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In the United States Air Force, including the Air Reserve Component (Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard), gold represents the lower form of a rank.

A gold bar ranks below a silver bar. A gold leaf ranks below a silver leaf.

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It seems to me that the military takes its symbols very seriously and thus I'm wondering what the rationale is for this, given that in the civilian world gold generally symbolizes the best form of something (or at least better than silver).

NOTE: I've only been focused on the Air Force, however I just noticed this applied to all of the US military.

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    They call it gold, but its really brass. – Peter Diehr Oct 6 '16 at 23:59
  • @PeterDiehr Indeed and I was thinking to myself if they called it brass this would all make sense. – Hack-R Oct 7 '16 at 0:08
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    Note the column heading: Spoken Description! – Peter Diehr Oct 7 '16 at 0:19
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    @PeterDiehr Right, but why is the spoken description gold instead of brass or why aren't they reversed (gold > silver)? I don't think it's a mistake; the PDF was given to me by the Air Force and I presume they put thought into it. Of course, I've been wrong before! – Hack-R Oct 7 '16 at 0:26
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    @PeterDiehr: It may be brass, but it is sewn on with gold thread; the silver stars with silver thread. In the Navy the insignia are actually gold (plated if not solid)and not brass. – Pieter Geerkens Oct 7 '16 at 1:33
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It's historical, dating from before the two colours represented different ranks instead of different branches of the army, as a cost-saving measure (essentially).

From Wikipedia:

The Army origin explains why the color silver outranks gold in Air Force officer insignia. In the early 19th century, Army infantry colonels wore gold eagles, while all other Army colonels wore silver eagles. When the Army later decided to adopt a single color of eagles for all colonels, that single color was silver, apparently because more silver eagles than gold eagles were already in use. Lieutenant colonels received silver oak leaves next, to match the silver eagles of full colonels. Majors were then given gold oak leaves to distinguish them from lieutenant colonels. Once the precedent of silver outranking gold was set, it was followed when gold bars were later created for second lieutenants, who had no grade-specific insignia until the early 20th century.

Update:

I found this complete History of U.S. Army Grade Insignia through 1866. I note that the early adoption of silver jewelry resulted in a high contrast when worn over gold epaulettes. Also, as late as 1866 Second Lieutenants wore no insignia jewel while First Lieutenants and Captains wore a silver jewel with high contrast against the gold braid. This is completely consistent with the note in Wikipedia that I quoted above.

  • Thanks! That's a good answer +1. My only disappointment is that it doesn't cite a source and seems to conflict with the explanation I found in Peter's link. Update I still don't know which is correct but I have decided to mark this as the answer. Thanks to both Pieter and Peter! – Hack-R Oct 7 '16 at 0:59
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    Wait... I just thought of something. I discovered that this gold-is-lower thing is true in every branch (I only really care about the Air Force, so I didn't notice that at first). Now that makes me wonder if this really explains it. Oh well, I suppose if there were a clear answer it would be obvious, so this is still helpful. – Hack-R Oct 7 '16 at 1:05
  • Note that the section linked has the Wikipedia "This section does not cite any sources." notice. – T.J. Crowder Oct 7 '16 at 5:52
  • @T.J.Crowder: Is this better? – Pieter Geerkens Oct 7 '16 at 6:07
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    I think that was a very nice improvement, yes. – Hack-R Oct 7 '16 at 10:56
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One after-the-fact explanation suggested by some NCOs is that the more-malleable gold suggests that the bearer is being "molded" for his or her responsibilities -- as a field officer (second lieutenant) or staff officer (major). However, this explanation may be more clever than correct, for while the insignia for second lieutenant and major are gold colored they are actually made of brass, and brass is a base metal while silver is a precious metal. The rank order thus does not actually conflict with heraldic tradition.

Source: US Military Rank Insignia

  • Thanks Peter. I found a good rationale in the linked document. I can upvote this if you want to add it to your answer. I only wish that page cited its sources. Pieter has a link with a different answer and neither have a source cited so I don't know which one is correct. Hmph. Update I added the answer/quote and my edit is in queue but I will go ahead and upvote. – Hack-R Oct 7 '16 at 1:00
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    @axsvl77 That doesn't make sense to me. He never returned to edit the answer, all he said he was going to do was "format" it, his answer was a only a link and all I did was paste the answer from the link into the answer and fix a typo in his sentence. It's not like he couldn't add more formatting later per his comment. I was doing this to save his answer because it's against SE policy for a link alone to be an answer. I have a gold editing badge on SO and never in this situation found adding info from a link to to be unwelcomed over flagging the answer for being a link only. – Hack-R Oct 7 '16 at 11:00
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    It's a nice story, but most likely was not the reason used by those who made the decision so many years ago – user13123 Oct 7 '16 at 11:58
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    @PeterDiehr - they never give you anything, period. Officer or enlisted, a service member is required to purchase their own new insignia whenever thy're promoted. (As I recall it's a nominal cost). – Bob Jarvis Oct 8 '16 at 3:25
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There is a fine PDF booklet by Raymond Oliver, then curator of the Air Force museum at McClellan AFB in Sacramento, "Why is the Colonel Called "Kernal" which explains the origin of military ranks and their associated insignia.

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In the mid 60's I served in the Army Reserve. Military Army and Marine officer ranks were explained by an instructor as follows.

Symbols follow their appearance in nature. Going from low to high; silver is found at a higher elevation than gold, oak leaves (including other reasons) still higher, eagles still higher, and stars highest.

Sure hope this explanation has significance since I've been passing this on for some time.

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