The rank of midshipman is one of the oldest ranks still in existence. A midshipman is a subordinate officer, or alternatively a commissioned officer of the lowest rank, in the navies of several English-speaking countries. During the days of sailing vessels, from the 17th through the 19th centuries, a midshipman was an apprentice officer. The word derives from the location of ship, amidships, where they were berthed.
At the height of the Age of Sail during the Napoleonic era (1793 - 1815), most midshipmen started their sailing career around the age of 11 or 12. The regulations in the Royal Navy demanded that no-one 'be rated as master's mate or midshipman who shall not have been three years at sea'.. There were several ways of getting around this requirement. Since most midshipmen were from the landed gentry or had family connections with sailing ships, they could use their standing to have their name placed on a ship's books. A notable example was Thomas Cochrane, whose uncle had him entered at the age of 5, and his name was carried on various ships until he was 18 and received his commission.
Another way was through the Royal Naval College, in Portsmouth. This had been founded in 1729, for 40 students between 13 and 16 who would take 3 years to complete. After graduation, they would serve on a ship as a midshipman. The school was not popular because of an aversion to 'book learning' in the navy, and it tended to infringe on the officers' privileges in the matter of taking on servants.
Most boys served the appropriate time at sea. The other four years might be served in any lower rating, , either as a seaman or as a servant of one of the ship's officers. For example, a captain was entitled to 4 servants for every 100 men aboard, many of which were young men destined to become officers. In 1794, this system was changed and a new rating was created called 'Volunteer Class 1', young gentlemen intended for the sea service provided they are not under the age of eleven years and were paid £6. Most midshipmen aspired to stand for the lieutenant examination at age 17 or 18, and the average age of a midshipman was between 15 and 22.
Midshipmen in the Age of Sail came from a wide social background. The largest group was the sons of professional men, about 50 percent of officers. This group included the sons of naval officers, and there were notable sailing families through out the age of sail such as Saumarez, Hood and Parker. The family connection was an obvious advantage with the power of promotion these men held. The next largest group was from the landed gentry, about 27 percent of officers. The numbers were smaller, but similarly, their connections gave them excellent prospects for promotion, and they had a considerable influence on the Royal Navy. The rest were from commercial or working class backgrounds, and because of the advantages possessed by the gentry and professional sailors, their chances at promotion to lieutenant were slim.
Between 1815 and 1850 naval officer education changed to adopt the Naval College approach as opposed to the 'apprenticeship' approach favored in the Age of Sail. By 1850 the term midshipman had evolved into its modern definition as an officer cadet at a Naval college. For example, midshipmen at the newly formed United States Naval Academy studied at the Academy for four years and trained aboard ships each summer.
Today those joining the Navy as graduates start as Sub-Lieutenants with non-graduates joining as Midshipmen. Until they have completed initial sea training, both midshipmen and sub-lieutenants at Britannia Royal Naval College do not use their substantive ranks, but use the non-substantive rank of Officer Cadet.
In Royal Navy slang, midshipmen are sometimes referred to as "snotties", and a somewhat dubious legend states that the three buttons formerly on the jacket cuffs of the midshipman were placed there to prevent him wiping his nose on his sleeve However, an identical story is told about the cuff-buttons of uniforms of many services in many countries.
In the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, a midshipman is an officer cadet. The rank of midshipman is used by the U.S. Naval Academy, U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, and Naval ROTC. Midshipmen are further divided into midshipman ranks according to school year and/or standing within their Brigade, reflected in their equivalent NCO or officer ranks.
Midshipmen at the Academy and in Navy Option NROTC wear service dress uniforms similar to those of U.S. Navy officers, with shoulderboard and sleeve insignia varying by school year or officer rank. All wear gold anchor insignia on both lapel collars of the service jacket. Shoulder boards have a gold anchor and a number of slanted stripes indicating year, except for midshipman officers, whose shoulder boards have a small gold star and horizontal stripes indicating their rank.
NROTC Marine Option midshipmen wear uniforms which are identical to those of the Navy Option, but with the Eagle Globe and Anchor insignia in lieu of the Anchors.
On the khaki service uniform shirt, a Freshman (Midshipman Fourth Class or "Plebe") wears no collar insignia, a sophomore (Midshipman Third Class or "Youngster") wears a single fouled anchor on the right collar point, a Junior (Midshipman Second Class) fouled anchors on each collar point, and a Senior (Midshipman First Class or "Firstie") wears fouled anchors with perched eagles. Midshipmen First Class in officer billets (both Naval Academy and NROTC) will replace their collar insignia with their rank insignia. Marine-option NROTC midshipmen wear enlisted Eagle, Globe, and Anchors in place of the fouled anchors or eagle-anchors.
Midshipman officer collar insignia are a series of gold bars, from the rank of Midshipman Ensign (one bar or stripe) to Midshipman Captain (six bars or stripes) in the Brigade of Midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy and in Naval ROTC. The second highest midshipman grade, Midshipman Commander, is the highest rank at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy.
A Naval Academy midshipman receives about $850 a month for expenses, but it is usually greatly reduced by books, barber, and uniform bills. NROTC midshipmen receive a $250 to $400 monthly stipend if they are on scholarship or enter into contract after their sophomore year. All NROTC midshipmen are issued uniforms, typically service dress blues, service dress whites, service khakis, summer whites, winter blues, and camouflage utility uniforms. The actual uniforms issued are dependent on the individual units' chains of command.
The Midshipmen is also the name for sports teams fielded by the U.S. Naval Academy.
Note: NROTC refers to Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps.