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Ask the Expert: Why does silver outrank gold in Scouting awards?

Ever since its debut in 1904, the Olympic gold medal has represented the pinnacle of athletic achievement.

But if gold signifies the best in sports, why does the Boy Scouts of America use silver to represent its top awards?

Take the Eagle Palms, introduced in 1927, as an example. An Eagle Scout who earns five merit badges beyond the minimum amount (and meets other requirements) will receive a Bronze Palm. He’ll get a Gold Palm for 10 extra merit badges and a Silver Palm for 15.

And what does the BSA call its top national-level award for volunteers? It’s the Silver Buffalo. There’s no Gold Buffalo Award.

We know that silver reigns in Scouting, but why? Scott Purdy contacted me earlier this week with that question on his mind.

So I checked with the expert, Bill Evans of the BSA’s Youth Development team, to find an answer.

Here’s what Bill told me:

BSA recognition is based on the military model where silver is higher than gold, as in a First Lieutenant with a silver bar outranks a Second Lieutenant with a gold bar.

But why did the military choose this order to begin with?

The Institute of Heraldry has the explanation. From the beginning, the Army used silver stars to indicate a general’s grade. The generals wore these stars on gold epaulettes, so the stars were silver for maximum visibility.

As the Institute explains, epaulettes and insignia evolved over the years, making design and color changes necessary to distinguish ranks.

Since generals already had silver stars, silver was considered established for higher ranks.

The practice of using silver for officer ranks continued until shortly after the start of World War I, when a need arose for metal insignia to represent Second Lieutenants, who rank right below First Lieutenants.

The problem was that the U.S. already used a single silver bar for First Lieutenants, and officials didn’t want the hassle or expense of changing the policy for all officers. So rather than overhauling everything, they chose the single gold bar for Second Lieutenant. At that point, the practice of silver outranking gold was established once and for all.

I hope that answers your question, Scott.

Your turn:

Have a puzzling, Scouting-related question? Send me an e-mail, and I’ll try to track down an answer. Just put “Ask the Expert” in the subject line.

34 Comments on Ask the Expert: Why does silver outrank gold in Scouting awards?

  1. Also, the old Explorer Awards of the 50s were Apprentice, Bronze, Gold, and Silver, which inspired the later Venturing awards of Bronze, Gold, and Silver.

    further, with many office patches of the past, silver/white was for the top leader, with gold/yellow for their assistants.

  2. So any idea why the BSA did a reversal on the Journey To Excellence program and made Gold the top level?

    • Andrew Rodriguez // May 11, 2015 at 12:18 am // Reply

      The major reasoning is for those outside of Scouting to have a clearer understanding of what kind of unit they are visiting. not many people outside of Scouting/military would see silver above gold, but many people would see gold above silver like in the Olympics. It is like a translator for an outsider before they become an insider.

  3. David Hibbard // April 14, 2011 at 2:45 pm // Reply

    The reason that Silver is higher than Gold, is that silver has to be constantly polished, whereas gold does not. Therefore, the same with Scouting… the job never ends, we have to keep “polishing” the program, keep volunteering, keep blowing on the embers… otherwise the fire (program) goes out.

  4. David McCaughey // April 14, 2011 at 2:46 pm // Reply

    So why does the new Journey to Excellence program have Gold as the top level, why not follow-up the Eagle palms order?

    • Good question, David (and Michael). I’ll try to find out the answer.

    • Robert Bardsley // November 11, 2014 at 7:55 pm // Reply

      If I remember correctly when this first came out, the rationale was that they lined it up with the conventional way of thinking, (Bronze, Silver, Gold) Much like the Olympic medals. National wanted it easy for people to remember

      • Yes, that is what was said. It is designed as an award to help people outside of scouting select a good unit, so using the olympic style won out.

  5. I think the silver being revered can be traced back further in history. I had learned that in ancient times (bronze age alchemy), metals where thought to have properties in addition to malleability, melting point, conductivity, etc.

    Silver was considered more valuable in some ways as it was the only one that reflected a true image. Mirrors made with silver were more precious. The metal was considered of a higher “moral” quality with a personality that “reflected truth” as opposed to gold which would hue reflections it’s characteristic tone.

    • That is very insightful and thought provoking…..thank you!

    • I have heard this as well, and this would be a better reason to tell people as Scouting is not a “military” organization.

      • timsarmywifey // November 13, 2014 at 7:49 am // Reply

        If you know your Scout history Lord Baden Powell based Scouting off his experiences in the British military so your statement is not entirely accurate. No we are not military/paramilitary per se but it IS based on that system of rank and awards.

  6. Should the silver award be higher than gold to match other hierarchy in the Boy Scout program?

    This was discussed by the task force, which decided that Journey to Excellence would be better understood by the majority of volunteers—especially new volunteers—if the program followed the bronze, silver, gold sequence.

  7. Glenn Gibbs // April 15, 2011 at 12:37 am // Reply

    I am military, and there is one other point — COLOR vs Metal
    Silver Metal (Color Silver) outranks BRASS (Color Gold). In the 1800’s there was a specific regulation against any officer wearing rank actually made from gold.

