Obscure Military Ranks That No Longer Exist And What They Meant

As the name implies, military ranks are a means of identifying servicemember’s positions inside a military hierarchy. A rank indicates a person’s authority, position, role, and power within the hierarchy. Over the centuries many ranks have come and gone, as they were often used in relation to a specific job or activity. However today the ranking system of most militaries has been massively streamlined and many of these older ranks have fallen out of use.

Here is a list of some of the stranger ranks that are no longer used.


Winston Churchill was a Cornet
Winston Churchill while serving as a cornet in the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars (1895). Churchill’s formal rank was second lieutenant. (Photo Credit: Public Domain / Wikipedia)

Cornet was a former British cavalry troop rank that signified the lowest level commissioned officer. The name comes from the instrument, which was used by a cornet player in each cavalry group. It fell out of use with the British in 1871 and today its equivalent rank is second lieutenant. It was also used by the Russian’s and Prussians. Perhaps the most famous cornet of all time was Winston Churchill.


Grace Hopper Promoted to Commodore
Grace Hopper being promoted to the rank of commodore in 1983 (Photo Credit: Pete Souza / Public Domain)

This centuries-old naval rank is usually above navy captain, but below a rear admiral. It dates back to France’s orders of knighthood, in which the commandeur was one of the highest ranks. Commodore has been both a title and an official rank. As a title, it usually referred to officers in command of more than one ship, even if this was just a temporary authority. As a rank a commodore is usually in command of a squadron of ships within a fleet.

The US abandoned the rank in 1899, but brought it back during WWII, only to abandon it again when the war ended. It returned in the 1980s, but after confusion between those with the rank and titles, it was replaced with rear admiral (lower half).

Air Force Chief Warrant Officers

Chief warrant officers are found in many militaries around the world, including the US. But the US Air Force doesn’t use this rank, not since 1992 when the last “Chief Airman” retired. In branches that use them, a warrant officer has achieved their position with their expertise on the respective service.

The Air Force stopped using this rank in the late 1950s after it was no longer a part of the Army. The reason for this decision was because the Air Force deemed chief warrant officers as just, well, unneeded. When the last chief warrant officer retired in the early 1990s the Air Force was able to finally discard the rank completely. A continuous rumor persists among airmen that the rank will return one day soon.

Quartermaster Sergeant

The quartermaster sergeant in the US military managed the supplies for regiments and battalions and assisted the regular quartermaster. Other duties included overseeing the set up of camps, distribution of supplies, the company’s tools, and property. They rarely saw combat, but still undertook the drills and training required for regular non-commissioned officers. Also, they could replace non-commissioned officers on the frontlines in a pinch.

The rank of quartermaster sergeant was discontinued in the 1920s after a command restructure.


Coxswain Insignia
Coxswain Badge (Photo Credit: Public Domain)

The old naval rank of coxswain has changed in meaning over the years. It was originally given to those in charge of a ship’s boat, a small boat used to ferry supplies or crew to other ships or land. The word came from cock, after cockboat, a type of ship’s boat, and swain, from the Old Norse word sveinn meaning servant.

A coxswain changed over time from the one in charge of a ship’s boat, to the one responsible for steering smaller vessels like corvettes and submarines. In WWII a coxswain could be found at the controls of landing craft. Although it was once a rank, this is no longer the case.

Sergeant Major General

Another old rank, sergeant major generals no longer exist but were once the most junior of the general ranks. The rank caused some confusion among enlisted troops as sergeant major general was ranked below lieutenant general. However, a major is ranked above a lieutenant. The rank was sometimes popular within militias.

Drum Major

40th Marines Drum Major
Master Gunnery Sergeant Duane F. King (Photo Credit: USMC)

In the US Marines’ Marine Band the drum major was once the leader of the band. Today, while it is no longer a rank, the drum major is responsible for the band’s overall appearance, decorum, and drill. The drum major also directs the band and wears a unique uniform consisting of a bearskin headpiece and a mace, which is used to direct the musicians.

The role still exists but its rank does not. The current Drum Major is Master Gunnery Sergeant Duane F. King. Mr. King serves as the 40th Drum Major of “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band. He joined the Marine Band in May 2014.

Jesse Beckett

Jesse Beckett is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE