Category Archives: Insignia and Devices

Militaria Collecting Made Complicated – No Checklists


One of several checklists within the 1956 baseball card set by Topps.

Prior to delving into militaria and historical research, I collected sports cards for years. My principal interest in this arena was with baseball which is also my favorite sport to watch. Back then, my interest in the game centered on the history – the “golden era” – and the legends of the game. However, with baseball card collecting, I chose to focus on the 1950s and 1960s.

This 1957 Topps baseball card checklists shows the marks the collector made as they worked to complete the set.

With so many players in the game (not all of them represented on a card) in the early 1950s, card companies recognized that they could create more interest by letting their target audience know how many different cards were produced. This information, in the form of checklist cards, contained all the information that informed collectors what cards were produced. This information would keep collectors buying the wax packs (of course, getting the wonderfully powdered sugar covered, hard sticks of bubblegum) and trading their extras with their friends. As they filled out their sets, collectors would check their checklists.

Militaria couldn’t be a more polar opposite from sports card collecting. There are no checklists and finite production runs, no hardened rules about variations, no price guides that afford collectors with knowledge of sales trends….none of that. Militaria collecting requires the collector to acquire knowledge about the artifact – where it was used, who used it, when it was produced and available, when it was issued, how it was modified (in the field), etcetera –  before they commit significant finances to collecting.

The right-sleeve rate of the 1905-1913 coxswain (with an additional chevron, this would be a boatswain’s mate 2nd class petty officer).

Navy rate collectors can tell stories about variations and just how frustrating it can be to acquire all of the renditions of a specific rate. When considering a long-standing rate, such as a boatswain’s mate (pronounced “bosun’s mate”, BM for short) that has been in existence since the founding of the U.S. Navy, its rate badges have gone through considerable transition. One could assemble an amazing volume of examples of each badge iteration as BM (and Coxswain) insignia have been around since the 1880s.

With each change to uniform regulations (1886, 1905, 1913, 1941, 1946, and so on) rate badges were impacted. Some changes were simply moving from one sleeve to the other (1946) while still others changed the design of the crow (the design of the eagle, color of the chevrons). Additional variations stem from the uniform that the crow is applied to (khaki, blues, whites, greens, grays) as well as the material variations of the base fabric (multiple iterations of blue and white cloth) or the color of the chevrons and eagle (such as bullion).

One of countless boatswain’s mate rate badge variations, this post-WWII crow is a bullion on khaki.

If a collector focused solely on the boatswain’s mate rate spanning its entire existence, the collection could potentially be quite large and very costly to build. Unfortunately, there are no checklists to guide collectors. What can confound collectors is the discovery of a rate variant that has never been seen before by seasoned, knowledgeable experts.

This Screaming Eagles patch is one of countless variants for collectors to pursue (source: Topkick Militaria).

Similar to rate collecting, U.S. Army patches are very diverse and have experienced many iterations over the course of their employment on uniforms. Variations exist within the same era on the same patch design which give collectors reason for pause as they try to collect every option available. Since I don’t really dabble in army patches, my eyes tend to glaze over when other collectors begin to espouse the many facets of the World War II-era Screaming Eagles shoulder insignia. From the different “airborne” tabs to the design of the eagle’s eye and tongue, the 101st Airborne patch could occupy collectors for years as they seek to assemble a complete collection. Cut-edge, marrowed-edge, fully embroidered, felt, greenbacks, white backs, the possibilities are seemingly endless making the concept of having a checklist ideal.

While I can’t vouch as to the authenticity of this being the real thing, it is the design of a World War II Rangers patch (source: SA Militaria).

One aspect I’ve not mentioned and won’t really delve into is the issue of fakes. When a television show or film achieves the level of popularity that Saving Private Ryan (SPR) and Band of Brothers (BoB) have, shady characters create opportunities to separate novices from their hard-earned cash. The Ranger (SPR) and Screaming Eagles patches (BoB) are some of the most heavily-faked embroidery in the militaria market.

In all fairness to those who invest heavily into these areas (with both time and finances), the main reason I shy away from army patches (specifically Rangers and 101st) is that I have no idea how to tell a fake from the real McCoy. I suppose that the pricing of some of the more rare variants (sometimes in excess of $1,000) keep me steering well-clear of collecting army patches all together.

