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FBI Heritage

FBI Heritage
The Origins of the Special Agent Title

The title of special agent has been used in the Department of Justice since 1872, when Congress appropriated funds for “the detection and prosecution of crimes.” Using these funds, Attorney General George Williams appointed an agent in the Department to conduct “special” investigations on his behalf. Other government law enforcement agencies may have occasionally used a similar title, but apparently none used it for an extended period of time.

By 1879, the Department of Justice title was changed to general agent, a supervisory role (this position was abolished in 1907). In 1894, a new special agent position was created under the general agent, investigating violations of the Indian Intercourse Act regulating trade with reservations. Secret Service personnel who were borrowed on a case-by-case basis handled the bulk of Justice Department investigations between 1879 and 1908.

In 1907, the year before the Bureau of Investigation (the FBI’s precursor) was created, there were three special agents in the Justice Department: one investigated antitrust matters, one handled investigations related to the government’s defense of suits before the Spanish Treaty Claims Commission, and one continued to handle Indian Intercourse Act violations.

In 1908 when Attorney General Charles Bonaparte reorganized the Department’s investigators into a “special agent force,” he hired nine Treasury investigators as special agents and put them together with 13 peonage investigators and 12 bank examiners. Whether all or some of the peonage investigators were called special agents is not known. The bank examiners were accountants and were originally called “special examiners.” A distinction immediately arose between special agents and special examiners. This distinction existed into the 1930s, when it was decided that all investigative agents—agents and accountants—were to be called special agents.

Evolution of the FBI Badge
FBI Badge 1908 FBI Badge 1927
1908 1927
FBI Badge 1927 FBI Badge 1935
1934 1935

The first badge of the Bureau of Investigation was issued in 1909, shortly after the organization was given its first name. By 1913, there were 219 agents carrying this badge.

Shortly after J. Edgar Hoover was named Director of the Bureau in 1924, discussions began on adopting a new special agent badge. Many designs were considered. The pattern ultimately selected featured a miniature shield crested by an eagle. This badge was issued in May 1927. These first shield badges were slightly smaller than the present-day badge and had a flat facial surface.

The Bureau’s name was changed to the Division of Investigation by the end of 1933, and momentum for a new badge design grew. At a national conference in Washington, D.C., special agents voted unanimously to retain the same style of badge but to have its size increased and to cast it with a slight curvature. The badges modeled in this fashion were first created in April 1934, but were in use for less than two years before changing a final time.

The design of today’s FBI badge was adopted in 1935, when the organization was renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The new badges were first manufactured by the Robbins Company of Attleboro, Massachusetts and were numbered from one to 1,000. Some of these original numbered badges may still be in use today, as they have been returned by retiring agents and reissued to incoming agents.