specifically built and commissioned as men-of-war with permanent crews. The old command arrangement persisted; a ship's captain was now a naval officer, but he was still assisted by a master - later called a sailing master - who was the ship's navigator and its most experienced seaman.

As the science of the sea progressed, new officers made their appearance to tend to the developing specialties. With the introduction of large cannon on ships during the 1500's, an artillerist was taken aboard and called the gunner. Damage to the wooden hull and yards and masts required the attention of a carpenter. The hundreds of square yards of canvas aloft necessitated the sailmaker.

To care for the sick and wounded and administer the sacraments, the surgeon and chaplain, respectively, were required. Other varieties and grades of ship's officers were added from time to time as the English navy developed. Each received a warrant to serve from the Navy Board. The warrant branches, then, are the antecedents from which nearly all other officer branches have evolved.

At the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, the colonies quite logically modeled the nucleus of the naval establishment after that of the British. Our history records that on 13 December 1775, Congress agreed to construct 13 frigates. The grade of officers to lead this force were provided as follows:

Commissioned

Captains of Ships
Captains of Marines
Lieutenants of Ships
Lieutenants of Marines

Warrants

Surgeons
Chaplains
Pursers
Boatswains
Gunners
Carpenters
Masters-Mates
Secretary of the Fleet

Congress resolved that the "Committee for Fitting Out Armed Vessels" issue warrants to all officers under the rank of third lieutenant employed in the fleet and commissions to those above. In the assignment of warrants to officers, it seems that breeding, profession, position and responsibility were not to be taken into account. Therefore, we see responsible positions being warranted instead of commissioned even though these officers were heads of departments of the ship and, as such, were answerable only to the captain. Like their British forebears, the warrant officers in our early Navy performed the specialized, and in many cases, seamanlike tasks so vital to establishing a naval force.

The changes brought on by the introduction of steam to the Navy are far too extensive to attempt anything more than a brief note here. In order to adapt this new technology to the world of sail and sailors, a handful of civilians called engineers was hired as demonstrators. This group was later transformed into chief, first assistant, second assistant, and third assistant engineers.

Later, all but the chief were to be warranted and eventually all were commissioned in the staff of the Navy with such titles as chief engineer, passed assistant engineer and assistant engineer. They were finally integrated with the line of the Navy.

Commissioned-warrant grades - the chief warrant officer to "rank with but after ensign" - were introduced to the Navy and Marine Corps at the turn of the nineteenth century. The first to be established were the chief boatswains, gunners, carpenters, and sailmakers in recognition that they had been the only remaining warrants of the vast number that through the centuries had evolved to form commissioned grades that reached as far as the flag ranks.

Sailing masters, among the oldest of warrant ranks, moved into officers country during the nineteenth century. When legislation was passed in 1794 to establish the Federal Navy under the new Constitution, the rank of sailing master was established as the senior warrant officer.

In 1837, the rank was redesignated master; some masters, "in line of promotion", were commissioned. The rest remained warrant officers. Some masters were appointed to command ships, with the rank of master commandant; this rank became that of commander in 1837. Warrant masters continued in service until 1883, when they became lieutenants (junior grade).

Just prior to the second world war, there were eight warrant specialties which reflected the technology of the times. The sailmaker had, of course, disappeared but the boatswain, gunner, and carpenter had been joined in the warrant officers mess by the electrician, radio electrician, machinist, pharmacist and pay clerk.

These specialists were drawn from "those chief petty officers and first class petty officers who are of good officer material". The candidates were administered a competitive examination along with several days of intense grilling and were observed for their moral, physical and professional qualities.

Those few who made the high standard were placed on the Navy Department's waiting list to await appointment as vacancies occurred. Promotion to commissioned warrant officer was by selection of a statutory board following not less than six years of warrant service.

The importance of the highly skilled officer specialist increased significantly with the rapid growth in technical complexity of Navy warfare and support systems. The torpedoman, ship's clerk, photographer and aerographer entered the warrant ranks during WWII and brought the number of specialists to 12. The requirements of postwar specialization launched new warrant officer careers in fire control, communications, civil engineering, data processing, electronics, aviation maintenance, bandmaster, supply clerk and numerous other categories. Today, there are 26 occupational specialties, including physical security which was approved by SECNAV in January 1979.

The functional role of the modern warrant officer is to provide officer technical expertise at a relatively constant grade level in the Navy officer structure. The duties they perform are limited in scope in relation to other officer categories such as the unrestricted line, restricted line, or limited duty. That is, the occupational areas of warrant officers do not expand since their primary duties, especially afloat, involve an application of technical officer skills as opposed to a purely management function.

To ensure the continuous utilization and development of these skills, warrant officers are normally assigned within a billet structure that is representative in nature. Thus a warrant electronics technician completing a sea tour as ship's electronic material officer may anticipate assignment ashore in an electronics repair or, possibly, instruction billet. Of course, the specific duties of an individual warrant officer will always reflect the particular technical and operational requirements of his command as well as the overall officer structure available to perform assigned tasks.

Therefore, while warrant officers should be utilized only in valid warrant officer requirements, they may be assigned any primary or additional duty deemed necessary by the commanding officer to accomplish the immediate mission of the unit. Navy Regulations also state that a warrant officer may succeed to command of a ship, or other command of the naval service, provided he is authorized to perform all deck duties afloat or has a designator appropriate to the function of the activity, respectively.

It is a great tribute to the warrant officer community that there exists the potential to undertake the spectrum of technical, operational or management positions. For although by precedence he ranks after the junior officer, he is recognized and esteemed today for what he always has been - a highly skilled and proven professional. Not a "junior officer" but a warrant officer.

Source: US Navy. LDO & Warrant Officer Programs. NP-15525. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1982.