The rank of warrant officer has a long history. For example, evidence suggests that Napoleon used warrant officers as communications links between his commissioned officers and the Soldiers.
The military grade of "warrant officer" dates back two centuries before Columbus, during the fledgling years of the British Navy. At that time, nobles assumed command of the new Navy, adopting the Army ranks of Lieutenant and Captain. These royal blood officers often had no knowledge of life on board a ship, let alone how to navigate such a vessel or operate the guns. They often relied on the technical expertise and cooperation of a senior sailor who tended to the technical aspects of running the ship and operating the cannons. These sailors, sometimes referred to as 'Boat Mates' or 'Boswans Mates' became indispensable to less experienced officers and were subsequently rewarded with a Royal Warrant. This Royal Warrant was a special designation, designed to set them apart from other sailors, yet not violate the strict class system that was so prevalent during the time.
In the U.S. Navy, warrant officers have traditionally been technical specialists whose skills and knowledge were an essential part of the proper operation of the ship. The Navy has had warrant officers among its ranks, in some form or another, since its conception. For the U.S. Army, we can trace the lineage of the warrant officer back to 1896, specifically to the Headquarters Clerk (later designated the Army Field Clerk).
The Act of August 1916 authorized the Army Field Clerk (formerly Headquarters Clerk) and the Field Clerk, Quartermaster Corps (formerly Pay Clerk). Although initially considered civilians, the Judge Advocate General eventually determined that they held military status. The Act of July 1918 introduced the rank and grade of warrant officer. It established the Army Mine Planter Service in the Coast Artillery Corps and directed that warrant officers serve as masters, mates, chief engineers, and assistant engineers of each vessel. There were three varying levels of pay authorized.
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In 1922, the warrant officer strength authorization dropped from 1,120 to 600, exclusive of the number of Army Mine Planter Service warrant officers and Army Bandmasters. Consequently, there were no warrant officer appointments other than Bandmasters and Army Mine Planter Service personnel between 1922 and 1935. Laws subsequent to 1922 authorized the appointment of additional classes of personnel with certain qualifications, above the 600 authorizations.
In 1936, the Army held competitive examinations to replenish lists of eligibles for Regular Army appointment. The Army appointed warrant officers against vacancies from this 1936 list until the beginning of World War II.
In 1939, warrant officers who were qualified as pilots were declared eligible for appointments as air corps lieutenants in the Regular Army.
In 1940, warrant officers began serving as disbursing agents.