Most, if not all Imperial officers are dressed in variants of the same uniform:

image of Imperial uniforms

As you can observe above, there are two main accessories decorating the uniform on the chest: the rank insignia and some white stick-like thing.

For the longest time, I always assumed it's a pen because that's what it looks like to me: a metal pen slotted into a pocket like you would in real life. I was still a teen ten years ago, ok.

Only now, when I looked back (after watching the latest Rogue One trailer) did I realise what is wrong with that assumption: nobody has ever been seen writing on paper in Star Wars.

So there's no sense in supposing that is a pen. So what exactly is it? Or is it actually a pen indeed?

  • 1
    Possible dupe of What do the Imperial officer rank badges mean?.
    – Valorum
    Commented Oct 13, 2016 at 19:16
  • 2
    Tarkin could basically be retitled The Complete Guide to Code Cylinders;.
    – Adamant
    Commented Oct 13, 2016 at 19:25
  • 4
    My first reaction as an army vet was "a black ball point pen"
    – Kevin
    Commented Oct 14, 2016 at 13:14
  • Not sure how cannon it is anymore (since my reference is from the X-Wing series) but there is a paper like material called flimsi that is used from time to time. Not everyone wants to write on a datapad. Commented Oct 14, 2016 at 13:55
  • You know how all sorts of "old" technology like paper, pens, etc. remain relevant because we never know when their electronic replacements run out of power? It's interesting how the Star Wars galaxy has advanced to the point there appears to be no need for such contingencies anymore. Commented Oct 15, 2016 at 9:09

3 Answers 3


enter image description here

According to the visual dictionary, those 'pens' are actually code cylinders. I'd assume by that they mean it's the authorization codes for that particular officer. (Kind of like a badge/PIN/password combo that you see at secure facilities.)

  • 1
    Well, that seems real secure. Not like officers need to pull it out and wave it in front of the sensor like we Earthlings usually do, right? No wonder Imperial facilities are so easy to infiltrate if you've a good thief... Commented Oct 13, 2016 at 18:43
  • 13
    @thegreatjedi for the sake of pedantry, requiring a PIN/password in addition to a physical device and biometric data is generally a great way to heighten security. If the device gets stolen but they don't know the password then they're flagged as an intruder.
    – user47739
    Commented Oct 13, 2016 at 22:18
  • 7
    @thegreatjedi Additionally, physical devices can be flagged in the system quickly if their owner reports them lost or stolen. As much as movies love the idea of a hacker that creates an "anonymous" card, usually the device itself just stores some information that has to compare correctly to the main (closed and air-gapped) entry control system. Commented Oct 13, 2016 at 23:37
  • 5
    Out-of-universe, I wonder if the props were constructed by cutting a pen in half.
    – apnorton
    Commented Oct 14, 2016 at 12:19

Imperial code cylinders

enter image description here

These indicate the rank and other identifying information of Imperial officers:

Tarkin squinted at the hologram that appeared alongside the holopresence of the facility administrator. Dressed in an Imperial uniform, the man was tall and lean, with thick red hair and a raised scar on his left cheek that ran from the corner of a full mouth to a bionic eye not unlike the one worn by Vice Admiral Screed.

“His code cylinder identified him as Commander LaSal.”


Code cylinders also allow officers authorization for various activities. For example, some opponents of the Empire used them to obtain fuel:

“A point worth considering,” Tarkin said. “In addition, they’ve betrayed themselves in other ways. Not only are they conversant with the Carrion Spike’s instruments, they are also well acquainted with Imperial procedure. The self-styled commander looks every bit an officer, and he used code cylinders to requisition the fuel cells.” He looked up at Vader. “Some of the Empire’s own?”


It seems that the number of code cylinders increased with one’s rank. Tarkin, as Grand Moff, had four:

To complement his new station, he designed and had made a gray-green uniform whose thick-belted, round-collared tunic featured four code cylinders and a rank plaque of twelve multicolored squares, six blue over trios of red and gold. In all dealings with the Emperor he was referred to as Grand Moff, but for ordinary interactions with military personnel he retained the honorific Governor.


On the other hand, Admiral Ozzel had three:

enter image description here

All those random officers in the picture given in the question appear to have one or two cylinders.

Thus, there was likely some overlap in code cylinders, with higher-ranking officers having additional cylinders granting additional privileges.

  • Now, all the answers here indicate that these rank/code cylinders contain encrypted identity credentials to grant officers access to various secured locations, resources, information etc. Kind of like how a staff pass grants one access to an office. My question is, does an officer need to use every single cylinder together to gain access or what? Commented Oct 14, 2016 at 9:04
  • Not sure if it's still canon, but I remember in some of the books it was mentioned that different cylinders allowed access to specific restricted places. Commented Oct 14, 2016 at 18:12
  • 1
    One of Ozzel's is a decoy filled with Scotch. I'm guessing, anyway.
    – corsiKa
    Commented Oct 16, 2016 at 2:06

They're called "Code Cylinders" or sometimes "Rank Cylinders". They're essentially small encryption devices, used to grant access to secure areas and files. They're also used as markers of rank, especially by high-ranking officers, as carrying more cylinders indicated that one had access to more secure data and areas than someone with fewer.

They're not just Imperial devices, either - you may notice in Episode VII that Han is wearing three cylinders on the breast of his jacket as well. This is probably because, for all his rogueish lifestyle, he's still a General. The interesting question is whether they were for Republican use...or Resistance.

  • 4
    Knowing Han, he probably had a couple for each :P
    – Doktor J
    Commented Oct 13, 2016 at 20:55
  • 2
    Or maybe they are trophies from particular Imperials. Who knows? It always helps to have some Imperial access codes around when you need them. Commented Oct 14, 2016 at 3:30
  • Seems like it's a general technology for encryption, as opposed to being exclusively an Empire or Rebel technology. From a film perspective, it makes sense that you would want to visually indicate that Han Solo literally holds a lot of secrets.
    – Benxamin
    Commented Oct 14, 2016 at 16:56

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.