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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.

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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.

Silver Eagles: Navy Bullion Rates


This chief Pharmacist’s Mate’s Geneva Cross is accented with a bullion thread outline.

This chief Pharmacist’s Mate’s Geneva Cross is accented with a bullion thread outline.

Beautifully stitched with metallic thread or wound-metal elements overlaid onto crows, bullion navy rates have been in existence for more than a century. By 1913, the U.S. Navy’s uniform regulations established that rate badges with gold stripes (for dress blues) be accompanied with the eagle and specialty mark to be made of silver bullion. Uniform regulations regarding bullion were further expanded providing that all dress blue chief petty officer rates (regardless of the chevron color) would be constructed with silver bullion. These regulations, in my opinion, facilitated the establishment of one of the best aspects of enlisted uniform adornments.

These fantastically embellished crows historically incorporate multiple shades or tones of silver, and at times, gold bullion threads in their designs making for highly detailed and textured rate badges. Along with aesthetics, the bullion crow designs take on a three-dimensional feel and are really quite stunning.

Crow designs are substantially varied in their appearance based upon the time period in which they were made and the manufacturers’ interpretation of the design specification. One can examine two bullion rates from the same period and note that they will have different embroidery patterns. Thread direction will differ as well as the pattern used for the specific elements.

Because they were traditionally hand-embroidered, two crows from the same supplier can differ. You might see various embellishments to the bird’s feathers or the beak. Some will have different colored bullion that can really make the bird stand out from the rest of the rate badge.

A rare bird. This Radarman/Operations Specialist 2/c badge is not collectors can easily find. Bullion rates were for E-6 and above and this one is clearly not a cut-down E-6 rating badge.

A rare bird. This Radarman/Operations Specialist 2/c badge is not collectors can easily find. Bullion rates were for E-6 and above and this one is clearly not a cut-down E-6 rating badge.

Other embellishments may include custom applications to the specialty mark. Variations to these embellishments pose challenges to collectors. Considering the Pharmacist’s Mate chevron (as seen at the top of this article), for example, one pattern could simply surround the red Geneva Cross with a single outline of thread while another could apply a crisscrossing pattern in addition to the outline. One example of a unique enhancement that I have seen was to a Machinist’s Mate crow that had a precious stone sewn to the center of the propeller insignia. The aquamarine tone of the stone really stood out against the silvery-blue bullion.

This early Machinist's Mate crow (right-arm rate) is embellished with a stone in the center of the propeller specialty mark (eBay photo).

This early Machinist’s Mate crow (right-arm rate) is embellished with a stone in the center of the propeller specialty mark (eBay photo).

With the modern standardization of uniforms and insignia, the highly detailed and character-filled bullion crows are relegated to history (and to collectors). The current designs are sanitized, sterile and merely one-dimensional caricatures of the old patterns causing many navy rate collectors to shy away from them.

Selected References:

Where to Look – Seeking Militaria in all the Right Places


Metal Insignia

Looking for a metal insignia device to fill a missing gap in your shadow box or a hole in your collection? This table had a decent array of insignia to choose from.

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