U.S. NAVY LINE OFFICER'S SOFT EPAULETS

The current system of gold lace stripes to denote the rank of officers in the United States Navy traces its roots back to 1852. Of the four commissioned officer ranks at the time, three were identified by gold lace stripes that were three-quarters of an inch thick: Lieutenants wore a single stripe, Commanders wore two, and Captains sported three. For those at the lowest officer rank of Master, three large cuff buttons were used instead of any stripes or braids.

After a system of narrow quarter-inch stripes was introduced during the Civil War (along with the placement of a star above the stripes), new sleeve insignia were authorized in March, 1969 based upon a system of half-inch and quarter-inch stripes used in combination to denote advancement in rank. Although the system was very similar to what is used today on sleeves, hard shoulder boards, and soft shoulder boards, there were some tweaks to be made as certain ranks fell by the wayside. The Master rank was replaced as the lowest by Ensign, and Lieutenant junior grade was inserted between Ensign and Lieutenant.

When the system was first put in place, the rank Captain was displayed with three half-inch stripes, while Commanders had two half-inch stripes and one quarter-inch stripe. Within a few months, however, the Captain’s insignia increased to four (as it still is today), and Commanders were given three half-inch stripes.

And while it’s a safe bet that the vast majority of civilians couldn’t tell you a Naval officer’s rank by looking at the stripes on a sleeve or shoulder board, almost all of them know that the more stripes there are, the greater the authority and responsibility.
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