Half-pay (h.p.) was a term used in the British Army and Royal Navy of the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries to refer to the pay or allowance an officer received when in retirement or not in actual service.
In the English Army the option of half-pay developed during the late 17th and early 18th centuries, at the same time as the system of purchasing commissions and promotions by officers took hold. Serving officers could go voluntarily on half-pay or be obliged to do if their services were not required. In both cases they could be summoned back to their regiments if there was a sudden need for their services. As an example, at the time of the Jacobite rising of 1715 all listed half-pay officers were recalled to the army.
In the long period of peace that the reduced British Army experienced following the Napoleonic Wars, the half-pay system became a means by which arduous overseas service could be avoided. Well-to-do officers promoted through the purchase system could transfer to the half-pay list if their regiment was posted to India or elsewhere. They could then purchase new appointments to regiments assigned to home service in Britain. Transfers to and from the half-pay list were approved at the discretion of the Secretary at War.
In 19th century armies and navies the half-pay list served a similar function to the reserve officer components of modern day forces, with officers who were retired or otherwise not in active service receiving half of the salary of their fully commissioned counter-parts. In periods of extended conflict, the half-pay lists became a significant expense for militaries when coupled with the selling of half pay commissions that was commonplace in the British Army.
In the United States this system was implemented in 1778 by the Continental Congress as an incentive to compensate for the extremely low pay that officers in the Continental Army received which made it difficult to retain officers for long periods of time. The half pay benefit was granted to all officers for seven years following the end of the revolution but was later extended to a lifetime benefit. While this benefit was promised to all officers serving in the Continental Army, after the war the Congress of the Articles of Confederation voted against paying for these pensions and so only officers from certain state regiments who had established an independent half-pay list received this pay. After extended lobbying by retired officers after the war, in 1783 Congress authorized the full pay of officers for five years to be paid by the Department of the Army. Such a large list of officers drawing half-pay created similar problems for the United States as it had in Great Britain. In an attempt to control the growing number of aging officers still on the government payroll and to promote a younger officer corps, in 1855 the Secretary of the Navy was given the right, with the recommendation of a review board, to involuntarily terminate officers who were deemed incapable or unfit for duty. Shortly following this, officers with forty years of time in service were allowed to voluntarily retire. In 1889, the half pay retirement benefit was extended to enlisted personnel who had completed thirty years of active service by General Order No. 372.
In the modern US military, the term “half-pay” refers to the punishment of low level offences by service members in the form of forfeiture of half of all pay and entitlements. While there is no specific punishment described as “half pay” in the Uniform Code of Military Justice the term is used as a common shorthand for the forfeiture of pay. The guidelines for the maximum length of time of this punishment are defined by Article 15 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. For commissioned officers the length of forfeiture cannot exceed two months at half pay or detention of half months pay for three months. For enlisted personnel, the severity of the available punishments is limited by the rank of the commanding officer and their own rank. For example, to punish a noncommissioned officer for the same length of time as a junior enlisted service member the commanding officer must be of higher rank than otherwise required. Officers below the rank of O-4 (Major or Lt. Commander) may only impose the confiscation of up to seven days' pay. Officers of the rank of O-4 and above may impose the forfeiture of half months pay for two months or the detention of half months pay for three months.
The term may also be used in reference to the retirement pay which a member of the Armed Forces of the United States receives if retiring after twenty years of service. The current retirement system was adopted following the Second World War to maintain competitiveness with the civilian market and to care for the large numbers of officers and senior enlisted personnel leaving the service following the end of the war.
The maritime adventure novels of the Horatio Hornblower series, set during the Napoleonic Wars, include numerous references to the protagonist's—and his fellow naval officers'—fear of being retired and "stranded ashore on half-pay" which they consider as their worst nightmare. This was because even full pay was often barely sufficient to cover the living expenses of an officer and any dependents. In addition to the permanent retirement of individuals, peacetime cut-backs in the wartime establishments of both army and navy could mean significant numbers of serving officers being placed on half-pay while awaiting new appointments which might not eventuate.