Ranks of a Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) in the United States Army, Marine Corps and Air Force. The pay grade for these two ranks is E8 for Army and Marine Corps and E7 for the Air Force (there is only a Master Sergeant for the AF, but also a Senior Master Sergeant at E8).

The main difference between First and Master Sergeant, is that the First Sergeant is more "visible", a father figure of sorts. Greater leadership qualities are expected of the FS than the MS, and he ranks slightly higher because of that.

A First Sergeant will command a whole troop unit, hold formations, instruct platoon sergeants, advises the Commander and assists in the training of all enlisted members of his command.

A Master Sergeant does not hold all of these duties, but still acts as the principal NCO at battalion (and sometimes higher) level. He is expected to strive towards goals as hard as the FS, and achieve the same results.

A Master Sergeant's insignia is characterized by 3 bent horizontal stripes (chevrons) and 3 bowed lines underneath (rockers). The First Sergeant's insignia is the same, but is complemented by the outline of a diamond in the middle (device). In the Marine Corps that diamond is instead two crossed rifles.

See also: E7, E8, Rank and Pay Grades of the US Military

In the Marine Corps there is more than a little difference between the Staff Non Commissioned Officer ranks of First Sergeant and Master Sergeant.

When a Gunnery Sergeant (E7) submits his promotion packages he must decide whether he wishes to become a First Sergeant or a Master Sergeant. These two ranks, while the same pay grade, represent two different career paths.

A Master Sergeant is considered an expert in his field. MSgts generally hold section chief billets and are responsible for overseeing training, operations, and maintenance. A Utilities MSgt who has spent his career as an electrician will have a wealth of experience in all manners of military power generation, wiring, generator repair, etc... MSgts become Master Gunnery Sergeants when they are promoted, and remain in their field.

The insignia for a Master Sergeant in the Marine Corps is 3 chevrons, 3 rockers, and crossed rifles in the center.

A First Sergeant holds a company level billet. The company 1Sgt is the company commander's senior enlisted advisor, the highest ranking enlisted man in the company. As DataJunkie states above the 1Sgt holds formations, instructs the platoon sergeants, etc... 1Sgt billets are not specialty specific. An infantry Marine that becomes a 1Sgt may find himself in an Engineer Support Battalion. Leadership is more important for a 1Sgt to possess than any specific technical skills. 1Sgts become Sergeants Major when promoted.

The insignia for a First Sergeant is 3 chevrons, 3 rockers, and a diamond in the center.

It should be noted that Master Sergeants can hold First Sergeant billets, but cannot become First Sergeants. This differs from the Army's rank structure which allows for a lateral move between the two ranks.

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