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Historical Approach to Warrant Officer Classifications

Few people realize that the Crusades were responsible for stimulating one of the greatest eras in English ship building history. Long voyages to a new continent magnified the need for additional protection against sudden weather changes, and the new requirements of a growing sea power demanded a large fleet with increased maneuverability. As a result, the side steering bar was gradually replaced by a stern rudder, and higher protective free boards were also developed. This spur to new construction reached its pinnacle under Richard Cour de Lion, who finally set sail from Dartmouth with a fleet of 110 vessels.

The first English ships were commanded by a "Bats un" (modern boatswain), derived from the Anglo-Saxon words, "Bat" meaning wood, and "Seun" meaning husband. This title was a wife's lament as to the lack of a sea-shore rotation policy, for literally translated it means "ship's husband." Other historians claim the title is derived from "bat" meaning a boat, and "swan" meaning a swain or servant. The boatswain has also been known as the "Bots-son," the "Boat's son," and the "Bos'un." He was England's earliest sea officer and his title is the oldest title of any officer or man in the English navy. Although he was originally in command of a boat, it was at a time when boats didn't go far out to sea or venture too far from the coast line.

As ships continued to grow in size, the "Batseun" (a plain sailing man with little formal education) was superceded by a Sailing-Master or Master. The titles Sailing-Master and Master are synonymous. These men were the early navigators and generally had a better educational background than the "Batseun." The Second-Master was subordinate to the Sailing Master and also junior in the date of his Warrant, but was in all other respects a Sailing Master.

At a later period, the Captain, who was in command of the soldiers aboard ship and usually a nobleman with a still better education than the Master, was successful in prevailing upon the King to put him in command of the ship as well. As a result, the Master became second in command and the Boatswain then became third in position of lineal order acting as the head of a department. His present counterpart would be the First Lieutenant. The fourth position in lineal order was the Gunner, who was appeared with the introduction of large cannon on ships. About 1505, the continued improvements in ship construction and equipment extended the need for skilled technicians. The actual and potential damage from cannon fire, for example, brought forth a need for a Carpenter just as the improved and larger sails made necessary the position of Sailmaker. The Sailmaker was in charge of the manufacture, care, repair, inspection, and airing of canvas sails and other canvas articles such as tarpaulins for the hatches, hammocks, clothing bags, screens and chutes.

The rank of Lieutenant first appeared in the English navy about 1580, and then almost died out during the next 60 years. It was revived about 1650, in order to prepare gentlemen for the rank of Captain. However, most of the promotions to the rank of Lieutenant came from the rank of Midshipmen who had begun their naval training by passing messages from one end of the ship to the other, with a few coming from the Sailing Master classifications. Finally, Captains, as a class, ceased coming from the nobility and were promoted from the rank of Lieutenant, who in turn had been promoted from the warrant rank of


Midshipmen. By 1775, the British officers who were warrant officers were classified as:

Sailing-Masters   Master's-Mates
Second-Masters   Masters-at-Arms
Surgeons   Armourers
Surgeon's Mates   Sailmakers
Boatswains   School-Masters
Gunners   Cooks
Pursers   Midshipmen  

In 1775, the Continental Congress appointed a committee to devise ways and means for fitting out naval armaments, and another committee for fitting out armed vessels. The building of 13 frigates was agreed upon and the following grades were provided for the officers to man the force:

Commissioned and Warranted
Captains of Ships   Pursers
Captains of Marines   Boatswains
Lieutenants of Ships   Gunners
Lieutenants of Marines   Carpenters
Surgeons   Master's-Mates
Chaplains   Secretary of the Fleet
Petty Warrants and Petty Officers
Midshipmen   Boatswain's-Mates
Captain's Clerks   Gunner's Mates
Surgeon's Mates   Carpenter's Mates
Stewards   Cooks
Sailmakers   Cockswains
Coopers   Sergeants of Marines

The word "warrant," somewhat like the words commission, commissioned, or commissioning, is used in various senses and in different ways. It is often used as a verb or as a noun. As a verb, it relates to and describes the act of issuing, affirming, conferring, assuring or guaranteeing; whereas when it is used as a noun, it relates to and designates the physical document, writ, paper or parchment instrument itself.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court has rules that personnel in the Naval Establishment are divided generally into commissioned officers, noncommissioned or warrant officers, petty officers, and seamen of various grades and denominations (United States v. Fuller, 160 U.S. 593 (1896)), the Court of Claims has declared that "warrant" and "commission," outside of naval technicality, are synonymous words. It said:

"There is no difference, in form, between a commission and a warrant as used in the Navy, except that one recites that the appointment is made "by and with the advice and consent of the Senate," and the other does not. Both are signed by the President." (Brown v. United States, 18 Ct. Cls. 537 (1883), affirmed 113 U.S. 568 (1885)).


