Evolution of the Eagle Scout award

The highest rank a Scouts BSA member can achieve began as a sort of “super merit badge” for Scouts who earned 21 other merit badges, five of them required.


Say “Eagle Scout” and the mind’s eye instantly sees a youth who exemplifies being trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, and all those other good things in the Scout Law. Eagle Scouts are such well-known symbols of Scouting’s finest that it’s hard to believe they haven’t always been around.

In fact, in the beginning of the Boy Scouts of America, the Eagle Scout Award did not exist. Wolf Scout was the highest award, based on the Silver Wolf award in the advancement plan of Robert S. S. Baden-Powell, the British founder of worldwide Scouting.

No Wolf Scout badge was ever given out, though, because the BSA’s founding fathers had second thoughts about a wolf as top dog among Scouts. Several leaders who previewed the first proof copies of the 1911 Handbook for Boys asked: “Why a wolf? Why not an American eagle?”

Why not indeed? So the highest merit badge became an Eagle. Yes, you read that right—the Eagle Scout Award was born as a merit badge, albeit the top merit badge, representing “the all-round perfect Scout.”

The award was given to any First Class Scout who earned 21 other merit badges, including First Aid, Athletics, Lifesaving, Personal Health, and Public Health. (En route to Eagle, the Scout received the Life Scout badge after earning the five merit badges required for Eagle and the Star Scout badge for five more. In 1924, the Life-Star order was reversed, presumably because the five-pointed Star could be associated with the five merit badges required to earn it.)

The first Eagle badge was awarded to Arthur R. Eldred, a 17-year-old member of Troop 1 in Oceanside, Long Island, N.Y., on Labor Day 1912, more than a year and a half after the BSA’s birth.

Eldred had undergone what was arguably the most rigorous board of review in Scouting history. His work was reviewed by the BSA’s three top leaders—Chief Scout Executive James E. West, Chief Scout Ernest Thompson Seton, and National Scout Commissioner Daniel Carter Beard.

By the end of 1912, 22 more Scouts had earned the Eagle Scout Award. And seven decades later, in 1982, 13-year-old Alexander Holsinger, of Normal, Ill., was recognized as the one millionth Eagle Scout. To date, more than one and a half million Scouts have achieved Scouting’s highest rank.

Over time, many changes have been made in the merit badges required for Eagle. From the original five, only First Aid and Lifesaving are among the 12 specific merit badges that must be earned today (and candidates have the option of earning Emergency Preparedness instead of Lifesaving).

The most significant change, however, is this requirement: “While a Life Scout, plan, develop, and give leadership to others in a service project helpful to any religious institution, any school, or your community.”

The consideration of a Scout’s “record of satisfactory service” with his troop was first added to the Eagle requirements in 1927. In 1952, this was changed to a vague statement to “do your best to help in your home, school, church or synagogue, and community.” A more specific “plan, develop, and carry out a service project” was added in 1965, and in 1972, the additional stipulation “give leadership to others” was included.

The service project requirement has been the bane of many a Life Scout ever since. It has also undoubtedly been an important factor in raising the public’s perception of not only an individual Scout who is showing leadership in community service but of the Scouting movement as a whole.

Even before the service project requirement was added, a young man who had earned Eagle was widely recognized as someone special. Most people assumed that he would live up to high principles, have leadership skills, show initiative, and be at home outdoors.

Any résumé listing Eagle Scout among an applicant’s accomplishments often went to the top of the pile in college admissions offices, job applications, and military schools.

The first BSA Scout manual, the Handbook for Boys, published in 1911, showed a drawing of a medal with an eagle in flight on a ribbon as the award for an Eagle Scout. But when Arthur R. Eldred received the very first Eagle Scout badge on Labor Day 1912, it was quite similar to today’s medal, although the bird was rather scrawny and poorly finished.

In 1923, an Eagle Scout could wear a cloth patch on his uniform shirt’s left pocket, a miniature medal for his Smoky Bear hat, and an Eagle Scout ring, as well as an Eagle medal.

In 1927 Eagle palms were authorized for Eagle Scouts who continued to earn merit badges—a bronze palm for five more badges, gold for 10, and silver for 15.


  1. My father,now deceased,was a Scout.Will you let me know if he earned his Eagle Star Merit Badge.His name is James E Shupe.He was born in Cleveland ,Ohio on June 25,1923.His scout years were spent in Southern California.He live for a period of his life on Hamil Street in West L.A…I believe he also lived on Harvard Boulevard for a while…………Thanks

  2. It is my understanding that the Life-Star order was reversed, because by the time many Scouts had finally earned their 5th of 5 required merit badges, they already had at least 5 more non-required badges. So a good number of Scouts never got to be a Life Scout before instantly becoming a Star Scout. So since any given Scout was probably more likely to earn 5 non-required merit badges before they completed all 5 required merit badges, they simply switched the two. And since the 5 required merit badges are all health-related, that is why the Life rank is a heart.

