Ensign (/ˈɛnsən/, Late Middle English, from Old French enseigne (12c.) "mark, symbol, signal; flag, standard, pennant", from Latin insignia (plural)) is a junior rank of a commissioned officer in the armed forces of some countries, normally in the infantry or navy. As the junior officer in an infantry regiment was traditionally the carrier of the ensign flag, the rank acquired the name. This rank has generally been replaced in army ranks by second lieutenant. Ensigns were generally the lowest ranking commissioned officer, except where the rank of subaltern existed. In contrast, the Arab rank of ensign, لواء, liwa', derives from the command of units with an ensign, not the carrier of such a unit's ensign, and is today the equivalent of a major general.
In Thomas Venn's 1672 Military and Maritime Discipline in Three Books, the duties of ensigns are to include not only carrying the colour but assisting the captain and lieutenant of a company and in their absence, have their authority.
"Ensign" is enseigne in French, and chorąży in Polish, each of which derives from a term for a flag. The Spanish alférez and Portuguese alferes is a junior officer rank below lieutenant associated with carrying the flag, and so is often translated as "ensign". Unlike the rank in other languages, its etymology has nothing to do with flags, but instead comes from the Arabic for "cavalier" or "knight". Fähnrich in German comes from an older German military title, Fahnenträger (flag bearer); however, it is an officer cadet rank, not a junior officer - the same applies to the Dutch vaandrig, which has a parallel etymology. In the German Landsknecht armies (c. 1480), the equivalent rank of a Cornet existed for those men who carried the troop standard (known as a "cornet"). It is still used in the artillery and cavalry units of the Netherlands (kornet).
The NATO rank code is OF-1 (junior).
|Field marshal or
General of the Army
the air force
|Admiral||General||Air chief marshal|
|Vice admiral||Lieutenant general||Air marshal|
|Rear admiral||Major general||Air vice-marshal|
|Commander||Lieutenant colonel||Wing commander|
junior grade or
|Second lieutenant||Pilot officer|
|Officer cadet||Officer cadet||Flight cadet|
|Warrant officer or
chief petty officer
|Warrant officer or
|Leading seaman||Corporal or
In Argentina, the rank of ensign is used by both the air force and the gendarmerie. It is, however, used differently in the two services. The air force uses the rank for newly qualified officers, while the gendarmerie uses "ensign" ranks as an equivalent for the army's "lieutenant" ranks.
|Argentine Air Force Rank||Argentine Gendarmerie Rank||Equivalent Commonwealth Ranks for comparison|
|Ensign||Subensign||Acting pilot officer / 2nd lieutenant|
|Lieutenant||Ensign||Pilot officer / 2nd lieutenant|
|First lieutenant||First ensign||Flying officer / lieutenant|
The other armed forces of Argentina have ranks equivalent to ensign: subteniente (which can be translated into English as "sublieutenant") in the army and guardiamarina (midshipman) in the navy". In the army, the most junior sublieutenant in a regiment (or other unit) is also the flag carrier.
During the Ancien Régime in France, as in other countries, the ensign (enseigne) was the banner of an infantry regiment. As in other countries, the name began to be used for the officers who carried the ensign. It was renamed sub-lieutenant (sous-lieutenant) at the end of the 18th century. The Navy used a rank of ship-of-the-line ensign (enseigne de vaisseau), which was the first officer rank. It was briefly renamed ship-of-the-line sub-lieutenant (sous-lieutenant de vaisseau) in the end of the 18th century, but its original name was soon restored.
Nowadays, the rank is still used in the Marine Nationale: Ship-of-the-line ensign (enseigne de vaisseau) is the name of the two lowest officer ranks (which are distinguished from one another as "first class", equal to an army lieutenant, and "second class", equal to an army sub-lieutenant.) Both ranks of ensign use the style lieutenant.
French-speaking Canadian Naval officers also use the terms of enseigne de vaisseau de deuxième classe and de première classe as the French term for acting sub-lieutenant and sub-lieutenant respectively. However, French-Canadian sub-lieutenants use the short form of enseigne instead of lieutenant.
The rank "ensign" is also used to refer to second lieutenants (NATO OF-1) in household regiments of the Canadian Army.
Fähnrich which has a parallel etymology to ensign, containing the corresponding German word stem of "flag" in it, is a German and an Austrian officer cadet rank. The word Fähnrich comes from an older German military title, Fahnenträger (literally: "flag carrier"), and first became a distinct military rank on 1 January 1899.