The constitutional basis of the President's power to appoint is in Article 2, Section 2, Clause 2 of the Constitution. That clause gives him power to appoint certain officers, with the advice and consent of the Senate, and also gives him power, when Congress so legislates, to appoint "inferior officers." Clause 3 of the same section and same article gives the President power to fill up all vacancies that may happen during the recess of the Senate, by granting commissions which shall expire at the end of the next session. The word "inferior" is used in the sense of "subordinate" in Clause 2. Article 2, Section 2, Clause 2 also is a basis of the power of the Secretary of the Navy to appoint warrant officers.

When the United States Navy was established, it adopted and expanded the British organizational pattern described above. One of the first acts of the Continental Congress was to provide for the purchase and construction of ships for the American Navy, and on 11 December 1785, it passed a resolution providing for the construction of naval ships and establishing the following complements:

Commissioned Officers Warrant Officers Petty Officers
Master's Mates
Secretary of the Fleet
Captain's Clerks
Surgeon's Mates

The Master's Mate shown above as a warrant officer, was the only mate in the United States Navy appointed by warrant. Historically, the position in the United States Navy has always been interlocked with that of Midshipman. It should be pointed out that the warrant classification "Secretary of the Fleet" was undoubtedly created to provide clerical help for the "Commander-in-Chief" of the Fleet, who was provided for by other legislation. However, no record of such appointment has ever been found, and Ezekial Hoskins, who was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Fleet by Congress, and was addressed "Commodore," was the only officer in the Navy to even hold the rank of Commander-in-Chief of the Fleet until Congress again conferred the rank or title upon Admiral King during World War II. Records of Warrant "Chaplain" appointments are also lacking, and it seems likely that such Warrant appointments were never consumated.

Following the Revolutionary War, our Navy was allowed to decline, but on 27 March 1794, however, Congress reauthorized the creation of additional ships and provided for the following ship complements:

Officers Warrants
1 Captain
4 Lieutenants
1 Chaplain
1 Surgeon
2 Surgeon's Mates
1 Sailing Master
1 Purser
1 Boatswain
1 Gunner
1 Sailmaker
1 Carpenter
8 Midshipmen

Comparing this complement with those established by the Continental Congress, we notice that Chaplains, and Surgeon's Mates were raised to commissioned status and that Captain's Clerks and Master's Mates were no longer included among the Warrant classifications.


On 2 January 1813, Congress passed legislation providing for the construction of additional ships and established the following ship complements:

Commissioned Warrants
Surgeon's Mates

This complement differs from previous ones only with respect to the Sailing Master who became the Master.

During the War of 1812, then, we see that the number of Warrant Classifications began to decline. The Warrants also suffered in loss in their lineal position aboard ships, and in the loss of status they became restricted to highly specialized fields of endeavor. For example, the Boatswain, who had been in command of the early boats or small ships in the era around 1264 A.D., no longer commanded a boat or ship, but was restricted or limited to one field of specialization, as was the Gunner, the Carpenter, and the Sailmaker. Each, in his respective field, became what in a sense was a "doer-supervisor." Each had what today would be called "on the job" training, and each was highly skilled in a particular or specialized field as a result of the practical experience gained from long service as a "doer" before becoming a Warrant Officer. In the early days, Warrant Officers were appointed as such largely on a personal basis. Some were appointed by the Captain, directly from enlisted status. Others were appointed from civilian pursuits or from the Merchant Marine by either the Captain or the Secretary of the Navy. The earliest ones in what became the United States Navy were appointed by the Maritime Committee of the Continental Congress.

About 1840, the first expressions of Naval opinion concerning "unhealthy" conditions among Warrant commissioned officers began to appear. The conditions were due to the excessive number of officers who had been appointed to the active lists just prior to and during the War of 1812. As the Navy decreased in size, following the successful conclusion of the War, these officers remained, with the result that promotional possibilities were greatly reduced. Midshipmen, who originally could look forward to promotion to the rank of Lieutenant within four years, were then accumulating as much as sixteen years of service before an opportunity for promotion became available. Thus, soon after the establishment of our navy, we see the development of the perplexing stagnation in rank problem and its deleterious effects on morale and efficiency. Since most of the Warrant grades were filled with older men, usually possessing thirteen or more years of Naval service, they were unable to perform their duties at sea and were restricted to Navy Yard and receiving station billets.

