Warrant Officer Historical Foundation

(formerly Warrant Officers Heritage Foundation)

A Non-Profit  501 (c) (3) Public Charity

Preserving Army Warrant Officer History


History of Army CW5 Insignia

Evolution of the Army Master Warrant Officer Program and CW5 Rank Insignia

By CW5 (Ret) Don Howerton


The evolution of the CW5 grade and rank insignia is, like much of Army Warrant Officer history, frequently misunderstood.


The idea for the CW5 grade was first proposed in 1966. It was one of a series of recommendations from a DA study group that was chartered to develop a formal Warrant Officer Career Development Program. The study group recommended not only the grade of CW5, but also a CW6 grade. Ultimately, the 1966 proposal failed to win approval; nonetheless, the army didn’t give up on the idea and over the next 19 years, at least 13 different studies and surveys addressed the senior WO grades in one form or another. 


In 1969, the Vice Chief of Staff, Army, directed the Army Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel (DCSPER) to "look at the warrant officer’s insignia of rank, with a view toward making it easy to identify the warrant officer grades." As a result of this study, new insignia were approved by the Chief of Staff, Army, on June 10, 1970 with an effective date for wear of July 1, 1972. The new insignia (the silver and black design still in use today) replaced the old brown/gold and brown/silver insignia worn since 1956. 


As part of the 1970 insignia redesign package, the CSA also approved new insignia for the grades of CW5 and CW6. The army had no such grades of course but it was confident that Congress would eventually approve one or both of the new senior warrant officer grades. By designing and approving the insignia for CW5 and CW6 at this time, the army was simply leaning forward in the foxhole and taking advantage of a rare opportunity. The design of the CW5 insignia consisted of a single 1/8-inch black strip running vertically down the length of the silver bar. The CW6 insignia was similar but displayed two parallel black strips. The army now had two new, officially approved, senior warrant officer insignia - but, what no one could have predicted at the time was that neither of these insignia would ever be authorized for wear. 


In 1985, the Chief of Staff, Army (CSA), approved the recommendations from the Total Warrant Officer Study (TWOS). Included in this historic study was another recommendation for the creation of the grade of CW5. The TWOS study group had determined that a requirement existed for highly experienced senior warrant officers to serve as branch technical integrators and advisors to commanders and their staffs. This finding served as primary justification for establishment of the new grade. 


While the Army had authority to implement most of the TWOS recommendations through changes in policy and regulations, Congress had to authorize and approve several of the other recommendations, including the grade of CW5, through changes to Title 10, United States Code. Following lengthy coordination with the other services, professional organizations and members of Congress, the Department of Defense finally submitted a legislative package to the Congress that subsequently came to be known as the Warrant Officer Management Act (WOMA). Serving as a testament to the complexities for changing Public Laws, it would take over six-years for WOMA to be passed by Congress. 


The Army was well aware that the legislative process for the new CW5 grade was going to be long and involved, however, the need to put people to work in the new senior warrant officer positions couldn't wait. The solution was to create a "skill designation" of Master Warrant Officer Four (MW4). Under this plan, qualified senior CW4s would compete through formal centralized DA board action for MW4 designation. MW4s would then perform the duties and fill the positions intended for CW5s until that new grade was officially approved. 


Once that occurred, the MW4 program would be terminated. With this plan in place, attention turned to the issue of what to do about an insignia for MW4. The army did not want to use the CW5 insignia for MW4 out of fear that Congress might take the view that the army was jumping the gun and appointing CW5s before Congress had authorized the grade. 


That meant that a new rank insignia would have to be designed and adopted specifically for MW4. In March 1987, the DCSPER directed, as part of the TWOS Implementation Plan, that a MW4 insignia be designed, staffed for approval, and procured. Between June and October 1987, the Soldier Policy Branch, Office of the DCSPER, solicited MW4 insignia designs. 


They chose four of the most promising proposed designs and then polled the Major Commands (MACOM) for design selection. The Army Warrant Officer Association, who played a crucial role throughout the WOMA legislation process, published the four designs and solicited member comment. The most popular design was selected and presented to the CSA who approved the new MW4 insignia on 8 April 1988. The MW4 insignia consisted of four hollow squares, each outlined in black enamel, arranged vertically on a silver bar.


