Gefreiter (abbr. Gefr.) is a German, Swiss and Austrian military rank that has existed since the 16th century. It is usually the second rank or grade to which an enlisted soldier, airman or sailor could be promoted. Within the combined NATO rank scale, the modern-day rank of Gefreiter is usually equivalent to the NATO-standard rank scale OR-2. The word has also been lent into the Russian language, and is in use in several Russian and post-Soviet militaries.
Historically the military rank of Gefreiter (also Gefreite) emerged in 16th-century Europe for the German Landsknechte foot soldiers, predominantly made up of German and Swiss mercenary pikemen and supporting infantry foot soldiers. Those soldiers who proved especially reliable and experienced were appointed to gefreyten Knechten (exempted Servants/Soldiers; a cognate to 'knight') and were installed in critical battlefield positions, among their extra rank privileges they were exempted in general from guard watch duties.
From the 18th century, Gefreiters were the first line members of a military company, and every Gefreiter led and commanded a section or squad of Gemeine (ordinary-rank soldiers), the rank existed in the cavalry, infantry, pioneers, and artillery where the Gefreiter rank received a greater rank-class status. Gefreiter was the only enlisted rank up until 1918 within the Royal Prussian Army and respectively the imperial army of the German Empire to which an exceptional enlisted soldier could be promoted on the recommendation of the Hauptmann (Captain) or Rittmeister (Cavalry-Master otherwise Captain) and ultimately endorsed by the Regiments-Commandeur (Regimental Colonel), with exception of the rank Obergefreiter (since 1859) in the foot artillery which later replaced the artillery Bombardier (Corporal) rank. The Gefreiter rank was also considered a transition rank for promotion to and wherefrom replacements were selected to the Unteroffizier (Corporal) rank. Within the Royal Prussian Army and respectively the imperial army of the German Empire, the rank Gefreiter was a deputy to the Unteroffizier (Corporal), and were distinguished by the wearing of a Auszeichnungsknopf (rank Distinction-button) known as the Gefreitenknopf (Gefreiter-button) on each side of their uniform collar, similar to the slightly larger rank collar side-buttons worn by both the Sergeant and Feldwebel ranks.
In the Royal Prussian Army up until its reorganization after 1806, there existed along with Gefreiter the rank of Gefreite-Korporale who wore a silver Portepee (sword lanyard) and were officer cadets specifically selected for higher advancement, they stood equal with their officer cadet counterpart the Portepee-Fähnriche. The Gefreite-Korporale was a rank that also existed along with Gefreiter in the Austrian Army during the Thirty Years' War.
From the 1920s the German rank of Gefreiter has expanded into several additional ranks and duties, those being Obergefreiter (Senior Lance Corporal otherwise Second Corporal; Prussian Army since 1859), Hauptgefreiter (Leading Lance Corporal; Luftwaffe during 1935-1944, Kriegsmarine during 1938-1945, Heer from 1955), Stabsgefreiter (Staff Lance Corporal; Reichswehr since 1927. Kriegsmarine up until 1945. Luftwaffe from 1944 temporarily replacing Hauptgefreiter rank) and Oberstabsgefreiter (Senior Staff Lance Corporal; Kriegsmarine since 1940. Not Heer or Luftwaffe until 1996). All Gefreiter ranks are now in use with the German Army, Airforce and Navy.
Throughout the periods of the Royal Prussian Army, imperial army of the German Empire, Reichswehr and the German Wehrmacht, the rank of Gefreiter was considered in English the equivalent to a British Army Lance Corporal rank, with Obergefreiter as Senior Lance Corporal or rather Second Corporal in the Artillery, and a full Corporal rank known as Unteroffizier (Subordinate Non-Commissioned Officer) which replaced the Korporal rank from 1856. Within the army branch of the German Wehrmacht, a rank of Oberschütze (Senior Rifleman) once existed between the ranks of Gefreiter and Schütze/Soldat ("[enlisted] Ordinary-rank rifleman/soldier"). In modern times the Unteroffizier rank is now considered in English the equivalent to a Sergeant and less a Corporal rank, under the NATO rank scale OR-5.
In the modern day Federal Defence Forces of Germany (Bundeswehr), almost every enlisted soldier, airman or sailor under normal rank advancement conditions may be promoted after their primary recruit training (usually after three or six months depending on the service unit) to the rank of Gefreiter. Following the NATO ranking system, Gefreiter now equates to OR-2 on the NATO-standard rank scale, thus making the rank equivalent to either private, private first class, vice corporal or corporal rank depending on the chosen NATO-allied force used for the comparison.
See Swiss army ranks.
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Efreitor in Russia and the post-Soviet states
In Russia, the rank of Efreitor was introduced by Peter I in 1716 in infantry, cavalry and engineer forces. However, the rank wasn't used after 1722. During the reign of Paul I it was made an equivalent rank to Private senior salary, which after the reign of Alexander I was used only for the Imperial Guard. Efreitor was re-introduced in the course of the military reform of 1826.
In independent Ukraine this rank was changed to "Senior soldier".
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- Ranks of the Imperial German Army
- World War II German Army ranks and insignia
- Rank insignia of the German armed forces
- Ranks and insignia of NATO armies enlisted
- Lance Corporal
- Second Corporal
- Private (rank)
- Duden; Definition of Gefreiter, in German. 
- Official Website (Bundeswehr): Dienstgrade und Uniformen der Bundeswehr (Service Ranks and Uniforms of the German Federal Defence Forces), in German. 
- Official Website (Bundeswehr): Uniformen der Bundeswehr (Uniforms of the German Federal Defence Forces); shows service ranks of the Luftwaffe (page 15-17), Heer (page 09-13) and Navy (page 19-21), in German. 
- Duden; Alternative Spelling and Definition of Gefreite, in German. 
- Duden; Origin and meaning of "Landsknecht", in German. 
- "Gefreiter" - Allgemeine Encyclopädie der Wissenschaften und Künste, Erste Section, A-G, (Universal Encyclopaedia of the Sciences and Arts, First Section, A-G), Author: Johann Samuel Ersch and Johann Gottfried Gruber, Publisher: F. A. Brockhaus, Leipzig, 1852, Page 471-472, in German. 
- Corpus Juris Militaris Des Heiliges Römisches Reich (Military Law of the Holy Roman Empire), Volume 2, Author: Johann Christian Lünig, Leipzig, 1723, in German.
- The Landsknechts, Author: Douglas Miller, Publisher: Osprey Publishing, Great Britain, 1976, ISBN 0850452589.
- Landsknecht Soldier 1486-1560, Author: John Richards, Publisher: Osprey Publishing, Great Britain, 2002, ISBN 1841762431.
- Lutz Mackensen. Vom Ursprung der Wörter. Etymologisches Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache.
- Duden; Origin and meaning of "Gemeine", in German. 
- Duden; Origin and meaning of "Korporal", in German.