The "morale" problem was effectively solved with respect to commissioned officers by "Plucking Boards" which were established to weed out officers who were too old or incapacitated to perform their duties at sea. Similar boards were not established for Warrant officer classifications however, and their large number continued.

On 13 January 1859, the Secretary of the Navy issued a general order conferring relative rank on Engineering officers. Although, according to law, Assistant Engineers were Warrant officers, this general order provided for First Assistant Engineers to rank next after Lieutenant, Second Assistant Engineers to rank next after Masters, and Third Assistant Engineers to rank with Midshipmen.


Inasmuch as uniform regulations provided that officers would wear the uniform of their rank, we now find the unusual situation of Warrant officers wearing the same uniform and insignia as that of commissioned officers.

With the advent of the Civil War, and the establishment of a naval blockade, the naval service soon was in a position of major importance. Congressional recognition of faithful service in the Navy followed swiftly. On 2 July 1884, Congress provided assimilated rank for the following Warrant officers:


They were to rank with Ensigns, after five years of service, and with Masters (changed to LTJG in 1883) after ten years of service. To make certain that their status was clear and unequivocal, it was also provided therein that these officers should be known as "Warrant Officers in the Naval Service." The Act was never implemented by the Navy Department. Many letters expressing dissatisfaction continued to be forwarded to the Editor of the Army and Navy Journal during the next few years.

On 25 July 1866, the Congress passed an Act providing that First Assistant Engineers and Second Assistant Engineers, with certain other staff officers, were "to be appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate." The Secretary of the Navy, as previously noted, conferred relative rank on these officers in 1859, and two months later Congress authorized their wearing officer's uniforms. The Act providing for their appointment by the President, with confirmation of the appointment by the Senate, coupled with their right to wear the officer's uniform, made them commissioned officers in fact as well as name. Similar action was not taken with regard to the Third Assistant Engineer, the only Warrant officer at that time in the Engineering Corps, and his title and rank ceased when the Naval Appropriations Act of 15 July 1870 declared such title and rank abolished. The Third Assistant Engineers on the list became Assistant Engineers. All officers of the Engineering Corps, then, became commissioned officers.

On 3 March 1865, Congress also passed an Act authorizing a change in the name for Master's Mates who were then called Mates. The Master's Mates, who had been appointed during the Civil War, were sometimes Warrant officers and sometimes Petty Officers. With this Act, they now became a peculiar group that was neither officer nor enlisted. Actually, they were "rated" as such by authority of the Secretary of the Navy from the enlisted men in the ratings of Seaman or Ordinary Seaman who had enlisted for at least two years. Although they did not possess any commission or warrant, they berthed and messed with Midshipmen and with certain civilian officers in the steerage. The Warrant officers took precedence over them and they berthed and messed as "forward officers." In 1870, they began to receive their pay on an annual basis, just the same as officers. They stood deck watches, piloted vessels, and performed many of the tasks and duties of the junior officers. They were classified as "Line officers," and the Secretary of the Navy was empowered to authorize reversion to enlisted status in order to permit them to re-enlist when their enlistment had expired. Upon their re-enlistment, they were reappointed as Mates. At the close of the Civil War, there were approximately 840 of them on active duty. No further appointments were made, and gradually they dwindled in number, so that on 1 July 1894, only 27 remained on active duty. On 1 August 1894, Congress, upon recommendation of the Navy Department, gave them the same retirement benefits as Warrant officers in order to induce those remaining to retire. With no such inducement, they would have remained on active duty indefinitely, as they had no other visible means of support. The last Mate was retired in 1907.


Shortly after the Civil War, a great deal of effort was expended toward promoting a Warrant Pharmacist grade for the apothecary. On 8 December 1866, the Secretary of the Navy conferred relative rank on the Apothecary, who was an enlisted man, and he provided that the First Class Apothecary would rank with Boatswain and would receive $750 per annum. However, the Attorney General pointed out that the Secretary of the Navy lacked authority to confer relative rank, and, as a result of the opinion of the Attorney General, the order conferring relative rank was revoked on 15 March 1869. During the following year, recommendations were made to the Secretary of the Navy and to Congress for the promotion of the Apothecary to a higher rank, inasmuch as he was required to possess considerable skill in medicine and pharmacy. It also was pointed out that the Apothecary was appointed to Warrant rank in the French Fleet. Finally, on 17 June 1898, Congress established the Warrant classification of Pharmacist.

