What we now think of as branch of service colors began to take shape with the uniform regulations of 1851 and became more firmly established through the rest of the century. The table below give a timeline of the evolution of branch colors through the present day.
The branch colors originated as "facings," contrasting colors on the collar, cuffs, shoulder loops, trouser stripes and so on, and at first were used more on enlisted than officer uniforms. Officers of the basic arms (infantry, cavalry and artillery) used distinctive facing colors, but other officers, from engineers to quartermasters to surgeons, were classified as "staff." Enlisted uniforms, on the other hand, recognized ordnance, medical, engineer, commissary, quartermaster and signal specialties with facing colors in the late 1800s.
The uniform regulations of 1902 expanded the facing colors for officers. Though some staff departments still shared dark blue as a distinctive color, new colors were specified for engineer, medical, ordnance, quartermaster and signal officers.
When less conspicuous khaki uniforms were adopted in 1898, branch color facings were used, but were dropped in 1902. The cords for the broad-brimmed service hat were the only branch-colored items on field and service uniforms through World War I.
The First World War brought a number of new branches into existence to meet the requirements of the American Expeditionary Force, and new colors were authorized. Most were disestablished after the war; only the colors for the Chemical Service and Air Service remained authorized in 1921. The adoption of the folding overseas cap by the AEF led to another branch color appearance: In July 1918 branch colored piping was ordered for officers' caps, with general officers using gold piping, and gold and black for officers serving on the General Staff.
The 1921 uniform regulations for the first time used the term "colors of branches" instead of "facings." With the suspension of blue dress uniforms and the de-authorization of overseas caps after the war, the hat cords were again the ordinary manifestation of branch colors on the uniform. In 1929 the pre-war blue dress uniforms were authorized for optional wear, and in 1936 a new blue dress uniform in a more modern style was introduced. With modifications, blue dress uniforms again became required for officers in 1938 and a few new branch colors were prescribed.
The overseas or garrison cap made a slow comeback in the years before World War II, at first in the air and then the armored forces, and was eventually authorized for the whole army in 1940. At that time the piping became branch colored for enlisted men, with metallic gold cord for generals, gold and black for commissioned officers, and silver and black for warrant officers. Two colors could be mixed in a number of different ways, depending on the manufacturer.
General officers (gold)
Other commissioned officers (gold and black)
Warrant officers (silver and black)
Variations of two-color enlisted piping
(Corps of Engineers, scarlet and white)
Some new branch colors were introduced during World War II and in the post-war years, and some others were discontinued. In 1953 updated blue dress uniforms were introduced, but this time branch colors were eliminated for enlisted personnel, as well as from the trousers of officers, replaced by gold-colored trim. In 1957, with the adoption of the Army Green service uniform, the branch-colored piping was eliminated from the enlisted garrison cap, replaced by a matching green cord edge.
Because of the use of lighter blue for trousers and enlisted overcoats and issues with fading blue dyes, the light blue of the infantry arm was subject to a number of exceptions for use on uniforms.
Facing colors were first incorporated into the shoulder straps in 1851, but only for infantry, artillery and cavalry officers. All other officers wore shoulder straps with a dark blue background, as did general officers. This remained the case until 1902, when the first shoulder straps with a second color, in the form of a narrow piping inside the gold border, were introduced for the Corps of Engineers.
NOTES ON THE TABLE: The colors are based on those listed as "facings" in regulations before 1921, thereafter referred to variously as "colors of branches," "colors of arms, services, bureau etc.," "branch of service colors" and so on. The years are based on the date the colors were added to, changed in or removed from regulations or official orders.
|Adjutant General's |
|dark blue||dark blue, scarlet|
|green, black||ultramarine blue, golden orange|
|Armored Forces/ |
(including Field, Coast
and Air Defense Artillery)
|ultramarine blue, golden orange|
|Bureau of Insular Affairs|
|cobalt blue, golden yellow|
|Corps of Engineers|
|Corps of Intelligence Police |
|Corps of Interpreters |
|steel gray, black|
|Detached Enlisted Men's List|
|golden yellow, black|
|silver gray, golden yellow|
|Hospital/Medical Dept. |
|crimson||emerald green||emerald green, white||maroon, white|
|light blue||white||light blue|
|dark blue||dark blue, white||dark blue, light blue|
|Judge Advocate General's |
|dark blue||dark blue, light blue||dark blue, white|
|soldier red, bronze|
|Medical Department |
|oriental blue, silver gray|
|Military Intelligence |
|golden yellow, purple|
|yellow, green||green , yellow|
|Militia/National Guard Bureau|
|dark blue, scarlet||dark blue|
|Motor Transport Corps |
|Ordnance Department/ |
|crimson||black, scarlet||crimson, yellow|
|Permanent Professor, |
U.S. Military Academy
|scarlet, silver gray|
|Provost Marshal General's Dept. |
|bottle green, silver gray|
|orange||black, white||orange, white|
|emerald green, silver gray|
|brown, golden yellow|
|Staff Specialist, |
U.S. Army Reserve
|Tank Service/ |
|Tank Destroyer |
|golden orange, black|
|Transportation Corps |
|brick red, golden yellow|
|teal blue, white|
|Women's Army Corps|
|old gold, moss-tone green|