authored by Brian M. Fogarty, CWO, USN(Ret.)
Warrant officers have been part of the United States Navy from its beginning. On 13 December 1775, Congress agreed to construct 13 frigates. Congress prescribed the rank structure of the officers who would lead these ships. Included was a list of skills that were needed in which the person would serve under a warrant from the Secretary of the Navy rather than a commission from the President. This group, comprised of surgeons, chaplains, pursers, boatswains, gunners, carpenters, masters-mates and secretary of the fleet became the Navy’s first warrant officers.
The introduction of steam propulsion in the mid-1800’s required the Navy to hire a number of civilian engineers to demonstrate this new technology. These individuals were designated as chief, first assistant, second assistant, and third assistant engineers in the staff corps of the Navy. They held such titles as chief engineer, passed assistant engineer and assistant engineer. All but the chief engineers were to be warranted.
Navy warrants began wearing two half-inch gold stripes separated by a quarter-inch of blue cloth lace on their caps in 1853. Regulations issued in December 1866 specified that the cap ornament for the 3rd assistant engineer, a warrant officer, was four silver oak leaves in the form of a cross, within a gold wreath.
Figure 1 Civil War Era Engineering Warrant Cap Device
The cap for all warrant officers became standardized under the 1883 uniform regulations. The cap device consisted of 2 gold foul anchors crossed. Additionally, a one-quarter inch gold band was specified to be worn on the hat.
Figure 2 Warrant Officer Cap Device
The Naval Appropriations Act approved May 4, 1898 provided warrants to seventeen civilian machinists for temporary service during the Spanish-American war. On June 28, 1898, The Navy Department prescribed a corps device to be sewn on the collar of their blue service coats. The corps device for the warrant machinists consisted of a gold four bladed propeller. The last of the warrant machinists was honorably discharged on September 2, 1898.
Figure 3 Spanish-American War Warrant Machinist Corps Device
1899 was a significant year in the history of warrant officers. The March 3, 1899 Act of Congress created the rank of Chief Warrant Officer by allowing boatswains, gunners, carpenters and sailmakers to receive a commission after 10 years' service from date of warrant (the time in rank for promotion to chief warrant was reduced to 6 years from date of warrant in April 1904). The corps device for these new chief warrant officers was to be the same as their previous warrant device however, the chief warrant device would be embroidered in silver rather than gold. Previously, a silver warrant corps device signified the person had attained 20 years in rank as a warrant officer.
The sleeve lacing on the blue service coat for the chief warrant officer was to be the now readily recognized gold stripe with blue break that since 1853 had come to symbolize the wearer as a technical expert. Line warrant officers (boatswains and gunners) would continue to wear a gold star on their sleeve while staff warrant officers would have nothing on their sleeves.
The March 3, 1899 Act was also significant in that it marked when warrant machinists would become a permanent fixture of the Navy. The corps device prescribed for the warrant machinist was four oak leaves, embroidered in gold was to be sewn on the collar of the blue service jacket.
Figure 4 Original Warrant Machinist Corps Device
An addendum to Uniform Regulations dated January 5, 1900, changed the machinist's corps device to the device that we use today. A three-bladed propeller, embroidered in gold, one blade vertical and pointing up.
Figure 5 Circa 1900 Warrant Machinist Corps Device
Uniform Regulations issued June 6, 1901 prescribed that chief warrant officers wear the same cap device and half-inch gold band as other commissioned officers. Warrant officers retained the crossed anchors cap device and one-quarter inch gold band.
Shoulder marks prescribed in 1905 for the white service dress coat and white mess dress jacket consisted of metal pin-on devices placed on the shoulder strap. The metal pin-on device consisted of the corps device in silver or gold for chief warrant or warrant officer respectively.
In 1908, changes in uniform regulations were issued which specified that line chief warrant officers (boatswains and gunners) should have a small gold star, and line warrant officers a small silver star, surcharged on the corps devices worn on shoulder marks and blue service coat collars. “Non-line” chief warrant and warrant officers had their corps devices on their shoulder marks and collars, but without the star.
The Act of March 3, 1909 change the title of "warrant machinists" to "machinists" and provided for their promotion, after 6 years from date of warrant, to commissioned chief machinists. No machinist was to be promoted until he had passed such examination before a board as the Secretary of the Navy might prescribe. The chief machinists' corps device was of the same design as that of machinists', a three-bladed propeller, but it was silver instead of gold. An amendment to Navy Regulations in December 1909 classified chief machinists and machinists as line officers of the Navy. As such, the star of the line was placed on their blue service coat sleeves, corps device worn on the blue service coat collar and the metal pin-on device for the shoulder strap of the white service and mess dress jackets.
Figure 6 Circa 1909 Sleeve, Collar, and Shoulder Pin-on Insignia
A 1917 revision to the Uniform Regulations of 1913 prescribed shoulder boards in lieu of shoulder straps with metal pin-on devices.
Figure 7 Circa 1917 Shoulder Boards
Warrant officers began wearing one-quarter inch gold striping with blue breaks on their sleeves and shoulder boards in 1919.
A 1922 revision to the uniform regulations removed the corps device from the collar of the service coat. The corps device was now to be embroidered in gold and worn above the sleeve striping on the service coat and shoulder boards for all chief warrant and warrant officers. Additionally, the 1922 uniform regulation revision removed the line star from the corps device of the line chief warrant and warrant officers. Also, a pin-on device approximately 5/8 the size of that used in marking the sleeves of the blue service uniform was to be worn on the collar of working shirts and on the garrison cap. The chief warrant officers' was to be made of silver, silver plate, or white metal, and the warrant officers' to be of rolled gold, gold plate or gilt.
Figure 8 Circa 1922 Sleeve, Shoulder and Collar Insignia
The Defense Reorganization Act of 1949 created four warrant officer grade levels: W1, CWO2, CWO3 and CWO4. Effective July 1, 1952 chief warrant and warrant officers, instead of having their corps device on both sides of their shirt collars, in silver and gold respectively, were to wear their rank device on the right collar and their corps device, in gold, on the left collar. The Navy discontinued the warrant officer rank in the 1970’s. CWO5 was authorized by the Navy in 2002. The first CWO5 was appointed in 2005.
More advanced and complex propulsion systems made their way into the fleet after WWII. These technological advancements lead to the need to change the designation of those wearing the three-bladed propeller corps device from simply “machinist” to “engineering technician” in order to better reflect the broad scope of the engineering disciplines covered. The development of nuclear propulsion in the late 1950’s resulted in the need for a designator within the chief warrant and warrant officer line community that shared a common heritage with the engineering technician. Chief warrant officer nuclear power technicians serving in the warships of the 21st century can trace their heritage back to those warrant officers who helped introduce the Navy to steam propulsion back in the 19th century.
Figure 9 Current Collar, Shoulder and Sleeve Insignia