Lieutenant (navy)

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Lieutenant[nb 1] (abbreviated Lt, LT, LT(N), Lieut and LEUT, depending on nation) is a commissioned officer rank in many nations' navies. It is typically the most senior of junior officer ranks. The rank's insignia usually consists of two medium gold braid stripes and often the uppermost stripe features a loop or executive curl.

The now immediately senior rank of lieutenant commander was formerly a senior naval lieutenant rank. Many navies also use a subordinate rank of sub-lieutenant. The appointment of "first lieutenant" in many navies is held by a senior lieutenant.

Naval lieutenants rank higher than army lieutenants; a naval lieutenant is a NATO OF-2 (US grade O-3) and ranks with an army captain.


From at least 1580,[1] the lieutenant on a ship had been the officer immediately subordinate to the captain. Before the English Restoration, lieutenants were appointed by their captains, and this inevitably led to abuses and to the widespread appointment of men of insufficient qualification. In 1677, Samuel Pepys introduced the first examination for lieutenant,[2] and it is from the date of this examination that their seniority was set.

Lieutenants were numbered by their seniority within the ship, so that a frigate (which was entitled to three) would have a first lieutenant, a second lieutenant, and a third lieutenant. A first-rate ship was entitled to six, and they were numbered accordingly. At first, a lieutenant's commission was given only for the ship in which he served, but with policy changes after the loss of HMS Wager in 1741 and the subsequent mutiny, lieutenants were given full commissions upon passing their examination.[1]

During the early days of the naval rank, some lieutenants could be very junior indeed, while others could be on the cusp of promotion to captain; those lieutenants ranged across modern army ranks from second lieutenant through lieutenant colonel. As the rank structure of navies stabilised, and the ranks of commander, lieutenant commander and sub-lieutenant were introduced, the naval lieutenant today ranks with an army captain (NATO OF-2 or US O-3).

In the United States Navy, promotion to lieutenant is governed by Department of Defense policies derived from the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act of 1980. DOPMA guidelines suggest 95% of lieutenants (junior grade) should be promoted to lieutenant after serving a minimum of two years at their present rank.

Rank insignia

Three lieutenant shoulder boards of the Royal Canadian Navy with the insignia worn by honorary aides-de-camp to the Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia (left) Lieutenant Governor of Québec (centre) and Lieutenant Governor of New Brunswick (right).

The insignia of a lieutenant in many navies, including the Royal Navy,[3] consists of two medium gold braid stripes (top stripe with loop) on a navy blue or black background. This pattern was copied by the United States Navy and various air forces for their equivalent ranks grades, except that the loop is removed. (see flight lieutenant).

Lieutenant-de-vaisseau-France.png 16 - kptlt.png GR-Navy-OF2.svg IN Lieutenant.png POL PMW pagon1 kapitan marynarki.svg POR-Navy-primeiro-tenente.png RO-Navy-OF-3s.png 9arm.png US Navy O3 insignia.svg
France Germany Greece India Poland Portugal Romania Spain United States

"First lieutenant" in naval usage

The first lieutenant (1st Lt or 1LT) in the Royal Navy and other Commonwealth navies, is a post or appointment, rather than a rank. Historically, the lieutenants in a ship were ranked in accordance with seniority, with the most senior being termed the first lieutenant and acting as the second-in-command. Although lieutenants are no longer numbered by seniority, the post of "first lieutenant" remains.

In minor war vessels, destroyers and frigates, the first lieutenant (either a lieutenant or lieutenant commander) is second in command, executive officer (XO) and head of the executive branch; in larger ships, where a commander of the warfare specialisation is appointed as the executive officer, a first lieutenant (normally a lieutenant commander) is appointed as his deputy. The post of first lieutenant in a shore establishment carries a similar responsibility to that of the first lieutenant of a capital ship.

In the US Navy or US Coast Guard, the billet of first lieutenant describes the officer in charge of the deck department or division, depending on the size of the ship. In smaller ships that have only a single deck division, the billet is typically filled by an ensign; while in larger ships, with a deck department consisting of multiple subordinate divisions, the billet may be filled by a lieutenant commander. On submarines and smaller Coast Guard cutters, the billet of first lieutenant may be filled by a petty officer.


  1. The pronunciation of lieutenant is generally split between /lɛfˈtɛnənt/ lef-TEN-ənt or /lfˈtɛnənt/, generally in the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Commonwealth countries, and Listeni/ljuːˈtɛnənt/ lew-TEN-ənt or /ləˈtɛnənt/, generally associated with the United States. See lieutenant.


  1. 1.0 1.1 "Officer Ranks in the Royal Navy - Lieutenant". Royal Naval Museum. Retrieved 2008-10-11.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Gentlemen and Tarpaulins, by J D Davies, Oxford University Press, 1991, ISBN 978-0-19-820263-9, p.40
  3. "Uniforms and Badges of Rank - Royal Navy website". Retrieved 2008-10-05.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>