Major is a military rank the use of which varies according to country. Depending on the country, the rank derives either from "Captain-Major", a rank of senior captain, or "Sergeant-Major" a rank of senior sergeant.
In most countries Major derives from Captain-Major and denotes a mid-level command status officer (immediately superior to the rank of Captain and immediately subordinate to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel). Where major derives from sergeant major, notably in France, major is a senior sub-officer rank.
In considering terms of rank it is important to understand that the early evolution of the terms often was outside of English, and that the term always has been of essentially international distribution. In general European usage, the rank of Major
originates from Romance
comparative adjectives with the sense of Latin maior
(also spelled major
), meaning 'senior' and 'greater'. Historically all Majors, Sergeants Major, and Major Generals
(to use English forms) derive from the rank, or rather the office of Sergeant Major. The Sergeant Major was the senior sergeant responsible for marshalling a battalion
of pike. He was presumably the senior Company Sergeant from among the companies providing the pikemen, or at least a commissioned officer considered analogous to such a non-commissioned officer (sergeant). Hence, Major
is an abbreviation of Sergeant Major
: the (Sergeant) Major 'the senior sergeant'. This is obscured in French and English, by the later evolution of a separate, non-commissioned rank called sergent major
or Sergeant Major. Similarly, the rank of Major General is truncated from original Sergeant Major General 'the sergeant major or sergeant major-like soldier with general authority over the marshalling of the whole army'. Originally, there existed a single Sergeant Major General in each major field force.
The original usage is illustrated in the first recorded(?) English (1643) attestation, as "Sergeant-Major", 'the third-in-command of a regiment'. The early German equivalent was Feld Wachtmeister, in which Field functions as major and Wachtmeister ('watch master' or 'quarter[-ing] master') is the more commonly used term for a cavalry sergeant. Similarly we early on find Spanish Majors referred to Sargento Major.
In several European navies, the rank of Major was used in the sense or form "Pilot-Major" to denote the senior deck officer of a vessel in contrast to the Captain (or Captain General) who was typically an Army officer, with little naval knowledge, assigned to command the mission on which a vessel was embarked. The English equivalent of this usage is Master, as opposed to the Captain or Commander.
In the Spanish navy of the 16th and 17th centuries, the captain's principal seaman was the "maestre" (master) who was responsible for the maritime operation of the ship. Next in the chain of command was the "piloto" (pilot) responsible for the safe navigation of the ship. A flagship's pilot was the "piloto mayor" (chief or major pilot) who determined the course of the whole squadron.
In most comparative military scales a Major is a senior officer ranking above company grade ranks that usually include captain
and between one and three lower subaltern
officer ranks. In the NATO rank code
, Major as a Level 3 officer. The naval equivalent to a Major is, in some nations, the rank of Lieutenant Commander
By the time of the English Civil War, Major had become a rank in itself, and was assigned to mid-level officers on the battlefield, and was most often used by those serving as aides to a superior General.
In the French military
, a major is the most senior non-commissioned rank. This rank can only be awarded by senior NCO (adjudants-chefs
), after a very selective exam. Officially it is not a non-commissioned rank, but an intermediate rank between non-commissioned and commissioned.
Use as a suffix
The rank of Major may still be found in its original form as a suffix (either hyphenated or not), to denote an officer more senior to the base rank. As a suffix, major
derives from a comparative adjective major 'greater' and 'senior' following the modified Romance language noun; e.g. Adjutant-Major
, and Colonel-Major
. It is also still commonly used in the rank of Sergeant Major
, and is also used in ceremonial appointments such as Drum-Major
In Argentina, the armed forces all use the rank of sub-officer-major as the highest non-commissioned rank. The army and air force also use the officer rank of major. The army has a rank of colonel-major, but this is essentially an automatic promotion for long-serving colonels rather than a functional rank in its own right. The Argentine National Gendarmerie uses the rank of commandant-major, which is roughly equivalent to a colonel or chief superintendent in the commonwealth.
It is similarly still used as a prefix for the General officer rank of Major-General, which is similarly used in many other languages (e.g. General-Major in Dutch).
Links to Major ranks by country
Links to ranks equivalent to Major by country