The purpose of this article is to establish a baseline understanding of ranks and numbers of a modern military force structure, in order for a GM to be able to knowledgeably develop their own military forces in alternative fictional settings.
This breakdown is for use only as a comparison, when determining what ranks may be desired for various unit sizes, and to help in using the most common terminology when describing force sizes.
It should be remembered that even though there are numbers listed for unit sizes, these numbers do not reflect the reality of a unit on active duty. They are ‘optimal’ numbers. At any given time a unit’s actual force will be reduced in size by having some soldiers in transport to and from the unit, being deployed on temporary additional training exercises, or out of service due to sickness, wounds or as casualties awaiting replacement. Even in garrison duty during peacetime every unit has a certain number of personnel that will be out of action due to training injuries or accidents, plus the additional reason of scheduled vacation or home/shore leave.
When developing a set of forces, the GM should also address a comparative strength of a force and its reputation through more than just numbers. Experience will vary between units, training methods may differ drastically, the morale and cohesiveness may vary depending on how long a unit had worked together and what they had accomplished together, and depending on the game world your units may have a greater or lesser chance that a given unit will posses seasoned combat veterans.
Additionally, no matter how seasoned a unit, some personnel will be inexperienced recruits taking the place of those that have come to the end of their current tour of duty, have been transferred to other units, or have fallen in combat.
Finally, any force of Company size or greater generally has a large, possibly very large number of support personnel who accompany the unit. These support personnel do not themselves directly fight, but provide essential duties including supply organization and logistics, battle surgeons and medical aid, and administrative assistance (ptracking who gets paid, and making sure it gets done).
As a commentary on the importance of these functions, when deployed into enemy territory, no large force can effectively fight and manuever while at the same time living off the land or hunting for their food and water. Food, clean water, armor and weapons and the facilities to repair them, bandages and medicines, all of these things are vital, and the more effective a unit is at managing and protecting their supply lines the better.
The size of Support Detachments can vary greatly depending on their competence. They can number anywhere from half the size of the fighting unit to three times their size or more.
*Special Note – As another example, in modern times it often takes as many as 15 non-combatant Support personnel to enable one soldier to fight on the front lines. This is absolutely true, and is usually portrayed in movies as a clear division between those who stay safely ‘in the rear with the gear’ in support roles, who keep their uniforms pressed and boots shiny and generally have no conception of the realities of the serious business of war coming face to face with the weary grunt fresh in from the field who looks like he slept in his uniform for a month and has a much-loved hobby of rolling in mud puddles. How fair such caricatures may be depends entirely on the leadership of both the support elements and the front line elements, and how well they work together to reduce friction resentment.
Unit and rank breakdowns
The following numbers and organizational breakdown are not meant to be historically accurate to any one particular time period. The numbers ARE accurate, and were drawn for the most part from US Army designations circa 1945. Where certain ranks and units were modified during the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, I have picked those changes and forms that seemed to work best in simplifying the general breakdown to promote clarity, and to aid the GM in making their own choices for use in a science fiction or fantasy setting.
Where possible, I used US Marine Corps ranks, because I happen to be prejudiced in that direction. Have no fear in using this list, however, because if you describe a company as being composed of around 150 men of fighting spirit, led by a Captain and with an able Lieutenant as his Executive Officer, you will be very nearly dead-on in describing most US forces of our last century.
This breakdown does not take into account Naval ranks. That is a topic for a more science-fiction/space opera based storyline.
||CO: Major General
||5 Officer Planning Staff (not in COC)
||2 Brigades per
||CO: Brigadier General
||5 Officer Planning Staff (not in COC)
||3 Regiments per
||XO: Lieutenant Colonel
||3 Battalions per
||CO: Lt Colonel or Major
||XO: Major or Captain
||4 Companies per
||3 Platoons per
||XO: Senior Sergeant
||4 Squads per
||Squad Leader: Sergeant
||Asst Squad Leader: Corporal
|6 or 7
||2 Strike Teams per
||Fire Team Leader: Corporal or Lance Corporal
Total number of men in One Division; Officers and Warriors
||1 Major General, 5 Staff Officers.
||2 Brigadier Generals, 10 Staff Officers.
||6 Colonels, 6 Lt Colonels.
||18 Lt Colonels or Majors, 18 Majors or Captains.
||72 Captains, 72 Lieutenants.
||216 Lieutenants, 216 Senior Sergeants.
||864 Sergeants, 864 Corporals
|1728 Strike Teams:
||1728 Corporals or Lance Corporals.
10,800 Warriors led by 642 Officers
11,442 men in total
That total does not include Support Detachments, which can have wildly varying sizes. Many officers wear multiple ‘hats’, or take on the duties of leading support sections in addition to the normal duties of leading their unit, especially in smaller units.
