The term has different meanings both at sea and in the military. Confusion between the three types of captain (nautical, naval and army) often exists in literature, drama and real life. The customs indicated are necessary to avoid confusion at sea when the question of "Who is in charge of the ship?" may be a matter of life and death.
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Captain is the legal status of the master of a ship at sea and, on most legal documents in the merchant shipping industry, he / she is referred to as the Master. A nautical captain may be a civilian or a naval commissioned officer of any rank. As the commander of a vessel under way, a nautical captain has enormous legal powers, including the right to use deadly force to suppress piracy and mutiny. Mutiny is not simply the crime of disobeying the lawful orders of a nautical captain at sea, but rather doing so with the intent of taking over the ship. The captain of a ship at sea is in absolute command of that vessel even if higher-ranking persons are aboard. If higher-ranking persons give orders to the nautical captain, such persons are very careful to say what they want done rather than specifying how the orders are to be carried out, because even higher rank does not give them the right to interfere in how a captain runs the ship.
The traditional sleeve emblem for captains both merchant and naval is four gold stripes (often called "rings") on the lower sleeve or shoulderboard. Many navies follow the precedent of the Royal Navy and have an "executive loop" on the top or inner ring.
In Royal Navy, the stripes and rings are called Nelsons if the ring sits above the stripe, and Half Nelson if only half above the stripe.
The officer who is ranked immediately below the Captain is designated the First Officer, or "Chief Mate" (also Executive Officer or First Lieutenant), and is responsible for implementing the orders of the Captain as well as conferring with the Captain on matters concerning the ship. This "second in command" is typically responsible (along with the senior enlisted petty officer) for maintaining minor discipline on the ship.
In older times, a Captain was a nobleman given responsibility over a ship, but was not likely to have any nautical experience. The next officer of the ship would be the Ship's Master, who would carry out the executive functions of a Captain, while the Captain filled a ceremonial and legal role.
Captains with field naval commands generally command ships of cruiser size or larger. The more senior the officer, the larger the ship. Commanders of aircraft carriers can be Rear Admiral, but generally, ship commanders are of Captain rank or lower. Also, many Captains are either retired or have desk jobs.
An insigne alternative to the four stripes which is used in the US Navy for captains is a silver eagle. This originally was pinned onto an epaullet of gold braid, and was of a different design to that of the US Army colonel, for it had an anchor. In the twentieth century, the distinctive emblem was replaced by the same as that of colonels in the other services.
United States usage
In the US military, colonel in the Army, Marine Corps, and Air Force is the equivalent rank of captain in the Navy.
Within a United States nuclear aircraft carrier, it is not unusual for both the commanding officer and the executive officer to be ranked captain.
The captain in the naval sense represents the sixth step in the progression: Ensign, Lieutenant Junior Grade, Lieutenant, Lieutenant Commander, Commander, Captain, Commodore, and various ranks of Admiral.
- U.S. Navy Officer Rank Insignia
- Post-captain, for a description of the Royal Navy's distinctions between "captain" as a position of authority (e.g., in command of a ship) and "captain" as a rank or title.
Military and Air Force
In armies, marines and some air forces, Captain is the rank of a commissioned officer that is a rank below a Major. The military rank of Captain is ranked three steps lower than a naval Captain, and has no special authority with respect to a ship and is just another passenger or crew member whilst on board.
Prior to the professionalization of the armed services of European nations subsequent to the French revolution, a captain was a nobleman who purchased the right to head a company from the previous holder of that right. He would in turn receive money from another nobleman to serve as his lieutenant. The funding to provide for the troops came from the monarch or his government; the captain had to be responsible for it. If he were not, or were otherwise court-martialed, he was dismissed ("cashiered"), and the monarch would receive money from another nobleman to command the company. Otherwise, the only pension for the captain was selling the right to another nobleman when he was ready to retire.
In the United States Army, United States Marine Corps, and United States Air Force, a captain's insignia consists of two silver bars. In the British Army and Royal Marines the insignia is a vertical row of three pips (sometimes called "stars").
Note that Marine units ("ship's soldiers", often responsible for security on modern warships and at embassies, as well as their amphibious assault and expeditionary duties) use rank designations similar to that of the army for all ranks.
The United States Air Force uses a rank structure similar to the army, while the United Kingdom's Royal Air Force and the air forces of many Commonwealth countries, use a unique rank structure, in which a Group Captain is equivalent to the naval rank of captain.
See also Military unit.
In commercial aviation, a pilot in command of an aircraft is often referred to as a "captain." This practice began with the flying boats of the 1930s and quickly spread to most of the airline industry. Most airline captains wear uniforms with four bars on the sleeve and shoulderboard (imitating the rank basis of the rank insgnia in both the US and Royal Navies) although this varies from company to company.