Militaria Issued: Giving and Receiving


Over the span of the last seven years, I’ve worked diligently in learning the ins and outs of collecting militaria and yet have only begun to scratch the surface. Delving into the details, for me, has produced an incredible wealth of knowledge surrounding many aspects of military pieces, such as when or where an item was worn or used. But that hasn’t been the most substantial reward in my passion for military collecting.

Being a student (not to be glib, as I am always learning) of American history has occupied my attention for decades. My wife and children could tell you stories about my side excursions to see some obscure item or location of historic note during our family vacations, in my passion to align book knowledge with the visual reality. Experiencing history helps to bring the stories to life and while facts are solidified in this process, actually seeing an item or location opens my mind to new questions with this acquired perspective. This process of learning is fun for me, but in regards to militaria, it still isn’t the pinnacle of satisfaction in collecting.

My military artifact collecting was sparked when a few boxes of Third Reich items were dropped into my lap nearly twenty years ago as my family dealt with our aging grandparents and the need to relocate them from their home of fifty years to an assisted living care facility. Having moved only once over the course of eighty-five years, my grandfather had accumulated quite a “treasure-trove” of artifacts including his older brother’s World War II trunks that were untouched from the time they arrived from Germany in 1945. I was suddenly thrust into the task of researching the pieces that my uncle had “acquired” during his participation in the elimination of the Nazi menace.

Though I didn’t get into collecting German militaria, my interest was piqued with the idea of owning pieces of history. The thought of possessing a tangible artifact that was connected to history as well as the connection to my family member’s participation in those events, was compelling and dovetailed nicely into the incessant genealogy project I was, and still am, working on.

I have dabbled in collecting in several areas in my lifetime and I have met a lot of nice and passionate people who shared similar interests as me. Those relationships always tended to be more proprietor-patron rather than collaborative and sharing. However, from the moment I started to seek answers to questions regarding personal military artifacts that I had inherited from a few relatives, I began recognizing different traits in the people who collect militaria. Aside from a passion for the objects and the rich history, these collectors were quick with thoughtful responses to my inquiries as they provided detailed descriptions and guided me to research resources in an effort to enable me to be self-reliant. Among all the quirks and odd interests, I noticed an authentic sense of community with militaria collectors.

One trait that really blindsided me as I was increasingly immersed into militaria collecting was the trusting and giving nature of these people. As I participated in the discourse and discussion surrounding these wonderful objects, I began to build relationships with other collectors. Out of the blue, one collector asked me for my address as he had “something” for me. This fellow collector observed and gleaned, from my posts on a militaria forum, what my interests were and subsequently sent me a vintage 1920s rating badge – something that one of my uncles would have worn on his navy uniform. I was humbled by the gesture and that this collector would accept no offer of payment for his trouble. This example was merely a foretaste of what I would experience on a somewhat regular basis and my collection has grown because of the kind hearts of others. The charitable nature of others is infectious which prompted me to do the same with other collectors.

This fine example of the M1 carbine shows a magazine pouch attached to the rifle’s stock.

Awhile ago, I was invited to tag along with two other guys that are as passionate about military history and collecting as me to visit a local dealer of antique books and manuscripts. This dealer, a highly regarded authority in many circles, showed several fantastic pieces from his personal collection that prompted three jaws to repeatedly drop. Toward the end of our visit, the gentleman retrieved a WWII-vintage M1 carbine rifle in immaculate condition that was a distinct departure from the paper artifacts and, knowing that we were all interested in militaria, offered it for sale with a low-ball price tag. Unfortunately for me, financial constraints precluded me from purchasing the vintage weapon. However, one of my companions did “pull the trigger” and came away with the rifle.

I recently acquired these M1 carbine pouches to give to a friend and fellow collector who recently purchased a late-WWI M1 carbine rifle. The nice, used condition will be great accompanying his rifle.

Not long after the M1 offering, I stumbled across a set of three WWII-vintage M1 carbine magazine pouches that were in good condition and were listed at a very affordable price. Thinking about my friend’s recent purchase, I snagged the pouches to give to the new carbine owner.

Over the last few years, I have gifted several pieces from my collection in the hope that it helps a fellow collector fill in the gaps or simply provides enjoyment in receiving a new piece they had not seen before or never knew existed.

Unlocking the Secrets of Your Collection: Research is the Key


The cover of the 1913 U.S. Navy Uniform Regulations is very high quality in its construction.