With the advent of steam, and the development of steam propelled vessels, there was new agitation for machinist classifications. As a matter of fact, machinists, who were enlisted men, performed many of the duties of the Third Assistant Engineer, whose rank and title had been abolished as a result of the Naval Appropriations Act of 15 July 1870. Their promotion to Warrant rank quickly followed the development of the steam propelled vessel. They received higher pay than the enlisted men and they were permitted to wear the officer type uniform. At times, they even took charge of a watch in the engine room. However, on 2 September 1875, a circular from the Navy Department stated that he no longer would be appointed, but would be enlisted just as other enlisted men. Finally, on 3 March 1899, Congress authorized the appointment of "Warrant Machinist," and the same Act also provided that Boatswains, Gunners, Carpenters, and Sailmakers would, after ten years of service from the date of their warrant, be commissioned as Chief Boatswains, Chief Gunners, Chief Carpenters, and Chief Sailmakers, respectively, to rank with, but after, Ensigns.

The Act of 3 March 1899 also did away with the grade of Sailmaker, since there was a decreasing need for the Sailmaker as steam power replaced the windsail. The last man to be so appointed received his Warrant in 1888. As of the date of the Act, all Sailmakers became eligible to be commissioned Chief Sailmaker, and were so commissioned. No further appointments were made. The classification, therefore, gradually withered away after 1888. The last man that held that Warrant grade died in 1933, and had been on the retired list for over 15 years.

With the beginning of the 20th century, there was an increase in the rapidity with which Warrant legislation began to appear. Congress enacted the following important Warrant legislation during the period from the beginning of the present [20th] century to World War I.

    1901   Congress authorized presidential appointments from Warrant to Ensign grade wherever vacancies in the grade of Ensign existed and remained unfilled by Naval Academy graduates. Such appointments were limited to no more than six per year.
    1903   Congress modified the 1901 Act by increasing the number of authorized appointments to 12 per year.
    1904   The service requirement for promotion from Warrant officer to Chief Warrant was made six years. Boatswains, Gunners, and Warrant Machinists were made eligible for promotion from Warrant officer to Ensign after serving four years as a Warrant officer.
    1909   The title of Warrant Machinist was changed to "Machinist", and all Machinists were to be commissioned as Chief Machinists, to rank with, but after, Ensign, six years from the date of their Warrant. Chief Boatswains, Chief Gunners, and Chief Machinists were made eligible for promotion to the grade of Ensign under the same restrictions as those applicable, under the 1904 Act, to Warrant Boatswains, Gunners, and Machinists.


    1912   Pharmacists were, after six years from the date of their Warrant grade, to be commissioned as Chief Pharmacists.
    1915   The grade of Acting Pay Clerk was established, and the title of Pay Master Clerk was changed to that of Pay Clerk. Chief Pay Clerk was a new grade established by the same legislation, which also provided for promotion from Pay Clerk. Thereafter, all Pay Clerks were to be Warranted from Active Pay Clerks, who were to be appointed form enlisted men holding active or permanent appointments as Chief Petty officers with three years service as an enlisted man. The first men appointed to this new grade had date of rank as of 1 July 1915.

With the increased use of electricity and radio communications, enlisted men and civilians, skilled in such work, were appointed Gunners and carried special designators to indicate their specialty. World War I files indicate there were Gunners with the designators "Ordnance," "Electrician," and "Radio." These specialties grew to such importance that special Warrant grades finally were developed. In 1925, the grades of Electrician, Chief Electrician, Radio Electrician, and Chief Radio Electrician were established. The persons so appointed, who previously were Gunners or Chief Gunners, retained their previous date of rank as Gunner or Chief Gunner.

Prior to the outbreak of Word War II, Warrant officers made many demands or requests for legislation which would give them more advancement and additional increases in pay. One plan was presented which would have created the classifications of Warrant Officer (Ensign), Warrant Officer (Junior Grade), and Warrant Officer (Lieutenant). This plan was rejected by the Navy Department. It was not unusual, in the early 1930's, for a First Class Petty Officer to spend 10 to 12 years before becoming a Chief Petty Officer. It was, in fact, often easier to obtain a Warrant grade, inasmuch as fewer persons were competing, and the type of examination was less difficult. For example, the examinations for Chief Petty Officer were of the true-false type, where one either got the answer correct or incorrect and held an even chance of getting it correct even without knowing the answer, whereas the Warrant Officer examination required the candidate to write as much as possible concerning each question, with the examination being graded on his knowledge of the subject. Consequently, the latter candidates were given a passing grade if they had written answers which were a required percent correct. This stagnation of grade, in the early 1930's was, no doubt, the same kind of discouragement which came to some graduates of the Naval Academy at that time, and shortly prior thereto, when Congress failed to appropriate sufficient funds to sustain the full complement of the regular navy officer corps on active duty during the period of curtailed naval appropriations.

