Military insignia stripes for enlisted ranks are often difficult to read because of the unique design and stripe-count each branch of the military uses. In order to be able to identify them, you should first understand that military hierarchy is divided into pay grades on a scale. The scale begins with E-1 meaning "Enlisted Level 1" and rises through E-9. Ranks can be synonymous with pay grades, but pay grades are not so with ranks. There can be multiple ranks in one pay grade, as is with the case of E-8 and above. In the case of multiple ranks in one pay grade, different insignia are used to denote different ranks.
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Count the number of chevrons. Air Force Ranks begin with on set of chevrons, "wings" or "stripes" beginning at E-2 Airman.
Add one rank level for each set of chevrons. For example, three wings denotes an E-4 Senior Airman.
Make note of the chevrons being added on top of the Air Force insignia. Once five chevrons have been added to the middle and bottom of the insignia to denote the rank of E-6 Technical Sergeant, ranks will then fill in additional chevrons on top of the insignia. Again, each chevron indicates another increase in rank. For example, five chevrons on the middle and bottom and two above the insignia for a total of seven chevrons indicates the rank of E-8.
Count the stripes. As with the Air Force, Army stripes begin with one stripe at the rank of E-2, denoting Private. However, E-3 Private First Class adds a stripe below the top stripe, creating a gap in between, while E-4 Corporal eliminates the gap and stacks two top stripes. You will simply have to remember these. Also note that the pay grade of E-4 has two ranks, Corporal and Specialist. The Specialist rank has no stripes but has its own insignia.
Add an additional rank for every stripe beyond E-4's two stripes. For example, four stripes, three above and one under, indicates an E-6 Staff Sergeant.
Make a note that once you reach E-8 in the Army, further increases in rank will be denoted by a change in the insignia within the gap between top and bottom ranks, not by additional stripes.
Count the number of stripes. Navy ranks E-2 and E-3 are indicated by two and three stripes respectively.
Make note of the stripes or chevrons for ranks of E-4 Petty Officer Third Class and above. Once at E-4, the Navy rate insignia switches to an insignia with chevrons, starting with one. Each additional chevron or stripe indicates a rise in rank. This continues through E-7 Chief Petty Officer.
Observe that like the Army, once a sailor advances to the pay grade of E-8 and above, rates are denoted by changes in insignia, noted by additional stars, not by additional stripes.
Count the stripes, just like with the other service branches. Note, however, that both E-2 and E-3 have single stripes. E-3, however, has an insignia below the stripe. This format is maintained through the rest of the rank structure.
Add an addition stripe after E-3 for each increase in rank. Stripes will be added below the insignia after stacking five on top, just as it is with the Army. Three stripes on top and two on bottom will denote the rank of E-7 Gunnery Sergeant, for example.
Note that, unlike the Army or Navy, Marine Corps rank insignia continue to stack stripes on the bottom row until an accumulation of four stripes. Four stripes on bottom and three on top indicates a full E-9 in pay grade, with variations in rank denoted by the insignia symbol.
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