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Colonel Insignia. US. COL O6 insignia shaded.svg.png
Colonel Insignia. US.

Colonel ( /ˈkɜːrnəl/ ; abbreviated as Col., Col or COL) is a senior military officer rank used in many countries. It is also used in some police forces and paramilitary organizations.


Historically, in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, a colonel was typically in charge of a regiment in an army. Modern usage varies greatly, and in some cases, the term is used as an honorific title that may have no direct relationship to military service. The rank of colonel is typically above the rank of lieutenant colonel. The rank above colonel is typically called brigadier, brigade general or brigadier general. In some smaller military forces, such as those of Monaco or the Vatican, colonel is the highest rank.

Equivalent naval ranks may be called captain or ship-of-the-line captain. In the Commonwealth's air force ranking system, the equivalent rank is group captain.

History and origins

The word colonel derives from the same root as the word column (Italian: colonna) and means "of a column", and, by implication, "commander of a column". Colonel is therefore linked to the word column in a similar way that brigadier is linked to brigade, although in English this relationship is not immediately obvious. By the end of the late medieval period, a group of "companies" was referred to as a "column" of an army.

Since the word is believed to derive from 16th-century Italian, it was presumably first used by Italian city states in that century. The first use of colonel as a rank in a national army was in the French National Legions (Légions nationales) created by King Francis I by his decree of 1534. Building on the military reforms of Louis XII's decree of 1509, he modernized the organization of the French royal army. Each colonel commanded a legion with a theoretical strength of six thousand men.

With the shift from primarily mercenary to primarily national armies in the course of the 17th century, a colonel (normally a member of the aristocracy) became a holder (German Inhaber) or proprietor of a military contract with a sovereign. The colonel purchased the regimental contractthe right to hold the regimentfrom the previous holder of that right or directly from the sovereign when a new regiment was formed or an incumbent was killed.[ citation needed ]

The Spanish equivalent rank of coronel was used by the Spanish tercios in the 16th and 17th centuries. Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba, nicknamed "the Great Captain", divided his armies in coronelías or colonelcies, each led by a coronel (colonel). [1] However, the Spanish word probably derives from a different origin, in that it appears to designate an officer of the crown (corona, thus the rank coronel), rather than an officer of the column (columna, which would give the word columnal). This makes the Spanish word coronel probably cognate with the English word coroner .

As the office of colonel became an established practice, the colonel became the senior captain in a group of companies that were all sworn to observe his personal authorityto be ruled or regimented by him. This regiment, or governance, was to some extent embodied in a contract and set of written rules, also referred to as the colonel's regiment or standing regulation(s). By extension, the group of companies subject to a colonel's regiment (in the foregoing sense) came to be referred to as his regiment (in the modern sense) as well.

In French usage of this period, the senior colonel in the army or, in a field force, the senior military contractor, was the colonel general and, in the absence of the sovereign or his designate, the colonel general might serve as the commander of a force. The position, however, was primarily contractual and it became progressively more of a functionless sinecure. (The head of a single regiment or demi-brigade would be called a 'mestre de camp' or, after the Revolution, a 'chef de brigade'.)

By the late 19th century, colonel was a professional military rank though still held typically by an officer in command of a regiment or equivalent unit. Along with other ranks, it has become progressively more a matter of ranked duties, qualifications and experience and of corresponding titles and pay scale than of functional office in a particular organization.

As European military influence expanded throughout the world, the rank of colonel became adopted by nearly every nation (albeit under a variety of names).

With the rise of communism, some of the large communist militaries saw fit to expand the colonel rank into several grades, resulting in the unique senior colonel rank, which was found and is still used in such nations as China and North Korea.


