Components of a Militia
A hierarchy of classes.

When asked what the Militia was, George Mason, one of the Framers of the U.S. Constitution, said, "Who are the Militia? They consist now of the whole people, except for a few public officers." Yet we also see statutes like 10 USC 311, which defines it as "all able-bodied males at least 17 years of age and, except as provided in section 13 of title 32, under 45 years of age who are, or have made a declaration of intention to become, citizens of the United States." Some state statutes define it as "able-bodied males" of different age ranges, such as 16 through 59.
These statutes also divide the Militia into various classes, such as "organized" or "unorganized", in the case of 10 USC 311, or "active" and "reserve", as many states do, with "active" being considered the National or State Guards, but not the national armed forces.

To understand how these definitions have arisen, one must first understand what the Framers of the U.S. Constitution had in mind for the new Republic they had created. They allowed for a standing national army, but insisted that it be kept small, and although it might be the first force to be called out, and the only force to be sent abroad, the primary defense of the country was to be the duty of ordinary citizens, who would be kept in a state of military readiness while leading their normal lives, and who would be called up to "repel invasions, suppress insurrections, or execute the laws", for limited periods of time. At the time the Constitution was adopted in 1789, the well-established tradition was for local militia units to be kept in a state of readiness in each and every community. Such units were organized and trained locally, perhaps led by the local town or county officials, but otherwise independent of official control when not actually called up for service.
When lawmakers tried to define the "militia" by statute to consist of less than the entire body of citizens, they were defining those citizens who would be required to be kept in a state of readiness, as was done in the Militia Act of 1792, which required able-bodied males age 17 through 44 to keep a "musket or firelock". However, persons younger than 18 and older than 45 regularly responded to call-ups of the Militia and were accepted as part of it. There were even some women who participated.
The Framers also insisted on a distinction between the "genuine" Militia and a "select" militia, which they viewed as a danger, just as much a danger as a standing army. They did not want a militia whose members might consist of anything less than the entire people, or at least able-bodied ones in a certain age range, because if selected on any other basis, they might be used to oppress other parts of the population. Actually, George Mason provided the best definition. It only needs to be broken out into various classes, representing the order in which persons would be called out for military service. Qualifications like "able-bodied" or "male" or "age 18-44" only establish who would be first called to service, with the expectation that they would be adequate for almost any situation, but it allows for calling up other persons if needed.

This suggests a hierarchy of classes:

1. National Army.

  • Full-time. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard.
  • Part-time. Reserves, National Guard.
  • 2. State and Local Select Militia. But these are not "general" militias. They are paid and equipped by the State or by local governments.

  • Full-time. State and local law enforcement officers.
  • Part-time. State Guard.
  • 3. Obligatory Militia. Able-bodied male citizens of a certain age range, who are required to be kept organized and trained, but at their own expense. Age range is 18-44 for federal purposes, but states may establish other age ranges.

    4. Volunteer Militia. Citizens not part of obligatory militia who voluntarily participate in activities of the obligatory militia, again at their own expense.

    5. Ready Militia. The combination of (3) and (4) above, who would be called up after the armed forces and the regular militia, but who are also those likely to be first on the scene in emergency situations. It is not a "select" militia.

    6. Reserve Militia. All other citizens, including children, the elderly, the less-able, and women, and perhaps foreign visitors as well, who might be called up after the ready militia, if needed.

    What is missing from the current picture is the ready militia.
    Most states now lump it in with what we are here calling the reserve militia, and in fact often call it that. The ready militia is what the Framers meant when they used the term "militia". It is also what the Swiss mean by the term, and it was the Swiss model that the Framers had in mind for the United States. The ready militia was to serve as a counterbalance to the armed forces and regular state (select) militias.
    It should be noted that the obligatory militia is usually defined to exempt certain public officials, and perhaps persons with certain occupations, whose usual duties are considered essential. Choice of words can be indicative. 10 USC 311 lumps the ready and reserve militias into what it calls the "unorganized" militia, with the implication that it is to remain unorganized, since no provisions for organizing and training the ready militia are given, contrary to the intent of the Framers.