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What is a Non-Commissioned Officer?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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A non-commissioned officer (NCO) is a military officer who is given authority through a commissioned officer, but he or she is not technically considered to be in command. These officers rise up through the enlisted ranks, generally with years of experience to their names before they reach positions of nominal power. Both corporals and sergeants are often NCOs in many militaries, and depending on how a military is organized, warrant and petty officers may be classified this way as well.

The non-commissioned officer corps is often regarded as the backbone of the military, because these officers play such a crucial role in day-to-day military operations. They serve as a liaison between commissioned officers and regular enlisted forces, for example, keeping their superior officers informed about issues and situations that might be of relevance. This aspect of the role can be very important, as many militaries encourage an attitude of separation between officers and enlisted men, which can make it difficult for officers to connect with the servicemembers in their command. NCOs, as they are often called, also assist with a variety of administrative tasks, from filling out paperwork to assisting with scheduling.

For commissioned officers, a non-commissioned officer can also offer valuable advice and training with the benefit of experience. Many commissioned officers do not have extensive experience when they arrive to take command, although they may be very well educated as a result of their officer training. Therefore, having a good NCO to rely on is crucial, as he or she can help guide a commanding officer through the myriad tasks involved in command.

These officers are career military, just like their commissioned counterparts, and they may rise to their positions in a variety of ways. In some cases, NCOs may join the military without the intent of reenlisting, and then become interested in long-term careers that eventually lead them into a position as a sergeant or corporal. In other instances, people interested in a career with the military might not qualify for an officer training school, or they might be more interested in the job of a non-commissioned officer, so they pursue promotion from the ground up.

In all militaries, NCOs are easy to identify by their rank insignia. The precise insignia used varies, however, depending on the branch of the military to which someone belongs and the nation which he or she serves.

Practical Adult Insights is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Practical Adult Insights researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon924917 — On Jan 08, 2014

I can only speak for the us army. A corporal is considered a non-commissioned officer.

By anon88529 — On Jun 05, 2010

Thanks Corporal! And they wonder why Hemmingway is so popular.

By xcole9 — On Jan 10, 2009

Is a Corporal a Non-Commissioned Officer?

I have been surprised by several answers to the question “Is a corporal a non-commissioned officer?”, saying that a corporal is not an officer. I have been even more surprised to discover that some of these answers have been made by members of the Fighting Services.

In a effort to keep this brief, I will try to avoid both the Naval Service and the Aviation Service, and limit my comments mainly to the Military Service, as I do not wish to discuss the Naval Service’s:



admiralty commissioned officers

ordnance ordinary officers

navy ordinary officers

commander’s sub-ordinary officers

commander’s petty officers

commander’s substantive-rates

commander’s non-substantive rates.

In other words: sailors no, soldiers yes, flyers no

Obviously there is no such thing as a non-commissioned officer. The phrase “Non-Commissioned Officer” taken on its’ own is gobbledy-gook. A corporal is an officer. No one can hold authority as an officer without a commission. A corporal holds a commission. Therefore a corporal is a commissioned officer, usually referred to as a “Non-Commissioned Officer”.

There are many occupations, besides the Military Service, that use phrases which, separated out on their own, clearly make no sense. Those members of the Fighting Services who have made such silly answers about corporals should immediately review their Articles-of-War, and I suggest, their articles-of-common-sense.

An officer is a lord, or gentleman, or man, who holds no authority of his own.

An officer is a lord, or gentleman, or man, who as an inferior, is given a rank of an officer over other ranks, which rank holds the complete authority or partial authority of his superior who has given such authority to such inferior, either in writing, or on the understanding that it will be given in writing as soon as possible. Such writing is usually referred to as a “commission”, and on some rare occasions as a “warrant”.

In case of the Military Service, any rank in the presence of the enemy, who disobeys a verbal order given by a soldier of higher rank who is also an officer of his regiment, such officer being present, makes himself liable to capital punishment according to the Articles of War.

Accordingly, a corporal is far more likely to be an “officer” than a general is likely to be an “officer”. But I won’t argue the point, and for the moment I will accept that both a corporal-check and a lieutenant-general are officers.