In many modern armies, the regiment has more importance as a ceremonial unit or a focus of members' loyalty than as an actual battle formation. Troops tend to be deployed in battalions (commanded by a lieutenant colonel) as a more convenient size of military unit and, as such, colonels have tended to have a higher profile in specialist and command roles than as actual commanders of regiments. However, in Commonwealth armies, the position of the colonel as the figurehead of a regiment is maintained in the honorary role of "colonel-in-chief", usually held by a member of the royal family, [2] the nobility, or a retired senior military officer. The colonel-in-chief wears a colonel's uniform and encourages the members of the regiment, but takes no active part in the actual command structure or in any operational duties. [3]

Colonel of the Regiment

The title Colonel of the Regiment (to distinguish it from the military rank of colonel) continues to be used in the modern British Army. The ceremonial position is often conferred on retired general officers, brigadiers or colonels who have a close link to a particular regiment. Non-military personnel, usually for positions within the Army Reserve may also be appointed to the ceremonial position. When attending functions as "Colonel of the Regiment", the titleholder wears the regimental uniform with rank insignia of (full) colonel, regardless of their official rank. A member of the Royal Family is known as a Royal Colonel. A Colonel of the Regiment is expected to work closely with a regiment and its Regimental Association.

Colonel and equivalent ranks by country

Colonel in individual military forces

The following articles deal with the rank of colonel as it is used in various national militaries.

North and South American equivalent ranks

European equivalent ranks

  • Colonel or kolonel (Albania, Armenia: Gndapet (գնդապետ), Belgium, France, Estonia, Moldova, Netherlands, Romania, Switzerland, United Kingdom)
  • Colonnello (Italy and Switzerland)
  • Kurunell (Malta)
  • Coirnéal (Ireland)
  • Coronel (Portugal and Spain)
  • Eversti or Överste (Finland and Sweden)
  • Oberst (Austria, Denmark, Germany, Norway, and Switzerland)
  • Ofursti (Iceland)
  • Ezredes (Hungary – literally means "leader of a thousand" [i.e. of a regiment])
  • Syntagmatarchis (Συνταγματάρχης) (Greece).

Since the 16th century, the rank of regimental commander was adopted by several Central and Eastern European armies, most notably the forces of Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, Cossacks and then Muscovy. In countries with Slavic and Baltic languages, the exact name of the rank maintains a variety of spellings, all descendant from the Old Slavonic word plk or polk meaning unit of standing army (see The Tale of Igor's Campaign), and include the following:

Other countries have adopted the rank and spelling when they became part of the Russian Empire and later Soviet Union including following:

Arab ranks

There are two common Arab ranks relevant to the English word "colonel":

  • The Arabic word for "colonel" is عميد (ʿamīd) which comes from the same triconsonantal root as عمود (ʿamūd) meaning "column". Both words come from the root ʿ-m-d, column in the sense of "pillar" (عَمَد). This relationship is comparable to that "colonel" and "column" are cognates with Latin columna as common ancestor. In terms of equivalence, the Arabic colonel, ʿamīd, is conventionally considered to be equivalent to the Commonwealth rank of brigadier.
  • It is the rank of عقيد (ʿaqīd), which is conventionally considered equivalent to the Commonwealth rank of colonel. The word ʿaqīd is linked to عقد (ʿaqad), meaning a contract, covenant or pact. In its original literal meaning, ʿaqīd means a man who has entered into a contract, pact or covenant.

In addition, a non-Arab colonel is often referred to as "kūlūnīl" (كولونيل). In the Ottoman Empire, the Ottoman ranks miralay and qaimaqam were formerly used instead of the current Arab ranks ʿamīd and ʿaqīd.

Asian equivalent ranks

  • Flag of Afghanistan.svg Afghanistan: Dagarwal (دګروال)
  • Flag of Bangladesh.svg Bangladesh: Colonel (কর্নেল)
  • Flag of Cambodia.svg Cambodia: Lok vorakseni ek (លោកវរសេនីយ៍ឯក)
  • Flag of the People's Republic of China.svg China: Shangxiao (上校)
  • Flag of India.svg India: Colonel (India)
  • Flag of Indonesia.svg Indonesia: Kolonel
  • Flag of Iran.svg Iran: Sarhang (سرهنگ)
  • Flag of Israel.svg Israel: Aluf Mishne (אלוף משנה)
  • Flag of Nepal.svg   Nepal: Colonel (महा सेनानी)
  • Flag of Mongolia.svg Mongolia: Colonel (Хурандаа)
  • Flag of North Korea.svg North Korea: Sangchwa
  • Flag of the Philippines.svg Philippines: Lakan (Filipino), coronel (Spanish)
  • Flag of South Korea.svg South Korea: Daeryong  [ ko ] (대령; 大領)
  • Flag of Sri Lanka.svg Sri Lanka: Colonel
  • Flag of the Republic of China.svg TaiwanShangxiao (中文:上校)
  • Flag of Thailand.svg Thailand Nai Phan (TH: นายพัน) Chief of 1,000
    • Phan ek (TH: พันเอก) First of 1,000: Colonel
    • Phan tho (TH: พันโท) Second of 1,000: Lieutenant colonel
  • Flag of Pakistan.svg Pakistan: Colonel
  • Flag of Vietnam.svg Vietnam: Thượng tá
Turkish and Ottoman ranks

