It’s generally well-known that the rating of Gunner’s Mate (GM) is one of the oldest in the United States Navy—but just how old is apparently up for debate.

When the Third Congress of the United States passed “An Act to provide a Naval Armament” on March 27, 1794 during its first session, it created a slate of positions to be held by petty officers—i.e., ratings. Among those that are still in existence are Gunner’s Mate, Boatswain’s Mate, Yeoman, and Master-at-Arms. (The act further specified that each of the four ships authorized by the act would have two Gunner’s Mates.) Those who doubt the creation of the Gunner’s Mate rating at this time need only visit the Library of Congress to read the text of the act for themselves: it is found on page 350 of a document called “A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774 – 1875.”

But this seemingly rock-solid confirmation of an establishment date of 1794 stands in stark contrast to the U.S. Navy’s own historical records. In 1969, the Navy published the “Compilation of Enlisted Ratings and Apprenticeships, U.S., 1775 to 1969,” and it lists 1797 as the year the Gunner’s Mate rating was established. Interestingly, this document, compiled by the Recorder of the Permanent Board for Review of the Enlisted Rating Structure within the Bureau of Naval Personnel, doesn’t list any ratings being established in 1794.

The same 1797 date is listed in the Wikipedia entry for Gunner’s Mate, ascribing it to the “Naval Armament Act of 1797”—but there is no act by that name. Instead, the Fifth Congress of the United States passed another “Act to provide a Naval Armament” specifying the composition and pay of the crews of the ships that had been authorized to be built three years earlier.

Thankfully for those they protect, the Sailors who have served and now serve as Gunner’s Mates are not remotely as confused about their duties as are the historians seeking to nail down when their jobs were honored with an official title.

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