Whether a spiritual lord (bishop) or a temporal lord (peer), Military Service rank always takes precedence over a temporal lord’s (peer’s) rank or spiritual lord’s (bishop’s) rank while such lord is in the Military Service.

A bishop or arch-bishop is a lord, but is not a peer.

At this stage there will be no further discussion of bishops or arch-bishops, as not only are they illegal in calvinist countries, but in many non-calvinist countries where they have always been legal, nevertheless bishops and arch-bishops are no longer part of the civil government or even civil state.

A peer is not an officer because he holds his own authority, and therefore commands his own inferiors, or his own soldiers, or his own forces, on his own authority, not on someone else’s authority. Exactly the same apples to a knight.

Of course both a peer and a knight are appointed by patent (letter-patent) which is the same as an officer appointed by commission. So what is the difference between a patent and a commission? The difference is that the superior giving any commission, including a commission under the written Articles of War, can bring an officer’s commission to an end under strictly laid down written conditions: completing years agreed, or agreed retirement, or court-martial, and so forth. A superior giving a patent to a peer or knight, gives that patent forever, because the superior can never bring the patent he has granted to his inferior to an end. A patent (letter-patent) is forever. Of course these days patents (letter-patents) are usually given by governments for useful inventions and products, not for lordships or knighthoods.

Of course a knight’s patent (letter-patent) comes to an end when he dies, because a knighthood cannot be inherited. The point is that the superior can never take back a knighthood’s patent (letter-patent) granted to his inferior.

A dame is simply the lady (wife) of a knight, and therefore can never inherit a knighthood.

A lord’s (peer’s) patent (letter-patent) does not come to an end when he dies, or in rare cases if it’s a lady (peeress) when she dies, but often does because there is no one to inherit the peership, or the peeress-ship in those rare cases.

It is only in the Royal Family that females have the absolute right to inherit the monarchy, because just as kings are not peers, so queen-regnants are not peeresses.

However in almost all peerage families, the patent strictly lays down that the peerage can only be inherited by “male issue”, meaning a natural-born and legally-born male child. That means that there is a high probability that the family will lose the peerage.

Of course those peerage families that existed before 1199, I believe there is only one such family, and those very few peerage families where the patent lays down “general issue”, are allowed to have female inheritance. Obviously “general issue” means any natural-born and legally-born child. But this is pretty meaningless, because unlike sons where the oldest son always inherits, the oldest daughter can never inherit, because all daughters must inherit equally. Clearly you must split the land between females, but you can’t split a peerage title, so the peerage must die. So it is only those very rare occasions where upon the death of the lord (peer) or lady (peeress) and there is only one daughter, that those very few peerages of “general issue” can ever be inherited by a female.

The term “corporal” means an officer in charge of a corps.

In the Military Service the size of a corps has changed over the centuries, ranging from 1000 men to 60000 men.

The term “corporal” means an officer NOT in charge of a corps in the Military Service.

Over the centuries the numbers of men a corporal-check has held command over have varied from three to sixty. But never a 1000 men, let alone 60000 men.

In recent times a corporal-check commissioned officer is unknown, except for a few instances where the leader of a country has made his entire cavalry regimental body-guard, or horse-guards, all commissioned officers.

A “commissioned officer” in the Military Service (not Naval Service or Aviation Service) means:

King’s Commissioned Officer

Queen’s Commissioned Officer

Parliamentary Commissioned Officer

Speaker’s Commissioned Officer

Governor-General’s Commissioned Officer

Governor’s Commissioned Officer

Viceroy’s Commissioned Officer

Congressional Commissioned Officer

President’s Commissioned Officer

Chief-Executive’s Commissioned Officer

A commissioned officer always holds his rank no matter as to how many different regiments he is transferred to throughout his service in the Military Service (or army). In effect a commissioned officer has not only regimental rank, but also Military Service (or army) rank.

That is why all field marshals or generals always have to hold the rank of Colonel-Horse, or Colonel-Foot, or Colonel-Array, or Colonel-Commandant, in their own regiment, as there is no such thing as a regiment of generals or field-marshals.

