View Full Version : Early USMC Ranks - Late 1800s/Early 1900s!

03-07-03, 05:05 PM
Early USMC Ranks Late 1800s/Early 1900s!
by Dick G (Login Dick Gaines)
Forum Owner

By July 1899, the Marine Corps enlisted rank structure had definitely been altered. Now there were numerous Marines serving in two grades between sergeant and sergeant major (the first sergeant and gunnery sergeant). And a mighty blow had been struck at tradition by altering the term "fifer" to "trumpeter." Fifers, the partner in melody to the Marine Corps drummer, had been in use since the earliest days of the Continental Marines, and the word "musics" had also been used from 1816 and probably earlier. The Marine Corps had actually abandoned the fife in the 1880s in favor of the trumpet , yet none of this made any difference, for tradition dies hard in the Corps. The man who sounded the trumpet was still regarded as a fifer regardless of the instrument he played.

The sergeant major headed the list of ranking enlisted Marines, next, at the same salary, came the quartermaster sergeant, then the drum major. Ranked with the first sergeant was the gunnery sergeant at a monthy pay fixed by law at $35 per month, to the former's $25 per month--this was the highest of any Marine Corps noncommissioned officer. Next came the sergeants, corporals, and then drummers, trumpeters, and privates.

The first sergeant had assumed a more logical relationship, as far as pay was concerned, to the sergeant major. The gunnery sergeant, however, was being paid more than his rank would indicate; but this perhaps could be justified on the grounds of technical abilities. But then, in the spring of 1908, the base pay of sergeants major, quartermaster sergeants, first sergeants, and drum majors was raised to $45 dollars per month, while gunnery sergeants continued to draw $35.

In creating the rank of gunnery sergeant, the Marine Corps had recognized the fact that tecniques of warfare were changing rapidly. On the eve of world War One, a conflict which would point out the need for enlisted specialists, a candidate for the grade of gunnery sergeant was tested primarily in the mysteries of naval ordnance; but with the development of new signal equipment, some gunnery sergeants were trained in operating and maintaining radios, Still others specialized in telephone communications or in using electrically controlled coast defense mines.

Unfortunately, not every specialist could be a gunnery sergeant. Cooks, gunpointers, and signalmen posed a special problem; for, although they had certain valuable skills, they could not be promoted to the higher enlisted grades without working a grave injustice. The Marine Corps, in other words, faced the problem of rewarding skills without giving the specialist more authority than he could handle. The answer was found in 1908, when the Corps was authorized to give additional pay to certain enlisted men.

From 1908 until the armistice of 11 November 1918, there were but two major changes in the Marine Corps enlisted rank structure. By 1 January 1914, the gunnery sergeant had been returned to the top pay grade along with the sergeant major, drum major, quartermaster sergeant, and first sergeant; and, in 1917 the grade of private first class was authorized.

Dick Gaines
GySgt USMC (Ret.)