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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.

17 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?

  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.

  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!

  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.

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