Supply (food storage and cooks, uniforms, armor and weapons, miscellaneous gear)
Intelligence (Spies, paid informants, Forward Scouts and Pathfinders, Cartographers)
Medical (Doctors and Battle Surgeons, Nurses, full medical supplies and herb gatherers)
Maintenance (Armorers, Weaponsmiths, Blacksmiths, full mobile smithies, Bowyer/Fletchers)
Communications (Signal/Banner Corps, Pigeon Corps, Runners and Horn Carriers)
It should also be noted that the Military Band of a Unit or Battle Group comes from the Warrior Corps. They carry small instruments in their field packs such as pipes, flutes and small drums, and play during the march or formal functions. They do not get special consideration for this extra duty, except the appreciation of their peers.
Military Rank Structures
Generalized Officer Grades
General – Highest ranking officer in the military force. Senior Staff Officer.
Lieutenant General – Staff Officer, with experience in multiple types of engagements.
Major General – Can be a Staff or Field Officer, usually too senior to be allowed to lead men, when his experience can be better used in developing overall strategy rather than implementing tactics in the field.
Brigadier General – Field officer, responsible for a Brigade in the field.
Colonel – Regimental Commander, or member of a General’s Planning Staff.
Lieutenant Colonel – Battalion Commander or Executive Officer for a Regiment.
Major – May be either a Battalion Commander or Battalion Executive Officer.
Captain – The wild horse, can be employed as a Company Commander, or ‘detached’ as the Commanding Officer of any number of ‘special assignments’. The first officer rank where true leadership has been demonstrated and experience has been earned to get this far.
Lieutenant (or 1st Lieutenant) – Platoon Leader or Company Executive Officer, given responsibility for the men in his command, but expected to rely on the proven experience of his Enlisted Executive Officer, a Sergeant Major or Senior Sergeant, to show him how to get the job done.
2nd Lieutenant – honorary grade of an Officer in Training. Lower than pond scum.
Generalized Knighthood Officer Grades
Knight-General – rank of the Commander in Chief of an Order of Knighthood.
Knight-Commander – senior field Commanders of an Orders’ forces.
Knight-Captain – highest rank an independent Knight can attain without declaring oath to a liege.
Knight-Lieutenant – rank achieved after the Knight has completed a Holy Quest.
Knight – the rank of every Knight, no matter how skilled, who has not as yet taken a Quest.
Sergeant-Major – Highest ranking enlisted soldier in any Military Force. Not part of a General’s Planning Staff or an Executive Officer of any unit larger than a Company, but still present in the leadership of every single Battalion, Brigade, Regiment and Division as the senior most enlisted leader, normally responsible for planning the actual nuts and bolts operations of the enlisted men in his unit. It has been said that the role of a Commanding Officer is to decide what needs to be done; it is the role of the Sergeant Major to make it happen… somehow.
Master Sergeant (Top) – Senior field soldier in charge of cavalry or infantry forces.
Bowyer Sergeant (Strings) – Senior field soldier in charge of archer forces.
Gunnery Sergeant (Gunny) – Senior field soldier in charge of heavy artillery (catapults, ballista).
(the three above ranks are counted equal in hierarchy, but in different military specialties)
Senior Sergeant (or Staff Sergeant) – First enlisted rank where the management and coordination of the men under his command is his primary responsibility, and actually kicking them in the ass and showing them how to get things done takes a back seat. Often forced to delegate the hands-on leadership of sections of his men to the Sergeants.
Sergeant – The old man of the service. Traditionally, once a man becomes a Sergeant, through years of experience and accomplishing his assigned missions, he can expect to remain a Sergeant for at least eight to ten years before rising to the next rank. In times of combat, that changes drastically, but during peacetime, it is extremely common for most men to end a tour of service of 8 to 12 years as a Sergeant. It is the Sergeant who is primarily responsible for training his men, personally leading them, and acting as surrogate father figure to them. Even though he may be only 24 or so, to the 18 and 19 year olds in his unit, he is old as Methuselah, and his word is the word of the lord, because if you ignore it, the wrath of god falls on your poor head.
Corporal – First enlisted rank where the responsibility to lead other men, namely Privates and Lance Corporals, is delegated. It is where possible future Sergeants get their initial training, and gives the Sergeants and Lieutenants a chance to evaluate the leadership potential of a man without handing him a Squad of 13 men to get killed..
Lance Corporal – Experienced enlisted soldier.
Private First Class – Rank given mostly to reassure the soldier that he really isn’t a fresh-scrubbed raw recruit anymore.
Private – A fresh scrubbed raw recruit, either in initial training (Boot camp, Initial Combat Training), or just past it. In the 1940s, a Recruit in Boot Camp was technically already a Private, and was called a Private. Among other things. In modern times, he is listed as a recruit, and does not become a Private until graduating from Boot Camp. And he is still called other things.
When looking at these ranks, don’t see it as “I must use such and such in my forces”, but instead think of it in terms of “which roles will be needed depending on the size and purpose of my force, and what rank names or titles shall I use to describe them?” This is your opportunity to determine your own rank names, and to eliminate entire ranges of ranks and force sizes depending on how small your forces may be in comparison.
Differences between officers, knights and enlisted men
When discussing Officers and Enlisted, there are many different ways they can be differentiated. I’m not even going to try to provide a definitive breakdown of them all, but I will give you some examples.