  3. i dont think boy shouldnt become eagle scout young age 13 . i think boy should become eagle at 16 years old. a boy 13 years dosent no meaning life or he going in life yet

    • The young man who has completed all the requirements for Eagle should be given the award he has earned. I made Eagle in exactly 2 years and 4 days. I may not have been as mature as some of the Star or Life scouts in the troop by physical age but the fact that I had earned the rank of Eagle made me much more mature in other ways.
      Who is ready for life? Someone 13? 15? 16?17? 18? The fact is most of us are not prepared for life. The Eagle award recognizes commitment in the application of the Scout Law and the skills appropriate to someone of that rank. Based on that learning and achievement have made that young man more prepared to enter the difficulties sure to come up in LIFE.

      • I agree; and 2 yrs 4 days? THAT sir, is dedication! Made Life myself under the 1957 handbook which was completely re-done (and troops reorganized) in 1973-74 which went over like lead baloon as the handbook again re-written in 1978 from what I heard.

        But regarding one’s maturity vs chronological age; let us not forget that medical science has shown we don’t fully ‘mature’ until our mid 20’s… I’ve known 14, 15 year olds who were way more mature than some men in their 30’s and 40’s.

    • In March 2015, my son was awarded his Eagle rank two weeks after his 14th birthday. Since then, he has earned five Eagle Palms (under the ‘old requirements’ pre-Aug 2017), and is well on his way to earning his sixth Eagle Palm). YES – he is very active in Scouting. He’s held numerous leadership positions at his troop, OA Chapter, OA Lodge and OA Section level. He attended NOAC 2015 and 2017 NSJ. He completed NYLT training and is scheduled for NLS this fall and NAYLE next summer. He’s also a member of a Venturing Crew. He will be a junior this year at a well-respected college preparatory high school, where he will serve his second year as a high school ambassador and student government officer. Both of these elected positions are decided upon by faculty and administration… they are not popularity contests. He also completed his mandatory service project this summer (with more than double the required community service hours working with marginalized youth as a volunteer/unpaid, summer camp counselor), completing this project more than one year ahead the senior year deadline. He’s also active in our church and local community, and a VFW Scout of the Year at the post, district and department levels.

      This is not a ‘humblebrag’, but a friendly request for adults NOT to judge our youth by their age. Give them the encouragement, love and support to help launch them into the amazing young adults we trust they will be…. and watch them soar! I’m glad I did

    • I agree with your comment. I’ve thought the same thing. I don’t think that by the age of 13 they have the maturity to be a good leader in the troop in a position such as senior patrol leader. They also need more time to experience all that Scouting has to offer, but I know that there are circumstances where they might need to finish it earlier. I got my Eagle at 16. I have two sons who also got their Eagle Scout award. I’m more proud of them and what they did to get Eagle than anything that I did. They still carry the Oath and Law in their heart every day.

    • “Smokey the Bear” was an mid 20th century nick name for this style of hat. The original BSA hat WAS the “Smokey the Bear” style!

  4. 1. The current count of Eagles is well over 2 million. 2. Some of the rest of the history presented here is not quite right either. Why don’t you contact Terry Grove and get him to write you a proper article?

  5. Not exactly accurate on the early Eagle requirements.
    Star, Life, and Eagle were not interconnected in their requirements. Arthur Eldred earned the Eagle without ever earning Life.
    Eagle had no required merit badges. Life had specific required merit badges, but since Life itself was not required to be an Eagle, there were no Eagle required merit badges. The requirement was simply to earn a certain number of merit badges.

  6. BSA youth ranks Scout – Eagle have NO age requirements on purpose. the program is scout driven, and a scout wishing to dedicate more time should be allowed to progress at his or hers own schedule. some requirements do impose time duration, e.g., 90 days for Fitness, 6 months of leadership for Eagle, so it is possible to fully complete all requirements in under 2 yrs. i have put in 10+ yrs as Eagle advisor and my simple advice to the young(er) scout completing Eagle at 12-15yrs is not much different than the older scout. Are they enjoying their scouting experience and what have they given back to scouting along their trail. the entire program is one of group supported learning much in an outdoor venue with a goal of fostering leadership. in my opinion, the hardest Eagle requirement is ‘leadership’. i completed my Eagle in 2yrs and 5 months, in the 60’s, the last 5 months were imposed by the Council Eagle Board of Review (because i was too young) to today i remember that injustice, and fight for their right to set their schedule not the troops, not their parents, … how many scouts have you seen drop out because of such NON-BSA behavior (e.g., no driving until you are Eagle, no cell phone until you are 1st class, … . as mentioned before me, maturity is not an age specific thing. youth grow at different rates, its our job as leaders to not stifle good growth but to help it flourish. a nicely assembled history of the Eagle Rank can be found at https://www.troop97.net/bsaeagle.htm
    people who impose their own requirements, especially age, to the Trail to Eagle process should be removed as BSA leaders as they clearly do not understand the fundamentals of Scouting, nor its practice as it has evolved over the past 109 yrs. it is our privilege as adult leaders to foster a rich scouting experience to all youth, and as they complete ranks, engage them fully in this leadership apprenticeship, especially after they complete Eagle. i know the average age completing Eagle is 17, and my guess is the 97th percentile is greater than 15 (scouting magazine 2018)

  7. Can we see a more in depth history of the Eagle Rank? I thought the rank was not even a rank for a while?
    Under Baden Powel and in US Scouting have the ranks always been the same in the same order?

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