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In Star Trek: The Next Generation, the rank of Starfleet officers is denoted by the “pips” on their collar. An Ensign has one, a Commander three, a Captain four, and Admirals have three pips in a box on each side of their collar.

Is the system based on anything from real life? Or did the Star Trek production crew just make it up?

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According to Wikipedia, Star Trek rank insignia are based on the United States Navy and the British Royal Navy. However, the rank designations are not constant throughout the entire franchise.
Officer rank insignia
Star Trek insignia

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    Thank you Major. I see you’ve amassed an impressive number of pips yourself, although you’ve also managed to spill maple syrup all over them. – Paul D. Waite Aug 16 '12 at 20:15
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    @PaulD.Waite I'm the Grand Poobah at our local IHOP. – Major Stackings Aug 16 '12 at 20:25
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From the Wikipedia article:

The rank system of the Star Trek universe has always been based upon that of the United States Navy and the British Royal Navy.

In Star Trek: The Original Series and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, ranks are indicated by sleeve stripes; in later movies based on The Original Series, ranks are indicated by pins on a shoulder strap and the left sleeve. In later television series, ranks are indicated by varying numbers of pips or bars on the individuals' uniform collars.

A "pip" refers to a decoration worn on a military uniform to denote rank, such as on British Army officer rank insignia.

Since there is some inconsistency with the rank designations, it is likely that they were loosely based on the United States Navy and the British Royal Navy. The number of "pips" is certainly different in different shows, and have varying looks. Since there is such inconsistency it is likely not directly correlated to any one ranking system, but merely draws from them for inspiration.

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    Lots of inconsistency, drives me mad. It’s as if they’re making it up as they go along. – Paul D. Waite Aug 16 '12 at 20:17
  • You are right, also not only US and Royal Navy but as well as the Japanese pip ranking. Most noticeable on Admiral pips and uniform dress. – user30358 Jul 14 '14 at 6:32
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Pretty simple. As a serving US Navy Officer and Trekkie, my answer (verify for yourself if you wish) is yes, the pips are rather closely based on US Navy (USN) rank...to a point.

An Ensign on TNG has one gold pip, USN has a 1/2" sleeve stripe. Junior Grade in TNG has gold and black, USN has 1/2" with 1/4" stripe. Lieutenant: TNG has 2 gold, USN has 2 stripes. LT Cmdr: TNG has 2 gold and a black, USN has two 1/2" and a 1/4" (odd though, since the smaller stripe is between the thicker. It'd be like a gold pip, a black pip, and a gold pip). Commander: TNG has 3 gold, USN has three 1/2" stripes. Captain: TNG has 4 gold, USN has four 1/2" stripes.

Imagine a gold pip is equal to a 1/2" stripe, and a black pip is equal to a 1/4" stripe.

For admirals, switch a little. Yes, US Navy Admirals have sleeve braids, but this time look at their stars. One star/pip with box is a Rear Admiral (lower half), two star/pip with box is a Rear Admiral, three is a Vice Admiral, four an Admiral, five stars/pips in a box is a Fleet Admiral. just change stars into pips in a box.

Enlisted pips do not correspond to USN enlisted rank. Sorry. However, it's my understanding that in later episodes of DS9 an enlisted system was formed that is somewhat close. That would require a more lengthy explaination that what one can do here. Interestingly, while Star Trek: Enterprise keeps the USN derived ranks for the Officers (including Admirals), they seem to have gone with a US Air Force derived rank for their enlisted personnel.

Hope that helps. Remember, a gold pip is a 1/2" braid and a black pip is a 1/4" braid. Pips in a box equal stars.

  • “Enlisted pips do not correspond to USN enlisted rank. Sorry.“ So you should be. Have you at least started a petition to change the US Navy’s system so it matches Star Trek? – Paul D. Waite May 23 '14 at 15:13
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    “That would require a more lengthy explanation that what one can do here.” I think you’ll find the character limits for answers are very generous. – Paul D. Waite May 23 '14 at 15:14

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