The German Fähnrich is a non-commissioned officer promoted from the rank of Fahnenjunker (German Army) or Seekadett (German Navy). Fähnrich is equivalent to Feldwebel (staff sergeant), but with additional responsibilities as an officer cadet. If successful, he may be promoted to Oberfähnrich (German Army, equivalent to Hauptfeldwebel, or sergeant first class) or to Oberfähnrich zur See (German Navy), before being made an officer. The German rank Fähnrich should not be translated into English as "ensign" to avoid the possible misconception that this would be an officer's rank, and the English navy rank "ensign" should not be translated as "Fähnrich" but as "Leutnant zur See", which is the German equivalent.
The Cornet, originally equal in rank to the Fähnrich in the 17th and 18th century, was the lowest grade of commissioned officers.
In Estonian Defence Forces the equivalent of “ensign” is lipnik. It is used mainly as a rank for reserve officers.
The Royal New Zealand Navy, unlike the Royal Navy — whose uniforms, insignia, and traditions it inherited — created the ensign grade to equal the lowest commissioned RNZAF grade of pilot officer and the New Zealand Army grade of second lieutenant. It ranks above the grade of midshipman. Like the grade of pilot officer, it uses a single thin strip of braid.
The fact that the Royal Navy has no real equivalent to the lowest commissioned Royal Air Force and British Army grades was one of the driving factors behind the RNZN's decision to create the ensign grade. Another was that, at the time, New Zealand was actively involved with the United States Armed Forces, so it made sense to balance the rank system out with that used by the United States Navy.
The Royal Norwegian Navy, the Norwegian Army and the Royal Norwegian Air Force's equivalent of ensign is fenrik (the rank below lieutenant). It was previously referred to as second lieutenant (Norwegian: sekondløytnant), while the rank of lieutenant was called premier lieutenant.
The rank is obtained after attending befalsskolen for one year, from which the candidate emerges as a sergeant, and serving as a sergeant for three additional years. The rank is known to have been temporarily given to soldiers with rank equivalent of non-commissioned officers, indicating skills and performance beyond their rank, in contract based operative service (UN, NATO). This is highly uncommon and the rank is reverted after the contract period ends.
A fenrik serves as a NATO (OF-1) second lieutenant, but the function of the rank differs drastically from other armies. Although it is an officer rank, it strongly resembles an NCO rank in practice. Fenriks are usually former experienced sergeants without officer education, and usually fill such roles as squad leaders and platoon sergeants. This is due to the lack of an NCO-corps in the Norwegian Army.
The historical background for this is that Norway's NCO corps was discontinued on 1 July 1975, and the senior NCOs currently serving were given officer ranks. NCOs ranking as oversersjant were given the officer rank of fenrik, NCOs ranking as stabssersjant were given the rank of lieutenant, and - in accordance with "Hærordningen av 1. januar 1977" - the most senior of the NCOs ranking as stabsserjant were given the rank of captain.
The corresponding ranks for the Royal Norwegian Navy were overkvartermester (kvartermester I klasse) and flaggkvartermester. The corresponding ranks for the Royal Norwegian Air Force were vingsersjant and stabssersjant.
The rank insignia is worn on the sleeves (navy dress uniform only), on the shoulders of service uniforms or - more recently - on the chest. The chest placement is of newer date, and was introduced with the M-2000 uniform, which is worn by both noncommissioned ranks and officers in all branches of the Norwegian Defence.
The Polish Army equivalent of "ensign" is "chorąży" (the Polish for "ensign" or "flag" being "chorągiew"). In Poland, "ensign" is not an officer rank - it is an NCO equivalent. Before the 2007 reform, soldiers at the rank of chorąży formed a separate corps above the NCOs. The different ranks are as follows:
In the Armed Forces of the Slovak Republic, the equivalent of “ensign” is podporučík.
Until 1871, when it was replaced by second lieutenant, ensign was the lowest rank of commissioned officer in infantry regiments of the British Army (except fusilier and rifle regiments, and the Marines, which always used second lieutenant). It was the duty of officers of this rank to carry the colours of the regiment. In the 16th century, "ensign" was corrupted into "ancient", and was used in the two senses of a banner and the bearer of the banner. Today, the term "ensign" is still used by the Foot Guards regiments, for instance during the ceremony of trooping the colour. The equivalent cavalry rank was cornet, also being derived from the name of a banner.
