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RN Captain Rank Insignia.png
Insignia shoulder board and Sleeve lace for Captain
CountryUnited Kingdom
Service branchRoyal Navy
NATO rankOF-5
Next higher rankCommodore
Next lower rankCommander
Equivalent ranks
  • Colonel (ARMY)
  • Colonel (RM)
  • Group Captain (RAF)

Captain (Capt) is a senior officer rank of the Royal Navy established in 1484.[1] It ranks above commander and below Commodore and has a NATO ranking code of OF-5. The rank is equivalent to a colonel in the British Army and Royal Marines, and to a group captain in the Royal Air Force. There are similarly named equivalent ranks in the navies of many other countries.


The origins of the word are from the Saxon word for chief caput. From the late 13th century until the late 15th century the title of 'captain' was confined to admirals and squadron commanders of equivalent rank; in other words it was used in the sense at sea as on land.[2] The title 'captain' first came into use at sea in its modern sense in the late 15th century.[3] It was not, as is usually stated, the style of the army officer who took command of the ship in wartime, outranking the master; rather it was a new style of address for the master himself, reflecting the fact that, the big wartime carracks built by Henry VII were approaching the size of force proper for a captains command.[4] The first 'master' to be given the title of 'captain' in the Navy Royal was William Combershall commanding HMS Elizabeth in 1484.[5] From this date the rank of Captain was established and entered use which was a higher rank that Master who was in charge of sailing the ship. On promotion from Lieutenant (introduced in 1588 ), officers were appointed to a small ship eg. sloop, cutter etc.

All officers in command of a vessel were addressed with the courtesy title of Captain regardless of rank so the term Post Captain was used to distinguish those who had been given the substantive rank although they were still only addressed as Captain. Once an officer had been promoted to Post-Captain, his further promotion was strictly by seniority and time spent on the Captains list on average around 25 years before they could reach Flag Rank and be promoted to Rear-Admiral of the Blue, post captains could in essence be promoted quicker if they were appointed the temporary rank of either Commodore Ordinary or more important that of Commodore Distinction. For this reason it was regarded as a major milestone in an officers career. Commissioned officers might be promoted to the next rank but not be appointed to a ship. Until that time they were "on the beach" and on half-pay. An officer who was promoted from Commander was a captain, but when he was given a command, his name was "posted" in the London Gazette. He "took post" or was "made post" and he usually commanded a rated vessel by virtue of their first commission to command a 'post ship', meaning one of the 5th Rate or larger (6th Rate from 1713).[6]

A junior Post-Captain would usually command a frigate or a large sloop, while more senior Post-Captains would command larger ships. Sometimes, a high-ranking Admiral would have two Post-Captains on his flagship. The junior of the two would serve as the Flag Captain and retain responsibility for the day-to-day operation of the vessel. The senior of the two would be the fleet captain, or "Captain of the Fleet", and would serve as the admiral's Chief of Staff. These two captains would be listed in the ship's roll as the "second captain" and "first captain", respectively.[7]

In 1795 epaulettes, known by the slang term 'swabs' were introduced to distinguish between commanders and post-captains of various seniority's. A Commander wore a single epaulette on the left shoulder. A Post-Captain with less than three years seniority wore a single epaulette on the right shoulder, and a Post-Captain with three or more years seniority wore an epaulette on each shoulder.

Duties on board ship were to prepare the ship for sailing, check and approve inventories of stores and write reports for the Admiralty on work being done on the ship. He also had to recruit the ship's complement and record details in the muster book. During a voyage, he was ultimately responsible for the ship and crew's well being, including feeding, clothing, health and discipline, maintain the log of the ship, and delegate authority as necessary. He was also responsible for directing the ship's activities in naval engagements.

The designation Post Captain was gradually phased out and came to an end in 1876 when the Rating System of the Royal Navy was formally abolished by declaration of the Board of Admiralty. The main cause behind this declaration focused on new types of gun, the introduction of steam propulsion and the use of iron and steel armour which made rating ships by the number of guns obsolete leaving on the rank of Captain.


Ashore, the rank of captain is often verbally described as "captain RN" to distinguish it from the more junior Army and Royal Marines rank, and in naval contexts, as a "four-ring captain" (referring to the uniform lace) to avoid confusion with the title of a seagoing commanding officer. In the Ministry of Defence, and in joint service establishments, a captain may be referred to as a "DACOS" (standing for deputy assistant chief of staff) or an "AH" (assistant head), from the usual job title of OF5-ranked individuals who work with civil servants.

Insignia and uniform

The rank insignia features four rings of gold braid with a loop in the upper ring.[8]

When in mess dress or mess undress, officers of the rank of captain and above wear gold-laced trousers (the trousers are known as "tin trousers", and the gold lace stripes thereon are nicknamed "lightning conductors"), and may wear the undress tailcoat (without epaulettes).[9]

See also


  1. Rodger, N.A.M. (7 October 2004). "Change and Decay: 1456 to 1509". The safeguard of the sea : a naval history of Britain. Vol 1., 660-1649. London: Penguin. p. 160. ISBN 9780140297249.
  2. Rodger. p.160.
  3. Rodger. p.160.
  4. Rodger. p.160.
  5. Rodger. p.160.
  6. Rodger, Professor N. A. M. (1 December 2001). "Commissioned officers' careers in the Royal Navy, 1690–1815". Journal for Maritime Research. London. 3 (1): 85–129. doi:10.1080/21533369.2001.9668314. ISSN 2153-3369.
  7. Library and Information Services (2014). "Information sheet no 096 Naval Ranks" (PDF). National Museum of the Royal Navy,. Retrieved 19 August 2019.
  8. "Uniforms and Badges of Rank at Royal Navy website". Archived from the original on 2 August 2008. Retrieved 2 December 2008.
  9. "Naval Book of Reference, Annex 39A: RN Dress Tables" (PDF). Royal Navy. October 2015. Retrieved 5 April 2015.