The Ottomans used a rank of "column chief", which was "kol ağa", from kol (column in Turkish) and ağa (chief in Turkish). However, in authority, this was more equivalent to a European major. The Ottoman army rank of "lieutenant governor" ( kaymakam ) was equivalent in authority to a European colonel. Kol ağa is no longer used.

The word for a regiment, alay, can also mean a procession, or be loosely translated as a column of men. Alay was in the Ottoman army rank miralay ("regimental emir ") and the Ottoman gendarmerie rank alaybeyi ("regimental bey "). These Ottoman ranks were equivalent to European brigade commanders.

The modern Turkish Army uses the rank of albay as its colonel rank (NATO rank OF-5). This is a contraction of the older Turkish word alaybeyi.

African equivalent ranks

  • Colonel (Flag of the Central African Republic.svg Central African Republic, Flag of Ghana.svg Ghana, Flag of Guinea.svg Guinea, Flag of Cote d'Ivoire.svg Ivory Coast, Flag of Kenya.svg Kenya, Flag of Liberia.svg Liberia, Flag of Mali.svg Mali, Flag of Nigeria.svg Nigeria, Flag of Senegal.svg Senegal, Flag of South Africa.svg South Africa, Flag of Zambia.svg Zambia)
  • Coronel (Flag of Angola.svg Angola, Flag of Cape Verde.svg Cape Verde, Flag of Equatorial Guinea.svg Equatorial Guinea, Flag of Guinea-Bissau.svg Guinea-Bissau, Flag of Mozambique.svg Mozambique and Flag of Sao Tome and Principe.svg São Tomé and Príncipe)
  • Aqid (عقيد) (Flag of Libya.svg Libya, Flag of Morocco.svg Morocco, Flag of Tunisia.svg Tunisia and Flag of Sudan.svg Sudan)


Insignia of army colonels

Insignia of air force colonels

Insignia of naval infantry colonels

Colonel as highest-ranking officer

Some military forces have a colonel as their highest-ranking officer, with no 'general' ranks, and no superior authority (except, perhaps, the head of state as a titular commander-in-chief) other than the respective national government. Examples include the following (arranged alphabetically by country name):

Rank insignia for a colonel in several nations which have no higher military rank
IcelandMonacoVatican City
Colonel CCPColonel CSP

Other uses of colonel ranks

The term colonel is also used as a title for auctioneers in the United States; there are a variety of theories or folk etymologies to explain the use of the term. [5] One of these is the claim that during the American Civil War goods seized by armies were sold at auction by the colonel of the division. [6]

Kentucky colonel is the highest title of honor bestowed by the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Commissions for Kentucky colonels are given by the Governor and the Secretary of State to individuals in recognition of noteworthy accomplishments and outstanding service to a community, state or the nation. The sitting governor of the Commonwealth of Kentucky bestows the honor of a colonel's Commission, by issuance of letters patent. Perhaps the best known Kentucky colonel is Harland Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame.

The rank of colonel is also used by some military police forces such as Military Police (Brazil) and Military Firefighters Corps, the Carabineros de Chile and the French National Gendarmerie. The Police of Russia, being a paramilitary organization, also uses this rank.

See also

Related Research Articles

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<i>Starshina</i> Military ranks

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Polkovnik is a military rank used mostly in Slavic-speaking countries which corresponds to a colonel in English-speaking states and oberst in several German-speaking and Scandinavian countries. The term originates from an ancient Slavic word for a group of soldiers and folk. However, in Cossack Hetmanate and Sloboda Ukraine, polkovnyk was an administrative rank similar to a governor. Usually this word is translated as colonel, however the transliteration is also in common usage, for the sake of the historical and social context. Polkovnik began as a commander of a distinct group of troops (polk), arranged for battle.


