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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?

4 Answers 4

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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. Commented Aug 16, 2012 at 20:15
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    @PaulD.Waite I'm the Grand Poobah at our local IHOP. Commented Aug 16, 2012 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. Commented Aug 16, 2012 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
    Commented Jul 14, 2014 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 explanation than 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.

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    “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? Commented May 23, 2014 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. Commented May 23, 2014 at 15:14
  • @fectin He said that was in Star Trek: Enterprise.
    – Rainbow
    Commented Dec 5, 2021 at 13:49
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As said before, but with too much hedging for my liking, Yes the pips are directly based on the US Navy. In fact having already known the Star Trek pips, when I joined the Navy I could immediately recognize officer ranks by their stripes. While the pips are physically a different object than shoulder or sleeve stripes, they use the same method of distinction, 1 = Ensign 1 + "half pip" (i.e. a dark in the middle pip) = LT JG, while in the Navy it's 1 full stripe and one half stripe. Then 2 full for LT, then 2 1/2 for LTCDR, then 3 full for CDR, then 4 full for Captain. It's that order of full and half versions that is entirely unique to the Navy and Coast Guard and not seen in any other branch or any other military on Earth, which is directly translated to pips in Star Trek.

And yes it goes off the rails for Admirals and Enlisted, but those are much rarer characters so the showrunners didn't seem to bother making those consistent. Until of course DS9. Navy enlisted use chevrons until you reach chief where the 3 chevrons are topped off by a "rocker" that arches over the eagle. Since Star Fleet isn't America, an eagle makes no sense, so there's nothing there. Navy enlisted chiefs get stars above their rocker. A Navy Senior Chief has 1 star, and a Master Chief has 2 stars. This is slightly different with Star Fleet because they have no rocker or rating they just start with a dot, so 1 for Chief, 2 for Senior Chief, etc. While there's only one, there is a 3 star version Master Chief in the Navy, the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (MCPON) has 3 stars, same position as dots for a Master Chief in Star Fleet.

Enterprise took this even further with their low ranking enlisted actually having stripes like Navy Seamen. They even follow the current quirk in the Navy where a Seaman Recruit has nothing (used to be 1 stripe) and an Apprentice moves right to 2 stripes.

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