  8. Glenn Gibbs // April 15, 2011 at 12:44 am // Reply

    I am military, and there is one other point — COLOR vs METAL
    Silver Metal (Color Silver) outranks BRASS (Color Gold).
    Historically, enlisted and lower officer ranks were made from Brass. People (including military) call it a gold bar, but it is a brass bar, just as sargent pin-on rank was brass. In the 1800’s there was a specific regulation against any officer wearing rank actually made from gold, as the metal specified as brass.

  9. I was also in the Military but I heard a different story. Gold is a more precious metal but it is not as strong as Silver. Sure there are other metals as strong or stronger but they are not as pure. So what we are looking for in our leaders is Strength and Purity.

    • Glenn Gibbs // April 16, 2011 at 8:21 am // Reply

      There are lots of nice, “purity and honor”, type stories. But the simple answer is found right in the US military academy (Army and Navy). You are issued a BRASS bar upon your commission. Maintaining your rank, as your honor, is a daily task. The regulation in the 1800s prohibiting real gold was 1) use of non-tarnishing gold, showed you were too lazy to polish your rank, as your soldiers had too, and 2) you were showing off (and showing disrespect to your soldiers). Brass has always been the metal used for over 250 years of the US military. I can not comment on the metal used in other countries.

  10. The silver awards are solid silver, the gold are gold-plated. So the silver is more valuable. The “brass” explanation makes the most sense to me.

    It is really too bad that the BSA has dropped this tradition. The shoulder loops have gold for the highest (national) and now the J2E program.

    • Brian Davids // June 29, 2011 at 11:45 pm // Reply

      My guess as to why national and regional level Scouters wear gold loops is because they support the district and council levels, who wear silver. Not because they are “higher-up”.

      • Exactly, Brian. This is also the reason why the earlier badges of office in our programs have “primary leaders” (Senior Patrol Leader, Scoutmaster, Cubmaster, Unit Commissioner, District Executive, Scout Executive, etc. etc.) have silver/grey borders and lettering while those who support them (Assistant Senior Patrol Leader, Assistant Scoutmaster, Assistant Cubmaster, Roundtable Commissioners, Associate District Executive, Council Staff, etc. etc.) have gold/yellow borders and lettering on their badges of office. And those working as part of committees have badges of office with bronze (brown) borders.

  11. Don’t forget that we took much of our early beginnings from the Boy Scouts in the UK, where they were on the silver standard for their monetary system rather than the Gold standard that the US (uses/used, I can’t remember).

  12. Just one more idea I have heard . During the crusades silver on a court of arms was a sign that bearer indeed fought for his god and went in with a pure heart to battle. It is rare to see a standard with silver but considered the highest. How true it is is not known but would definitely add the reason of silver verses gold.

  13. David Parker // November 11, 2014 at 3:25 pm // Reply

    I believe it goes back even further. In ancient Egypt, gold represented the flesh of the gods. Silver, much rarer in Egypt, represented the bones of the gods. So Silver was of higher value.

  14. Silver consistently outranks gold in the US Miltary. That’s why USAF Aeronautical Ratings are in silver while Naval aviators have to settle for gold ones. 😉

  15. I was told that it had to do with the fact that silver is mined higher in the ground than gold and therefore silver is higher than gold.

  16. I had always heard it was because at the time scouting was starting silver was more valuable than gold. There is an interesting chart here ( that shows a comparison of silver to gold over time.

  17. ScouterWitch // November 11, 2014 at 6:23 pm // Reply

    Remember that The Wizard of Oz was really about switching from the silver standard to the gold standard. Until the 20th century, silver was more valuable than gold.

  18. I was told that in the Army the reason for the gold was because it was more maleablethan silver. So an inexperienced 2nd LT was softer than a 1st LT.same with Major. Its a step out of company level command moving into higher level command.

  19. Just so I’m clear… BSA guidelines prohibit us from appearing “military-like” (i.e. the American flag on the right sleeve, the wearing of cammies, etc.), but we base several of our awards/recognition on a military standard?!?

    Can we say “contridiction”?

  20. I am glad to read this, as I have been confused. I remember trying to figure out which position patch I needed for my uniform, as a volunteer, and assuming silver meant lower and gold was the honors version … and the store workers were horrified. But they had no reason to back it up, and though I took their word for it, it would have been nice if they had bothered to explain. No point in making your volunteers feel stupid when they are trying hard to do the right thing!

    I love the explanation of polishing your rank daily to keep it fresh and shiny … very good metaphor there.

    • Glad at least that our right shouldered flag is facing correctly, instead of backwards to simulate the way it would be blown as the soldier charges forward.

  21. Jeffrey L. Branem // December 26, 2014 at 5:59 am // Reply

    How can I find my name on a list of Eagle Scouts. I earned Eagle Scout in 1978. In my military travel I have lost most of my Scouting stuff including my Eagle badge. How can I receive a replacement Eagle badge?
    Jeffrey l Branem, USAF, TSgt, retired
    100% Disabled Veteran

    • Jeffrey, I believe that NESA may be able to help you there. Visit their website:

  22. Proud Palmed Eagle // October 29, 2015 at 4:33 am // Reply

    I remember noticing the difference between the BSA’s and the Olympic Games movement’s using of the three colors. My immediate thought was the same “What? Why isn’t gold the top, as it is for the Olympic medals.” However, at the time I earned all three palms, I just figured that because I was just a kid, I had better keep quiet about it because some adult might not appreciate it being questioned. So I decided to wait and someday perhaps find out why. Thank you for explaining it now.

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