Rittmeister is or was a military rank of a commissioned cavalry officer in the armies of Germany, Austria-Hungary, Scandinavia, and some other countries. A Rittmeister is typically in charge of a squadron, and is the equivalent of a Hauptmann rank with a NATO rank of OF-2. The various names of this rank in different languages were:

Oberst is a senior field officer rank in several German-speaking and Scandinavian countries, equivalent to Colonel. It is currently used by both the ground and air forces of Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Denmark, and Norway. The Swedish rank överste is a direct translation, as are the Finnish rank eversti and the Icelandic rank ofursti.

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Colonel (Col) is a rank of the British Army and Royal Marines, ranking below brigadier, and above lieutenant colonel. British colonels are not usually field commanders; typically they serve as staff officers between field commands at battalion and brigade level. The insignia is two diamond-shaped pips below a crown. The crown has varied in the past with different monarchs; the current Queen's reign has used St Edward's Crown. The rank is equivalent to captain in the Royal Navy and group captain in the Royal Air Force.

Podpolkovnik is a military rank in Slavic countries which corresponds to the lieutenant colonel in the English-speaking states and military.

Lieutenant colonel, is a rank in the British Army and Royal Marines which is also used in many Commonwealth countries. The rank is superior to major, and subordinate to colonel. The comparable Royal Navy rank is commander, and the comparable rank in the Royal Air Force and many Commonwealth air forces is wing commander.

The Australian Defence Force's (ADF) ranks of officers and enlisted personnel in each of its three service branches of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), the Australian Army, and the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) inherited their rank structures from their British counterparts. The insignia used to identify these ranks are also generally similar to those used in the British Armed Forces.

Lieutenant colonel is a rank of commissioned officer in the armies, most marine forces and some air forces of the world, above a major and below a colonel. Several police forces in the United States use the rank of lieutenant colonel. The rank of lieutenant colonel is often shortened to simply "colonel" in conversation and in unofficial correspondence. Sometimes, the term 'half-colonel' is used in casual conversation in the British Army. In the United States Air Force, the term 'light bird' or 'light bird colonel' is an acceptable casual reference to the rank but is never used directly towards the rank holder. A lieutenant colonel is typically in charge of a battalion or regiment in the army.

Colonel general is a three or four-star rank in some armies, usually equivalent to that of a full general in other armies. North Korea and Russia have used the rank in that fashion throughout their histories. The rank is also closely associated with Germany, where Generaloberst has formerly been a higher rank above full General but below Generalfeldmarschall.

The Military ranks of Tajikistan are the military insignia used by the Armed Forces of the Republic of Tajikistan. Being a former member of Soviet Union, Tajikistan shares a rank structure similar to that of Russia. Since 2018, the State Language Committee of Tajikistan operated a working group that sought to replace the Russian military ranks with pure Tajik/Persian terms. An example of this would be the rank of Colonel, which is currently "Полковник/Polkovnik" would be changed to "Сарлашкар/Sarlashkar". Tajikistan is a landlocked country, and does therefore not possess a navy.

Sarhang is a title and/or military rank of Iranian origin, a compound of sar and hang. In modern usage in Iran, sarhang is the equivalent of colonel.


  1. Los tercios españoles. La batalla de Pavía at (in Spanish, unspecified authorship)
  2. See this list of colonel-in-chief appointments held by The Prince of Wales.
  3. A webpage by a Scottish regiment concerning their colonel-in-chief. Archived 2007-12-19 at the Wayback Machine
  4. "Minister Benschop bevorderd tot Generaal-Majoor". (in Dutch). Retrieved 14 July 2020.
  5. Leab, Daniel J.; Leab, Katharine Kyes (29 December 1981). The auction companion. Harper & Row. ISBN   9780060125561 via Google Books.
  6. Doyle, Robert A.; Baska, Steve (November 2002), "History of Auctions: From ancient Rome to todays high-tech auctions", Auctioneer, archived from the original on May 17, 2008, retrieved 2008-06-22

Further reading