The insignia of the United States Army’s Ordnance Corps is officially known as a “shell and flame”—it’s described as a “Burning Shell & Flame” in the 1851 uniform regulations— but over the years it’s also been called a “flaming bomb,” “bursting bomb,” and “grenade.” But while the last of these appellations is closest to what the design was originally meant to represent, the official title reflects the Ordnance Corps’ inextricable ties to the Artillery Corps.

Sources vary greatly on when explosive shells were first used in Europe, but there’s no question that the jerry-rigged nature of the technology prevented their widespread use. Hollowed out artillery cannonballs were packed with gunpowder, and a fuse leading to the charge was lit before the shell was placed into the artillery piece (or after it was already in the barrel) and then firing it at the enemy. Calculating just when the shell (bomb is probably a more accurate term) would detonate was largely a matter of guesswork, and of course there was always a good chance the fuse would go out before the gunpowder was detonated—leaving the enemy with a shell they could re-arm and use against the attacker.

But part of the awkwardness of this ordnance-delivery system was eliminated if shells were made small enough to be carried by soldiers who could light the fuse and manually toss it at the enemy. These hand-tossed bombs were dubbed “grenado,” from the Latin word for pomegranate, and select soldiers armed with the weapons were known as grenadiers. According to the Encyclopedia of United States Army Insignia and Uniforms, grenadiers in European armies used the “flame and shell” as their insignia at least as far back as 1704, and by the time of the American Revolution it was worn by grenadiers in the British, French and German armies.

So how did an image of an ole-timey grenade come to be referred to as a shell?

The answer lies in the fact that all ordnance matters fell under the purview of the Artillery Corps until the establishment of the Ordnance Department in 1812, and that it was merged back into the Artillery in less than a decade. It wasn’t until 1832 that the Ordnance Department was re-established, and even then regulations kept it linked to the Artillery Corps by specifying that both the insignia for Artillery and Ordnance personnel would be the same: a “gold embroidered shell and flame.” In short, Artillery was seen almost as the godfather of the Ordnance Corps—and Artillery pieces fire shells, not grenades.

In 1924, the insignia was redesigned, and the spreading flame atop the “shell” was replaced with the stylized image of a flame.

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