A “non-commissioned officer” in the Military Service (not Naval Service or Aviation Service) means:

Colonel-Commandant’s Commissioned Officer

Colonel-Horse’s Commissioned Officer

Colonel-Foot’s Commissioned Officer

Lieutenant-Colonel’s Commissioned Officer

A non-commissioned officer does not hold any rank in his particular Military Service (or army). He only holds rank in his own regiment, and therefore loses his non-commissioned officer rank if he ever transfers to another regiment, and immediately becomes a:























The fact that such non-commissioned officer is demoted to private-man upon joining his new regiment, is almost invariably promoted up to his old non-commissioned officer rank within 24 hours upon joining his new regiment, is irrelevant. He had to lose his non-commissioned officer rank and become a private-man rank upon his transfer to his new regiment, if only for a few hours.

The private-man rank and the commissioned officer rank are both the same, in the sense that they both keep their rank when they transfer to another regiment.

Talking about ranks, it might be useful to list the basic ones over the centuries:

Common-Man (or Common-Soldier)


Cornet (or Guidon, Ensign, Partizan, Exempt, Sub-Lieutenant)

Lieutenant-Horse (or Lieutenant-Foot)

Captain-Horse (or Captain-Foot)

Captain-Major (or Corporal-Major)


Colonel-Horse (or Colonel-Foot)

Corporal-Field (or Corporal-General, Brigadier-General)

Corporal-Major-General & Field-Marshal (or Major-General)

Lieutenant-General & Field-Marshal (or Lieutenant-General)

Captain-General & Field-Marshal (or Captain-General)

As you can see, there used to be only one private-man or common-man rank:


And there used to be only one non-commissioned officer rank:


Although the rank of corporal-check is common in infantry regiments, it is only in english speaking countries that it is common in both infantry and cavalry, or armor regiments. Most other countries use a different name for the rank in non-infantry regiments, such as:



As a matter of interest, during World War I, the following terms were adopted to clarify officer authority and officer rank:

Section Commander


Platoon Commander

Sergeant-Foot, Ensign, Partizan, Exempt, Sub-Lieutenant, Second-Lieutenant

Company Commander


Officer Commanding


General Officer Commanding

Major-General, Lieutenant-General

General Officer Commanding in Chief

Captain-General, Field-Marshal

artillery sub-brigades (exactly the same as regiments) used:

Detachment Commander


Troop Commander

Conductor-Array, Sergeant-Array, Second-Lieutenant

Battery Commander




cavalry regiments or armor regiments used:

Patrol Commander, Vehicle Commander


Troop Leader (the term “Troop Commander” has already been used above)

Corporal-Horse, Sergeant-Horse, Sergeant-Array, Cornet, Guidon

Squadron Leader (why “Squadron Commander” is not used is not known)

Captain-Horse, Captain-Array

Officer Commanding


In the present day Military Service there are a few more ranks than those already mentioned above, but I just want to concentrate on one peculiar one: the lance-corporal

The lance-corporal is an officer but, is not an officer rank, is not a non-commissioned officer, and is not a commissioned officer.

A lance-corporal is in fact a private-man drawing the same pay and holding the same officer authority or commander authority as a corporal-check. However he is not a Colonel’s Commissioned Officer, he is a Colonel’s Temporary Officer. Therefore a lance-corporal can be demoted for no reason whatsoever by the Lieutenant-Colonel, and no court-martial is required, and neither is any allegation of inefficiency or impropriety required.

Before the term “non-commissioned officer” was invented, the term “staff-officer” was used, or occasionally “regimental officer”. Staff officer means something completely different these days, and regimental officer is no improvement on non-commissioned officer, so I will stick to “non-commissioned officer”, despite the difficulty the term appears to be causing to a few members of the Fighting Services.

The best substitution for “non-commissioned officer” would be “petty officer”, but I guess the Naval Service has used it so long that it would now never allow its’ duplicate use by the Military Service.

I hope the above may be of some interest to those inquiring into the most important and most powerful officer rank ever created in the Military Service, or more accurately, the Non-Military Service officer rank of Non-Commissioned Officer rank of corporal-check created in the regiments of the Military Service:


Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

Learn more
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