Chevron is a French word meaning rafter or roof, which is what a chevron looks like; two straight lines meeting at an angle just as rafters do in a roof. It has been an honourable ordinarie in heraldry since at least the Twelfth Century. Ordinaries are simple straight line forms that seem to have originated in the wood or iron bars used to fasten together or strengthen portions of shields. Other ordinaries include the cross, the diagonal cross or "x," the triangle, the "y," and horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines. The chevron was a basic part of the colorful and complicated science of heraldry. It appeared on the shields and coats-of-arms of knights, barons and kings.
Chevrons were thus easily recognized symbols of honor. That might by why French soldiers started wearing cloth chevrons with the points up on their coat sleeves in 1777 as length of service and good conduct badges. Some British units also used them to show length of service. In 1803 the British began using chevrons with the points down as rank insignia. Sergeants wore three and Corporals two. Perhaps they wore them with the points down to avoid confusion with the earlier length of service chevrons worn with the points up. Some British units also used chevrons of gold lace as officers' rank insignia. British and French soldiers who served in our Revolutionary War wore chevrons as did some American soldiers. In 1782 General George Washington ordered that enlisted men who had served for three years "with bravery, fidelity and good conduct" wear as a badge of honor "a narrow piece of white cloth, of angular form" on the left sleeve of the uniform coat.
In 1817 Sylvanus Thayer, the superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, used chevrons to show cadet rank. From there they spread to the rest of the Army and Marine Corps. From 1820 to 1830 Marine Captains wore three chevrons of gold lace with points down on each sleeve above the elbows of their dress uniforms. Lieutenants wore one or two gold lace chevrons depending on whether they were staff or command officers. Marine Noncommissioned Officers started wearing cloth chevrons with the points up as rank insignia in 1836. They had been wearing them for three years as length of service badges. In 1859 they began wearing chevrons in about the same patterns they do today.
Starting in 1820 Army company grade officers and Sergeants wore one chevron with the point up on each arm. The officers' chevrons were of gold or silver lace, depending on the wearer's branch of service. Captains wore their chevrons above the elbow while Lieutenants wore theirs below. Sergeant Majors and Quartermaster Sergeants wore worsted braid chevrons above the elbow while other Sergeants and Senior Musicians wore theirs below. Corporals wore one chevron on the right sleeve above the elbow. By 1833 the Army and Marine company grade officers had stopped wearing chevrons and returned to epaulettes as rank insignia. Sergeants of the Army dragoons then began wearing three chevrons with points down and Corporals two. All other NCOs wore cloth epaulettes to show their rank. From 1847 to 1851 some Army NCOs wore chevrons with the points up on their fatigue uniform jackets but still used cloth epaulettes on their dress uniforms. After 1851 all Army NCOs wore chevrons with points down until 1902 when the Army turned the points up and adopted the patterns used today, two chevrons for Corporals, three for Sergeants and combinations of arcs and other devices beneath the chevrons for higher grades of Sergeants.
The stripes worn by Air Force members date from 1948. The basic design was one of several presented to 150 NCOs at Bolling Air Force Base, Washington D.C., in late 1947 or early 1948. Some 55 percent of the NCOs preferred that design so on March 9, 1948, General Hoyt S. Vandenberg, then the Air Force Vice Chief of Staff, accepted their choice and approved the design. Naturally, it took some time to obtain and distribute the new stripes so it could have been a year or more before all Air Force members got them.
Whoever designed the stripes might have been trying to combine the shoulder patch worn by members of the Army Air Forces during World War II and the insignia used on aircraft. The patch featured wings with a pierced star in the center while the aircraft insignia was a star with two bars. The stripes might be the bars from the aircraft insignia slanted gracefully upward to suggest wings. The silver grey color contrasts with the blue uniform and might suggest clouds against blue sky.
Most enlisted service members wear chevrons or stripes to show their ranks. The exceptions are the lowest three grades of Navy and Coast Guard Seamen and the Army Specialists. The Seamen wear one, two or three diagonal stripes or "hashmarks" on their sleeves. These stripes first appeared on the cuffs of sailors' jumpers in 1886. Petty Officers and Seamen First Class wore three stripes, Seamen Second Class two stripes and Seamen Third Class one stripe. Shortly after World War II the Navy moved the stripes to its Seamen's upper arms, as did the Coast Guard. Army Specialists wear an insignia that combines a spread eagle and, depending on the pay grade, arcs--sometimes called "bird umbrellas." The eagle and arcs are mounted on a patch that suggests inverted chevrons. The badge appeared in 1955 as part of an effort to differentiate between the Army's technical or support specialists who were not NCOs and the NCOs.