The Navy Department Library
The "warrant" portion of the Warrant Officer's title comes from the old French word warant that meant variously a protector, a defense and an authorization. It is also the source of our modern word "warranty." In 1040 when five English ports began furnishing warships to King Edward the Confessor in exchange for certain privileges, they also furnished crews whose officers were the Master, Boatswain, Carpenter and Cook. Later these officers were "warranted" by the British Admiralty. They maintained and sailed the ships and were the standing officers of the navy. Soldiers commanded by Captains would be on board the ships to do the fighting but they had nothing to do with running the ships. The word "soldiering" came about as a seaman's term of contempt for the soldiers and anyone else who avoided shipboard duties.
The warranted officers were often the permanent members of the ships' companies. They stayed with the ships in port between voyages as caretakers supervising repairs and refitting. Other crewmen and soldiers might change with each voyage. Early in the Fourteenth Century the Purser joined the warrant officers. He was originally "the clerk of burser." During the following centuries the Gunner, Surgeon, Chaplain, Master-at-arms, Schoolmaster and others signed on.
Warrant Officers were members of our Navy right from its beginning. There were Warrant Officers on the ships of the Continental Navy during the Revolutionary War. When Congress created our Navy in 1794 it listed the Warrant Officers as the Sailing Masters, Purser, Boatswain, Gunner, Carpenter, Sailmaker and Midshipman.
Navy Warrant Officers began wearing blue and gold stripes in 1853--on their caps. They had stripes of half-inch wide gold lace separated by a quarter-inch wide stripe of blue cloth. In 1888 Chief Warrant Officers started wearing the sleeve stripe of a single strip of half-inch wide gold lace broken at intervals by sections of blue thread half an inch wide. In 1919 the other Navy Warrant Officers began wearing sleeve stripes of gold lace broken by sections of blue.
Our Revolutionary Army had Warrant Officers but otherwise the Army and Marines did not have them until the Twentieth Century. In 1916 the Marines made some of their Gunners and Quartermaster Clerks Warrant Officers. In 1918 Pay Clerks could also become Warrants. Also in 1918, the Army created Warrant Officers in its Mine Planter Service to serve as Masters, Mates and Engineers of its seagoing vessels. Congress authorized more Army Warrant Officers in 1920 in clerical, administrative and band leading activities but the intent seems to have been to reward enlisted men for long service or provide positions for World War I officers who could not hold their commissions after the war. Between 1922 and 1936 the Army promoted only a few band leaders and Mine Planter Service members to warrant status. In 1936 the Army held competitive examinations to replenish its Warrant Officer eligibility lists and once again began making appointments.
For rank insignia, Marine Warrant Officers wore the insignias of their respective departments until 1944 when they began wearing gold or silver bars broken by stripes of scarlet enamel. Amy Warrant Officers got oval bars of gold and brown in 1942. Warrant Officers in the Army Air Forces wore oval bars of gold and light blue. In 1956 both changed to square-cornered gold or silver bars with blue enamel stripes for the Air Force and brown for the Army. There were four grades of Warrant Officers. The Warrant Officer (W-1) wore a gold bar with two enamel stripes, the Chief Warrant Officer (W-2) a gold bar with three stripes, the Chief Warrant Officer (W-3) a silver bar with two stripes and the Chief Warrant Officer (W-4) a silver bar with three stripes. The Army found this system confusing so in 1969 asked its Institute of Heraldry to design another device. That was the silver bar with black enamel squares introduced in 1972 and still worn by Army Warrant Officers. Now the Warrant Officer (W-1) has one square and each higher grade gets another square up to Chief Warrant Officer (W-4) with four.