Researching early military uniforms to ascertain a date or time period when they were issued or used can pose a challenge for collectors. Navy uniforms can be exceedingly difficult to pinpoint when it comes to dating them for a number of reasons.

Over the last few years, I have stressed that education and research materials only serve to enable collectors to make sound purchasing decisions. Knowing where to turn for information can be a daunting task for someone making their initial foray into this hobby. Simply knowing what research material might exist isn’t in the mindset of those seeking details about a uniform or uniform item.

This copy is complete with all of the details including tables and pertinent data.

When I started a serious approach to research (in this case, verifying a jumper as pre-World War I), I was in the dark as to where to look so I turned to Google to begin my investigation. With the understanding that information on the web is seldom complete or authoritative, the search results seemed to be ambiguous and quite vague, so I narrowed my focus to locating people I could glean information from. As with any relationship, time is necessary to determine whether an “expert” is truly knowledgeable in their professed field of experience, so there was a risk that I might have received some inaccurate data.

Wanting to have go-to resources at my disposal, I began to gather reference material that suited my needs. My collection being predominantly focused on the service of my relatives and ancestors, I knew that I had to get the details (i.e. enlistment dates, commands assigned to, campaigns they participated in, etc.) of their individual service records. Armed with hard facts, I could then pursue the pertinent reference materials such as individual unit histories, training manuals, and uniform regulations.

The plates are spectacular! This one shows the warrant officer shoulder boards and insignia.

Some of these materials are plentiful and relatively inexpensive, such as the Navy’s Blue Jackets Manual (issued to new recruits). Others are somewhat rare, making them difficult to find or posing negative impacts onto collecting budgets. One reference book I had been seeking was the 1913 United States Navy Uniform Regulations. I couldn’t locate one through various book stores or eBay. Fortunately for me, Google Books digitized a  copy and had the majority of the book’s content available for online use. Unfortunately, the missing portions were the ones I needed for my research. I was amazed to see that I could purchase a hard copy, printed and bound complete book for less than $10.00, shipped to my door! Naturally, I pulled the trigger and less than five days later, I had the needed reference book in my hands.

This plate shows the construction of the dress whites – bleached white duck and blue flannel cuffs and collar.

What arrived was a paperback book with a high quality glued-in binding that will withstand repeated viewings or being transported to collector shows much better than an original 100-year-old hardbound book with a weakened spine.

The chief and enlisted dress blues plate shows the proper wear and insignia placement.

Acquiring the 1913 regulations may not appeal to others, but for me this was like locating a missing piece that completes a collection. I’ve confirmed a piece as authentic and I can correctly pursue the remaining outstanding parts to properly complete my uniform display!

Rare Bird – Outside of Uniform Regulations


In an article that I wrote last year, I touched on an aspect of rating badge collecting that focuses on those constructed with bullion-metallic thread. The post was primarily covering the design and aesthetic aspects rather than regulatory or uniform issue standards. However, in order for collectors to make sound purchases or additions for their collections, they need to be well informed.

This crow dates from the 1970s and is entirely embroidered. This was a short-lived experimental rating badge.

Let me be very up front by stating that I am, by no means, an expert in rating badge collecting. As I am acquiring pieces for my collection, I am researching and back-filling the details. In some cases, I have the order reversed – researching a piece after acquiring it – hoping that I didn’t make a bad purchase. While reviewing some online auction listings of rating badges (for my former rating), something that I have never seen before caught my attention and without hesitation, I pulled the trigger on the “buy it now” button. Rather than spend time ahead of purchasing the crow, I decided that the best course of action would be to research it after I had it securely in my hands. I had no idea of it’s date of manufacture, whether it was genuine, experimental/prototype or a fantasy piece.

My rating badge collection consists primarily of variations of the rate that I wore when I served. Four years ago, I set out to purchase a new, unused rating badge to mount in my shadow box display. All of the examples I had in my collection were affixed to my old uniforms so they weren’t’ quite up to par with what I’d want to be shown beside my medals and decorations. I ended up with a variety we (in the fleet) referred to as a “peacoat” crow. As it turns out, the fully embroidered rating badge (with merrowed edging) was a test crow that never really caught on. While they are somewhat uncommon, they aren’t necessarily rare or highly desired among collectors.