Master Warrant Officer (MW4) Insignia


The first MW4 selection board convened on 8-11 December 1987. Designees began their Master Warrant Officer Training Course (MWOTC) at Fort Rucker, AL in September 1988 (a training pre-requisite for official MW4 designation) and began serving in the field immediately thereafter. 


On 5 December 1991, Congress finally approved WOMA (which included the CW5 authorization) and the MW4 program effectively ended. While there were still many MW4s serving in the field, no new ones were designated after this date. Now the issue of a CW5 rank insignia resurfaced. The original plan had been to simply procure and issue the CW5 insignia that had already been officially approved in 1970; however, by this time, there were new members on the DA staff, who had their own ideas, and they proposed a new plan to the CSA. Their proposal was brutally simple: Adopt the current MW4 insignia for the new grade of CW5. As presented to the CSA, their plan was driven by three concerns: The dollar cost to the Army for manufacturing the new CW5 rank insignia (and salvaging the existing MW4 insignia inventory); the cost to those MW4s who would have to purchase another new rank insignia (when and if they were promoted to CW5); and the belief that "fielding yet another new warrant officer rank insignia would lead to unnecessary confusion". 


They estimated that it would take three to five years before the last MW4 would either be promoted to CW5 or leave the service; in the meantime, there would be six different warrant officer rank insignia in the field if the approved CW5 insignia was issued. While the Department of the Army staff’s rationale may seem questionable by contemporary standards, in 1992 their arguments won out, and on 28 March of that year, the Chief of Staff, Army, approved continued use of the Master Warrant Officer insignia for the new grade of Chief Warrant Officer W5.


MW4 - CW5 Insignia (1988 - 8 July 2004)


(During the period discussed in this article, CW5 Howerton was the

Assistant Commandant of the U. S. Army Warrant Officer Career Center, Fort Rucker, AL.)


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Addendum by CW5 Ed German


I enjoyed the insignia history from Don Howerton. He wrote: "As part of the 1970 insignia redesign package, the CSA also approved new insignia for the grades of CW5 and CW6". 


You can see those approved CW5 and CW6 designs at https://warrantofficerhistory.org/Hist_WO_Insignia.htm#CW5-CW6-prop-insig.


A few years back, the Senior Warrant Officer list-server had a lot of traffic about a new CW5 rank insignia. Some warrant officers were tired of explaining to folks why a modified CW4 insignia represented CW5. Even after a brief explanation, there was often still the follow-up question, "Then why does it have only four squares instead of five?" With the permission of the list-server manager, I built a website where folks posted their ideas... and stopped spamming the mailing list with huge picture files.


No insignia change came about from the recommendations, but you can still view the interesting (and sometimes wild) designs at http://onin.com/cw5 (designs 3 and 7 seemed to be the most popular). 


Many warrant officers felt that a star was appropriate to signify that, just as with CSMs, CW5 represents the pinnacle of WO career progression. I am not trying to renew the call for insignia change, but I thought the related "pictures" of our insignia history might be of interest to some.


(CW5 German was assigned to Intelligence and Security Command (INSCOM), at Fort Belvoir, VA.)


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Webmaster's Addendum


On March 23, 2004, the Amy issued an All Army Activities (ALARACT) Message 042-2004 Subject: Changes to CW5 Rank, and Warrant Officers Branch Insignia and Colors. This message announced "CW5 will wear the CW5 Insignia approved in 1970 by the former Chief of Staff, Army."  "The CW5 Insignia is a silver colored bar, 3/8 inch in width and 1 1/8 inch in length, with a black line in the center of the bar."  "This change will take effect on 9 July 2004 coinciding with the 86th Anniversary of the Warrant Officer Corps ... the increasingly joint nature of operations within the Department of Defense, and the expanded use of our most senior Warrant Officers in joint operations validates the need to standardize CW5 rank insignia among the services that employ them."


Chief Warrant Officer 5 (CW5) Insignia effective 9 July 2004


(Note:  The Marine Corps and the Navy had both previously adopted and were wearing a similar CW5 bar with the stripe, thus this the CW5s of all services should be more recognizable in joint headquarters and operations.)


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Updated June 1, 2015