At the start of World War II, the Navy Department, believing that a more specialized breakdown in Warrant grades was demanded by the continuing development in technical equipment, wishing to make the most effective utilization of enormously expanding personnel strength of the Navy. Accordingly, the following new grades were established in 1942:

Chief Torpedoman
Ship's Clerk
Chief Ship's Clerk
Chief Photographer
Chief Aerographer

All eight grades were new, although the Torpedoman and Chief Torpedoman previously had performed the duties of those two new grades as Gunners and Chief Gunners, respectively.


In 1947 the Secretary of the Navy was empowered to appoint as many Warrant officers in the Hospital Corps as necessary. Previous legislation had included specific reference to the grades of Pharmacist and Chief Pharmacist, so the 1947 Act made it necessary to refer to such officers as "Chief Warrant Officer, Hospital Corps" or "Warrant Officer, Hospital Corps." The names or titles "Chief Pharmacist" and "Pharmacist" were abolished. At this time, there also was a great deal of discussion concerning the advisability of abolishing Warrant officer titles and establishing two classifications. These two classifications to be those of Warrant Officer and Chief Warrant Officer, with designators to indicate their specialty. The changes in the Hospital Corps designators, coupled with the expansion of the designator titles for Boatswains, Gunners, Torpedomen, Machinists, Electricians, Radio Electricians, Carpenters, Ship's Clerks, Pay Clerks, Aerographers, and Photographers, were made within the 12 authorized legal titles, but were expanded to 37 functional titles. For Warrant officers they now are:

Designator Code   Description
711   Boatswain (Aviation Boatswain)
712   Boatswain (Flight Controller)
713   Boatswain (Boatswain)
714   Boatswain (Ship Controlman)
721   Gunner (Aviation Ordnance Technician)
723   Gunner (Surface Ordnance Technician)
724   Gunner (Control Ordnance Technician)
733   Torpedoman (Underwater Ordnance Technician)
741   Machinist (Aviation Machinist)
743   Machinist (Machinist)
744   Machinist (Instrument Technician)
748   Machinist (Utilities Technician)
749   Machinist (Equipment Foreman)
751   Electrician (Aviation Electrician)
754   Electrician (Electrician)
759   Electrician (Construction Electrician)
761   Radio Electrician (Aviation Electronics Electrician)
762   Radio Electrician (Training Devices Technician)
763   Radio Electrician (Communications Supervisor)
764   Radio Electrician (Communications Technician)
766   Radio Electrician (Electronics Technician)
771   Carpenter (Aviation Structural Technician)
772   Carpenter (Aviation Survival Technician)
773   Carpenter (Foundryman)
774   Carpenter (Ship Repair Technician)
778   Carpenter (Drafting Technician)
779   Carpenter (Building Foreman)
782   Ship's Clerk (Ship's Clerk)
783   Ship's Clerk (Journalist)
784   Ship's Clerk (Printer)
785   Ship's Clerk (Bandmaster)
788   Ship's Clerk (Machine Accountant)
798   Pay Clerk (Supply Clerk)
817   Warrant Officer Hospital Corps
818   Warrant Officer Hospital Corps (Dental Clerk)
821   Aerographer (Aerographer)
831   Photographer (Photographer)


Of the foregoing Warrant officer classifications, four, namely Boatswain, Machinist, Electrician, and Carpenter, are included or repeated within their own expanded classifications so that there is a net number of 37 functional titles. Of these functional titles, only 23 are actually included in established ship and shore Naval complements. These are the following:

Aviation Boatswain
Aviation Ordnance Technician
Surface Ordnance Technician
Control Ordnance Technician
Underwater Ordnance Technician
Aviation Machinist
Equipment Foreman
Aviation Electrician
Construction Electrician
Aviation Electronics Technician
Communications Technician
Electronics Technician
Aviation Structural Technician
Ship Repair Technician
Building Foreman
Ship's Clerk
Supply Clerk
Warrant Officer, Hospital Corps

The following three are detailed in accordance with their designators, but no complements have been authorized for their designators:

    Dental Clerk

The following seven have never had a complement established for their specialty:

    Flight Controller - Detailed as 711 (Aviation Boatswain)
    Ship Controlman - Detailed as 713 (Boatswain)
    Instrument Technician - Detailed as 743 (Machinist--there are two billets for Instrument Technicians)
    Training Devices Technician - Detailed as 761 (Aviation Electronics Technician)
    Aviation Survival Technician - Detailed as 711 (Aviation Structural Technician)
    Foundryman - Detailed as 774 (Ship Repair Technician)
    Drafting Technician - Detailed as 779 (Building Foreman)



Published: Wed Aug 08 10:03:59 EDT 2018