The latest addition to my collection is a silver bird – a bullion eagle and specialty mark hovering over red, embroidered chevrons. The reason this is an odd combination is that (according to Navy Uniform Regulations) the silver/red configuration is only available for E-7 through E-9. Ratings fo E-4 through E-6 may use the silver (bullion) eagle and specialty mark in conjunction with gold chevrons (indicating 12 consecutive years of good conduct service). One could deduce that perhaps this predates the current uniform regulations, however, this would be an incorrect assumption.

A rare bird – an Operations Specialist/Radarman badge with a bullion eagle with red chevron stripes.

1913 Uniform Regulations

  1. “For petty officers holding three consecutive good-conduct badges, the chevrons for blue clothing (dress/undress blues) shall be made of gold lace instead of scarlet cloth, and the eagle and specialty mark shall be embroidered in silver.”

The reverse of the OS2 bullion rating badge showing the construction and the Gemsco label.

Why then does this E-5, Operations Specialist/Radarman 2nd class crow exist? More than likely, the manufacturer (Gemsco) made this variation either errantly or in anticipation of a uniform regulation change that ultimately never occurred. Not to be stuck with inventory, manufacturers most likely divested these crows  and shipped them to uniform shops or uniform tailors to be disseminated to sailors. Seeking to have a measure of individuality with their uniforms, sailors who might be able to “pass,” in wearing the unauthorized embroidery at a command that might not have strict adherence to regulations, would stitch on these subtle “custom” enhancements.

Now that I have this rare bird, I decided that it would display nicely and swapped it into my shadow box (supplanting the standard OS rating badge) as these bullion crows are just too beautiful to sit in a storage box.

You Have the Right to…Collect Armed Forces LEO Militaria


This current-issue NCIS badge is mounted to a leather holder (source: US Navy).

Militaria collecting has a broad spectrum possessing many facets that allow people to specialize or focus their efforts on specific themes or concepts. Aside from settling on a particular branch or time period, collectors might choose to get very narrow with their collections. Some of these focus areas might even cross over into other collecting genres. One category or focus area that has grabbed the attention of collectors beyond the bounds of militaria is law enforcement within the ranks of the armed forces.

When considering military law enforcement, one might immediately begin to think of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (or NCIS) that has been popularized by the  television drama franchise on CBS. The Army has their own similar organization, United States Army Criminal Investigation Command (CID). However, the law enforcement community within the armed forces is significantly more broad, which means that collectors have many options and avenues to pursue.

A nice example of a US Army MIS Badge (image source: U.S. Army)

Aside from the civilian-staffed agencies such as the NCIS and CID, there are plenty of uniformed active duty departments and billets that are filled by military personnel. In addition, there are duty-based positions that are performed as an extra responsibility outside the daily duties of the service members’ normal MOS, specialty or job assignment. Regardless of the specific role, there are opportunities for collectors to obtain law enforcement militaria.

In existence since the Revolutionary War, the U.S. Army’s Military Police Corps was not officially organized until September of 1941, when it was formally established. The U.S. Navy’s version of the MP, the Master-at-Arms, has been in place since the nineteenth century, predominantly serving aboard ship in the early days.

One of the more diverse categories of objects available for collectors is in the area of brassards, or arm bands. Within the Air Force Security Police (SP) and Army, this area could present collectors with limitless varieties from countless military police commands. Within the Navy and Marine Corps, there are a fair amount of Shore Patrol (SP) brassard versions—easily confused with the Air Force versions—dating back to well before the second world war.

This Shore Patrol brassard is a 1980s vintage. Modern SP arm bands lacking the Velcro attachments can be difficult to discern from examples from the WWII-era.

A Master-at-arms badge, dating to the 1970s, was used aboard the aircraft carrier, USS Lexington when she was designated a training carrier.

Along with arm bands, collectors could launch into military law enforcement collecting by pursuing badges. Keep in mind that there could be laws that prohibit owning current versions of these law enforcement badges. Possessing a currently-issued badge could result in considerable legal trouble so be sure to understand what is permissible in your area prior to acquiring the badge. Typically, obsolete badges should be allowable, but I would encourage collectors to remain familiar with their local laws.

Besides brassards and badges, collectors could pursue helmets, uniforms, utility/web belts (and all the attachments) and weapons, such as side arms and batons.  The trick is to find your niche and stay within your budget.

 

 

Military Police Collecting