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?

It’s because BSA recognition originally was based around 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.

Your turn:

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  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.

    • The Quality Unit award, predecessor to JTE was introduced during an Olympic year and the motto was “Going for the Gold”.

      • I don’t believe there was ever a “Silver Eagle” award. There was a Silver Award which was the highest rank in Exploring. There were three versions of this patch over the life of this award in the 40’s and 50’s. The compass-anchor-wing design on a blue background with silver wings was first. Next was the same patch on a red background which is easily the rarest of the three. Finally there was the silver flying eagle superimposed over a red/blue/white background with a compass around it and a fdl at the bottom. The Eagle Scout was (and still is) the highest rank for a Scout to earn. Two separate things, two separate programs.

        Prior to the Silver Award, the Ranger Award was the highest rank an Explorer could earn.

        In addition to the badges, there were medals. The Ranger Award had a medal, the same one was used over the life of the program. There were two Silver Award medals. The first had a red and yellow ribbon and a medal that matched the compass-anchor-wing design. The later version had a white ribbon with red and blue stripes and the medal looked like the later Silver Award patch.

    • 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.

  2. 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.

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

    • 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.

  4. 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.

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

      • 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

    • I understand the task force reasoning, but it would have been better to use another system, like Good, Very Good, Excellent. We could have avoided confusion about silver and gold. We could still rename the J2E levels, of course.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

    • 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.

  9. 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.

    • 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.

  10. 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).

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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. 😉

  14. 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.

    • The value of 1 oz. silver to 1oz. gold has almost consistently been anywhere from 40:1 to 50:1 throughout history. That is why Silver ½ Dollar is about the same size as a $20 gold piece.

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

    • I was an officer in the USAR. The rank insignias of 2nd Lt. and Major are brass, not gold. The only gold I remember was the braid and piping on officers’ caps and hats and general officers’ uniforms.

  17. 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”?

    • Much of Boy Scouting has its roots in the military, as do our awards. This does not tend to make us appear as military or paramilitary. I don’t see where there is a contradiction. By the way, some of the best Scouters I’ve known are current or former military. And some of the better Soldiers I served with were Scouts.

  18. 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.

  19. 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

  20. 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.

  21. I explain this to every Eagle candidate I counsel about their project, but with a far simpler explanation. The gold is gold plated. The silver is solid sterling silver. Done. How hard is that?

  22. Yet the 1st commissioner of the BSA, Dan Beard was the recipient of the first and only “gold Eagle badge” …

  23. Here is an NPR article on gold, silver and bronze medals that sheds a lot of light on this topic. Turns out that the 3-metal system of medals wasn’t used in the Olympics until 1904. The real question should be “why do the Olympics and subsequent competitions use Gold, Silver, and Bronze instead of the traditional rank system?”

  24. The US Military also uses the silver and bronze colors for Medal Devices such as the Oak Leaf Cluster and the Service Star. For example, if a soldier serves in a campaign they receive that service ribbon (medal). On a second deployment to the same campaign they would earn one bronze star to put on the ribbon to signify two deployments. After the fifth deployment they would replace 4 bronze stars with one silver star to signify five deployments. Six would be one silver and one bronze, etc. So in a certain respect, Eagle Palms can more closely be associated with military ribbon devices. I do not believe there is currently a gold device for any award.

  25. My militaria friend(also a retired US Army Colonel), who has houses full of uniforms and insignia, tells me that originally (early Csarist Russia, etc.) platinum was the top choice for royalty, Field Marshals, etc. but it became too expensive and so the silver color stayed, albeit with a cheaper material( silver).

  26. I believe that I was told once that the material used for for 2nd lieutenant and major was brass. A metal having a gold color.

  27. The late Harry Thorsen who was on the National Court of Honor told me back in 1983 that gold has a supposed value especially a financial value and the BSA did not want to put a financial value on their awards thus gold was second. He did not mention the military connection at all. I was with the BSA Supply Division at that time and a council had raised same question of why gold was second. Harry had answered on behalf of the National Court of Honor.

  28. A great string of comments. Several got it right, in the military silver outranked gold because silver was solid sterling silver whereas gold was gold plated brass. Unit Commissioners have badges bordered with silver. Assistant District Commissioners have gold bordered badges. There is, in the District Commissioner’s staff no such position as Associate District Commissioner (although some Councils have a Deputy District Commissioner position, which I thing should be more widely utilized). District Committee positions have gold bordering.
    Until recently, the top award in Venturing was the Venturing Silver Award. Roughly, it was about twice as difficult to earn as Eagle, requiring more stringent qualifications in first responder training, leadership activity above the unit level, and participation in Council level activities. The most frequent path to the Venturing Silver was through leadership of a Venturing Crew and service to the Council as camp staff. Any camp staff member who was the leader of his Crew and did the Philmont trek was a shoo-in for the Venturing Silver if he/she lead their crew on a service project that involved more than one Unit. Interestingly, a Venturing service project could, unlike the Eagle Service Project, benefit the BSA. Since many Venturing Silver recipients spent several summers as Camp Staff, many Venturing Silver Service Projects served the BSA Camps where they served. The Venturing Gold Award, one step below Silver, was mostly involved with personal development.

    The rarest advancement award remains the extremely difficult Sea Scout Quartermaster. This is the highest of the four ranks in Sea Scouting and requires mastery of sailing, piloting, navigation, communication and the ability to train and command your Sea Scout subordinates. You need to be a BSA/ARC lifeguard and to be qualified as a first responder. A Sea Scout Quartermaster must have led his or her Ship in Regional competition. Finally, a Quartermaster must run a Quartermaster Cruise, wherein they take command of a boat with a crew that they have trained for a multiday sail, absent adult participation.

    As Robert Gates has written, Eagle is not uncommon. Silver is rare. But the number who earn Eagle, Silver and Quartermaster can in any year usually be counted on one hand.

    I suspect that it will be a few years before the new Venturing advancement program is sorted out. And Sea Scouting is now split off from Venturing (after an almost 70 year shotgun marriage – Sea Scouting was founded in 2012 and was merged into Exploring when it was founded in 1947). So it will be interesting to see how many Youth accomplish the goal of earning the top award in Boy Scouting, Venturing, and Sea Scouting. However, I hope that Scouting will keep alive the tradition of maintaining that Silver outranks Gold plated brass which outranks Bronze. (Remember that in Girl Scouts USA, the highest Youth rank is Gold).


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