In the United States military, forces have worn distinctive uniform items for centuries to create a psychological advantage and boost their esprit de corps, but the military use of berets is a relatively recent phenomenon.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Blue Bonnet became a de facto symbol of Scottish Jacobite forces. The French Chasseurs alpins, created in the early 1880s, are recognized as the first regular unit to wear the military beret as their standard headgear.
One of the reasons that the beret is attractive to the military as a uniform item is that they are cheap, easy to make in large numbers and can be manufactured in a wide range of colors. From the soldier's view, the beret can be rolled up and stuffed into a pocket (or beneath a shirt epaulet) without damage, and it can be worn while wearing headphones.
Military berets are usually pushed to the right to free the shoulder that bears the rifle on most soldiers (though some country's armies -- mostly Europe, South America and Iran -- have influenced the push to the left).
The widespread use of the beret among Western armies didn’t begin until the 20th century when French tank crews in World War I wore the small Basque version and a larger, floppier variety.
United Kingdom and United States Beret History
The military popularity of berets soared during the World War II era when various British units donned the headgear in several colors -- including a khaki brown variety adopted by Special Air Services troops and a maroon variety worn by Britain’s first airborne force, the Parachute Regiment, that became affectionately known as the “cherry berry.”
Berets Debut in U.S. Military
The first use of the modern beret in the U.S. military was in 1943 when an Army battalion of the 509th Parachute Infantry was given maroon berets by their British counterparts for their service in the war. Though it never stuck, the use of the beret started out as a headgear that designated a special service of the military member and it still continues to have that same designation -- somewhat.
The first widespread use of the headgear by U.S. forces came a few decades later, when a new Army Special Forces unit was developed. They became the special organization that was trained for insurgency and counter-guerrilla warfare and began (unofficially) wearing a green variety in 1953. It took another eight years for the Army’s Special Forces — the “Green Berets” — to win presidential approval from John F. Kennedy to make their headgear official, and in 1961 the green beret of the US Army Special Forces was formally adopted.
In the 1970s, Army policy allowed local commanders to encourage morale-enhancing uniform distinctions, and the use of berets boomed. Armor personnel at Fort Knox, Ky., wore the traditional British black beret, while U.S. armored cavalry regiments in Germany wore the black beret with a red and white oval.
Troops of the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C., started wearing the maroon beret in 1973, while at Fort Campbell, KY, the trend exploded -- with post personnel wearing red, military police donning light green, and the 101st Airborne Division taking light blue as their color. At Ft. Richardson, AK, the 172nd Infantry Brigade began using an olive green beret.
In 1975, the Airborne Rangers got approval from the Army Chief of Staff to use the black beret as their official headgear.
Over the next few years, the whole thing got out of hand, so in 1979 senior Army officials "put on the brakes." Army leadership allowed the Rangers to keep their black berets. In 1980, airborne troops were allowed to continue wearing the maroon version. But all other beret varieties were declared off-limits.
Air Force Berets
The use of berets in the Air Force began in the 1970s. In 1979, enlisted personnel in the Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) AFSC (job) were authorized to wear the black beret. In 1984, two airmen from Pope Air Force Base, North Carolina submitted a design for the flash and crest design, which was approved for all TACP airman in 1985. Air Liaison Officers (ALOs) were also authorized to wear the black beret after they graduated from the Joint Firepower Control Course, conducted at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. Instead of the crest, they wear their rank insignia on the beret. Air Mobility Liaison Officers (AMLOs) were authorized to wear the black beret in the Air Force, as well. Now, every Air Force Battlefield Airmen (AF Special Ops) were a beret to signify their job.
These days, the United States is on the low end of the spectrum among NATO allies in terms of the variety of berets worn by their military forces.
While most countries have four or five colors authorized for various military segments, Turkey, Greece, and Luxembourg have authorized only three colors for various segments of their forces. Belgium has seven and the United Kingdom has the most variation with nine.
On Oct. 17, 2001, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki announced that the black beret would become standard Army headgear in the following year. The rationale was to use the sense of pride that the beret had long represented to the Rangers to foster an attitude of excellence among the entire Army as it moved forward with its sweeping transformation effort to a lighter, more deployable, more agile force. This decision, however, set off a firestorm in both the active-duty and veteran Ranger community as well as in the Army’s other two special operations camps, the Special Forces and the airborne.
In 2002, the Army made the tan-color beret the official beret of the U.S. Army Rangers, and all Army soldiers began wearing the black beret.
In June 2011, Army Secretary John McHugh announced that the traditional patrol cap was to be worn with the utility uniform. However, the black beret may be authorized with utility uniforms at a commander's discretion for special ceremonies, and the beret remains part of the Army's dress uniform for all units.
Current Army Berets
- Black - Worn by all other Army troops with Class A uniform and Army Service Uniform as standard headgear.
- Maroon - Airborne-designated units (the maroon beret is an organizational item, so it is worn by all assigned soldiers, airborne-qualified or not)
- Tan "Buckskin" - 75th Ranger Regiment, Ranger Training Brigade (Light infantry)
- Green - Special Forces Groups, John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School (Commando, officer)
Current Air Force Berets
- Black - Tactical Air Control Party (TACP), Air Liaison Officers (ALO), and Air Mobility Liaison Officers (AMLO)
- Maroon - Combat Rescue Officers and Pararescuemen (PJs)
- Red (scarlet) - Combat Controllers & Special Tactics Officers
- Royal Blue - Security Forces and United States Air Force Academy First-Class Cadets & Basic Cadet Training cadre
- Grey - Special Operations Weather Technician
- Green - Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) Specialists