In the United States Navy, the rank of ensign superseded passed midshipman in 1862. Ensign is the junior commissioned officer rank in the United States Navy, the United States Coast Guard, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officer Corps, and the PHS Commissioned Corps. This rank is also used in the U.S. Maritime Service and the U.S. Naval Sea Cadet Corps. Ensign ranks below lieutenant junior grade, and it is equivalent to a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, the Marine Corps, and the Air Force.
Where a newly-commissioned ensign is assigned in the Navy is dependent on status as either an unrestricted line, restricted line, or staff corps officer. For unrestricted line officers, Depending on assignment to which warfare community, prospective Surface Warfare Officers (SWO) will spend 22 weeks at Surface Warfare Officer School followed by assignment to a warship for qualification as a SWO. Prospective Submarine Warfare Officers will attend Naval Nuclear Power School for 26 weeks, followed by Nuclear Power Training Unit (Prototype) for 24 weeks and Submarine Officer Basic Course for 12 weeks before reporting to their first submarine. Prospective Naval Aviators and Naval Flight Officers have a 12 to 18 month flight training track to earn their wings, followed by a six to nine month training track in a Fleet Replacement Squadron before being assigned to fly combat aircraft in a deployable Fleet aviation squadron. Sea-Air-Land (SEAL) Special Warfare Officers attend a 6 month Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) course followed by a 4 month SEAL Qualification Training (SQT) course before assignment to a SEAL Team. Finally, Special Operations Officers, primarily Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) / Diver officers will have a training track similar in length to that of SEAL officers, to include schools for EOD, SCUBA, hard hat diving, airborne (parachutists) and combat arms skills training before assignment to their first operational assignment.
Restricted Line officers, depending on designator, may train, qualify and be assigned as naval intelligence officers, naval cryptographic officers, aircraft maintenance duty officers, meteorologists/oceanographers, information professionals, human resources professionals, public affairs officers, or a host of other specialties.
Still others may become staff corps officers in the Supply Corps, Civil Engineering Corps, Nurse Corps, Medical Service Corps, or be law school students or medical or dental school students in the Judge Advocate General's Corps, Medical Corps or Dental Corps, respectively.
While the Coast Guard does not categorize its officers as unrestricted line, restricted line or staff corps, a similar career sorting and training process also takes place, ranging from those in operational fields such as cuttermen aboard Coast Guard cutters, Naval Aviators in Coast Guard Aviation, specialists in maritime safety and inspections, and a host of other Coast Guard officer career fields.
All ensigns will become branch officers or division officers in their first operational assignments, responsible for leading a group of petty officers and enlisted men in one of the ship's, squadrons, team's or other organization's branches and divisions (for example, engineering, navigation, communications, sensors or weapons aboard a warship, or similar functions in the operations, aircraft maintenance, administrative or safety/NATOPS departments in a flying squadron) while at the same time receiving on-the-job training in leadership, naval systems, programs, and policies from higher-ranking officers and from senior enlisted men and women in the Chief Petty Officer rates.
Navy and Coast Guard ensigns wear collar insignia of a single gold bar and because of this share the nickname "butterbars" with Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps second lieutenants, who wear the same insignia.
Within the U.S. Public Health Service, those wearing the rank of ensign are part of a commissioned officer student training, and extern program (COSTEP), either junior, for those with more than a year remaining of education in a commissionable degree (JRCOSTEP), or senior, for those within one year of graduating with a commissionable degree (SRCOSTEP). Some officers may hold a permanent rank of ensign based on their experience and education, but then can hold the temporary rank of lieutenant, junior grade.
Note: Pin-on insignia for all U.S. services shown here are incorrectly depicted as U.S. Army / U.S. Air Force second lieutenant insignia; the U.S. Naval Services (U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps, and U.S. Coast Guard), as well as the U.S. Public Health Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, use a gold-colored bar that does not have beveled edges. (See the illustration at Lieutenant (navy)#Rank insignia for correct depiction of non-beveled edge bars.)
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A subaltern is a primarily British military term for a junior officer. Literally meaning "subordinate", subaltern is used to describe commissioned officers below the rank of captain and generally comprises the various grades of lieutenant.Ensign and Fähnrich stand for standard or standard-bearer and were, therefore, the ranks given to the junior officer who carried, or was responsible for, the flag in battle. The Cornet carried the troop standard, known as a "cornet". These ranks have generally been replaced in Army ranks by Second lieutenant. Ensigns were generally the lowest ranking commissioned officer, except where the rank of subaltern itself existed.