First, it is common that in most militaries, the lowest ranking Officer is of higher position in the chain of authority than the highest ranking Enlisted Person. There is a certain amount of professional respect and courtesy due between ranks, especially in the relationship within a unit of the new Lieutenant and the experienced Sergeant Major, but when it comes to who is required to obey the orders of another under military law, a direct lawful order of an officer has higher precedence than that of an enlisted man. The chain of command is stringently observed, and it’s importance cannot be understated.
In some armed forces, the officers obtain their warrants directly from patrons as signs of favor, as if gifts, opportunities for that officer to gain prestige and reknown through the success of their units. In those cases, it may be common that the vast bulk of the actual work may be done by the enlisted, with token appearances and guidance from the officer in question.
In many medieval armed forces, the officers came from the nobility, and part of the duty of their noble rank was the raising and leading of units composed of locals, peasants, farmers, and indentured servants from their lands. In those cases, the rank of the officer frequently derived either from their societal rank, or from the size of the force they could muster. You can see different levels of this, as well. Many settings show the peasants as being little more than property, and not permitted to touch arms or to be trained in their use. In those settings, only the officers themselves and their personal men at arms compose the force the officer brings to a battle. As the situation changes, and the noble can draw on more members of their personal lands, as armed and trained soldiers, so too does personal liberty tend to grow among those people.
Let’s move past the historical generalizations and examples, and describe a very simplified origin of enlistment for a fantasy campaign setting, based on a society of mostly free citizens but with a distinct upper class or aristocracy.
The enlisted warrior joins the military straight from his (or her) former life, passes physical and mental testing, and becomes a recruit (or Private). He is trained in whatever standard branch of service his superiors chose for him or her, and progresses up the ladder of rank as his experience, skill, strength of character and leadership become recognized. The enlisted warrior can progress to the highest ranks of the enlisted structure, but unless personally knighted or singled out for recognition, they will never advance to the officer ranks.
The officer is of noble or wealthy birth, and usually has an excellent education. He has had access to personalized tutoring in theory and history, as well as advanced (and expensive) personal training while growing up. Traditionally, he is sponsored to a specific Military Organization or Branch of Service by his parents, who pay for the cost of his outfitting and continuing education. The forces he leads may consist of ‘household troops’ raised from the lands his family controls, he may bring with him to a larger unit a small force of personnel from his homeland as men-at-arms, or he may travel alone or possibly with a squire or servant.
There is a common plot in fantasy literature for a free man without aristocratic ties or bloodlines to become an officer, and that is by pursuing the path of knighthood. Most knights are in fact members of the nobility that are included in religious orders, but in a fantasy setting a religious order can act independently from the nobility, and choose for themselves who does or does not qualify to be raised as a knight based on individual merit and worthiness in the eyes of their deity. This is especially likely for a religious order with a militant arm, when skill and talent in the service of their god matter more than technicalities of birth.
In a fantasy campaign, using feudal styles of nobility, it is usually impossible for anyone not of the nobility, or a certain wealthy class of merchant, to become an officer or Knight. In fact, it was a source of great class conflict that only those born to the nobility were given certain privileges, including that of training in the Knightly Arts. So in a very strict campaign, either the common man has no legal means to own arms or armor or be trained in their use at ALL, or in more lenient campaigns to become an Officer or a Knight. In those situations, it may be that the GM will decide it is possible for a member of a Religious Order to legally become a Knight and recognised as such by the landed nobility.
It’s up to the GM to decide how the politics within the game world affects the possibilities for advancement. It is usually only when a society is faced with great change or dire threat that the prescriptions against armed civilians are relaxed enough to allow the common man to mobilize and train in military skills.
In some political or campaign settings, especially those with the possibility of direct divine intervention, the Knighthood may exist not as a coordinated military unit or as an appendage to the nobility, but instead may be possessed of it’s own mystique and authority seperate and even above that of local rulers, answerable to higher centralized authority but guided by their own spirit. You can use that kind of situation to allow your Knights to assume the roles of traveling Sheriffs, similar in concept to the old Texas Rangers, covering a wide range of territory, possessing certain legal powers and acting as local judge, jury, and perhaps executioner, depending on what the source of their authority derives. As a sterling example, the Clint Eastwood movie ‘Hang Em High’ demonstrates what a Knight that has powers to apprehend, but not to convict or execute sentence, may have to endure to see justice done.
The changes in a military force, and the pressure of needing to raise more than a handful of knights can be a plot hook for change in your campaign world all by itself. Many ‘popular uprisings’ or ‘peoples revolutions’ begin when a government feels firced into training and arming a peasant population. A conflict between nations forces a repressive government to mobilize and train the peasantry to serve as soldiers in the nations’ defense, and then once the war is over, the peasants don’t just ‘forget’ that the nobles get decapitated and bleed just like the normal folks do. Plus, the peasants have a lot of tools to work the farms and fields, and most of those tools have very sharp edges.