Tabs of the United States Army: Sapper, Airborne and Ranger / Special Forces explained

Author: Eric Sof

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Tabs of the United States Army refer to the cloth and/or metal arches used to display a word or words signifying a special skill worn on U.S. Army uniforms. Those tabs are used to identify a unit’s or a soldier’s special skill(s) or are worn as part of a unit’s unique heritage. Individual tabs are also worn as small metal arches above or below medals or ribbons on dress uniforms.

Individual tabs

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

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

Sometimes, 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. You have to complete the pre-Ranger course and be chosen to attend the Ranger School. 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 of the United States 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.”

Tabs of the United States Army: 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 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 of the United States Army: How do you get the Sapper tab?
The Sapper Tab is a qualification tab authorized for the U.S. Army’s Sapper School graduates. (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 candidates then shift to the next phase.

Phase II

They learn basic patrolling techniques and battle drills that emphasize leadership in the next phase. 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. A sapper must earn 700 out of 1000 points to wear the sapper tab to graduate.

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.

Tabs of the United States Army: 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 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 Parachutist Badge if he completes the Basic Airborne Course.

The best example of a 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)

Other Tabs

Among the tabs mentioned above, some other tabs are not in use or are earned with specific award regulations:

  • Jungle Tab
  • Arctic Tab
  • Governor’s Twenty
  • Ranger Challenge (Army ROTC)

Several tabs are widely worn unofficially by members of the US Army. Often these tabs are worn on the underside of pocket flaps so as not to violate uniform regulations. Such tabs also appear on stickers, shirts, hats, etc. These include tabs containing the words “SNIPER,” “AIR ASSAULT,” “FISTER,” “SCOUT,” and “RECON.” The “SAPPER” tab was an unofficial tab until 2004, when it became an official army tab.

Jungle and Arctic tabs are no longer in use since the schools awarding them are on standby.

Governor’s Twenty is a tab with specific award regulations. For example, the Governor’s Twenty award regulations vary state by state. A state-level marksmanship tab whose specific award regulations vary state-by-state.

For example, in Texas, the tab is awarded to the top 20 shooters in the state. Each year eight are awarded for rifles, eight are awarded for pistols, two are awarded for Sniper, and two are awarded for Machine guns. Participants compete against all the other soldiers who have already received the award, so in Texas, there might only be one or two new recipients each year. This is not a permanent award; it is earned annually.

Unit Tabs

Despite the individual tabs, there are also unit tabs of the United States Army. So far, the Airborne, Mountain, and Honor Guard are still in use. They are an embroidered patch worn on uniforms of the United States Army that identifies the wearer’s major formation. Unit tabs are an integral part of the Shoulder Sleeve Insignia (SSI) and are never worn separately. Soldiers are only authorized to wear the tab while assigned to the organization that prescribes wearing the SSI with the tab. Those are:

  • Airborne
  • Mountain
  • Honor Guard
  • Advisor
  • SETAF
  • Band
  • Combined Division
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