Tabs in the U.S. Army: Sapper, Airborne and Ranger / Special Forces explained

New 75th Ranger Regiment Recruitment Video
New 75th Ranger Regiment Recruitment Video (Photo: YouTube/Still)

Tabs in the U.S. Army are awarded permanently for individual skills. There are four permanent individual skill/marksmanship tabs authorized for wear by the U.S. Army, but only three may be worn at one time:

  • President’s Hundred Tab
  • the Special Forces Tab
  • the Ranger Tab
  • the Sapper Tab

The Airborne Tab is quite a different tab. Sometimes, even it is very rare; you may see the soldiers or enlisted officers brandishing all three tabs, Sapper Tab, Airborne Tab, and Ranger/Special Forces Tab. It is possible to get all of them, but as I said, it’s not so usual.

How do you get the Ranger Tab?

First, the Ranger and Sapper tabs are regularly awarded for completion of the respective schools that award them upon training completion. A soldier or operator who meets the minimum requirements can attend Sapper School and Ranger School, and anybody who completes both schools (courses) will have both tabs. The completion guarantees you the right to wear those patches and badges on your shoulder.

Ranger School

The Ranger Course is 62 days long. It is physically demanding. To be selected to attend the Ranger School, you have to complete the pre-Ranger course and be chosen. The course is intended to improve small unit tactics and leadership. It also develops functional skills related to units whose mission is to engage the enemy in close combat and direct-fire battles.

The course was established in 1950, and since then, it has been held at Fort Benning, Georgia. Since then, the Ranger course has little changed. It now lasts 61 days in duration, and it is divided into three phases: Benning Phase, Mountain Phase, and Swamp Phase.

Upon graduation, the candidate gets its Ranger tab.

Tabs in the U.S. Army: What does a Ranger tab mean?
The Ranger Tab is a qualification tab authorized upon completion of the U.S. Army’s Ranger School by a U.S. military, civilian personnel, or non-U.S. military personnel. It is one of the four tabs in the U.S. Army (Photo: U.S. Army)

Ranger Scroll

You might be confusing a Ranger “Tab” with a “Scroll.” The Ranger Tab (the black and gold, or subdued, an arch that says RANGER on it) is what you get for graduating from the Ranger School. The Ranger Scrolls are the “Unit Patches” that only members of the 75th Ranger Regiment wear. Rangers with duty in the 75th Ranger Regiment are special operations.

You see a lot of Ranger Regiment members with the Ranger tab worn above the Ranger Scroll. If you ask a Ranger regiment guy, they will often say, “the tab is just a school; the scroll is a way of life.”

What is the Ranger Scroll?
Ranger Scroll is worn by those assigned to the Ranger Regiment. It is a patch that resembles a scroll. (Photo: U.S. Army)

How do you get the Sapper Tab?

The Ranger tab is widely known, but the Sapper tab (introduced in 2004) is awarded to a service member who may or may not hold the military occupation specialty code (MOS) designation as a Combat Engineer (Sapper), but must have graduated from the Sapper Leader Course (SLC), that the U.S. Army Engineer School at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, operates.

The Sapper Leader Course is organized in the form of a 28-day training divided into two phases and designed to train joint-service leaders in small unit tactics, leadership skills, and tactics required to perform as part of a combined arms team. It is open to enlisted soldiers from E-4 and above to cadets and officers O-3 and below. Students may come from any combat or combat support branch but priority is given to engineering, cavalry, and infantry soldiers.

Tabs in the U.S. Army: How do you get the Sapper tab?
The Sapper Tab is a qualification tab authorized for graduates of the U.S. Army’s Sapper School. (Photo: X.Y.)

Phase I

The first phase is reserved for general subjects, including medical, land navigation, demolitions, air and water operations, mountaineering,  landmines, and weapons used by enemy forces. It lasts 14 days, and after that, candidates shift to the next phase.

Phase II

In the next phase, they learn basic patrolling techniques and battle drills that emphasize leadership. The subjects include urban operations, breaching, patrol organization and movement, and reconnaissance, raid, and ambush tactics. It lasts for 14 days and concludes with a three-day situation training exercise and a five-day field training exercise. During this phase, every event is graded and scored. To graduate, a sapper must earn 700 out of 1000 points to wear the sapper tab.

How do you get the Airborne Tab?

The Airborne tab looks similar to the above two tabs but is part of the unit insignia of the various Airborne units of the U.S. Army. Any soldier assigned to one of the units thus designated will have that tab, whether or not they have completed the Basic Airborne Course and have been awarded a Parachutist Badge.

Unlike the previous two tabs, the Airborne tab cannot be earned. It’s a part of the unit insignia of an Airborne designated unit, except, of course, the 101st Airborne Division. They are only Air Assault (AAS) but probably retain the tab due to their lineage and history. Soldiers assigned to an Airborne unit wear the tab on the left sleeve, above the unit patch, but below any earned tab, such as Ranger, Sapper, or Special Forces.

How do you get the Airborne tab?
The Airborne Tab isn’t precisely “earned.” It is part of the patch for the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, XVIII Airborne Corps, and all U.S. Army Special Operations Command units.

When the soldier departs the unit, the tab is removed. The soldier may continue to where the Airborne designated unit patch on his right sleeve if he serves an unaccredited combat tour with that unit, in which case, he retains it permanently. In short, it is NOT an award and can even be worn by non-Airborne personnel assigned to the Airborne designated unit (even though they are dirty, nasty “legs”).

How do you get the Special Forces Tab?

Like the Rangers Tab, the Special Forces Tab is earned through a Special Forces Qualification Course held at the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The course lasts from 12 months to 18 months.

Soldiers who are awarded the Special Forces Tab are authorized to wear it and the green beret for the remainder of their military careers, even when not serving in a Special Forces command. Because it is longer than the other qualification tabs, it is called the “Long Tab.” Personnel who have earned it are nicknamed “Long Tabbers.”

How do you get the Special Forces tab?
Special Forces tab is awarded to the soldiers who completed the Special Forces Qualification Course (Photo: U.S. Army)

Three tabs example

Any soldier who has earned the Ranger tab or Special Forces Tab and Sapper tab and is also assigned to an Airborne unit will have all three tabs. Possible. Or even have a possibility to wear also Parachutist Badge if he completes the Basic Airborne Course.

The best example of the soldier who has earned all those tabs is the SSGT Robert Miller from the 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne). His citations show a CIB, parachutist badge, Medal of Honor, ASF, and ranger tab.

SSGT Miller awards and citations
Staff Sergeant Miller’s decorations (Photo: U.S. Army)
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