The Unified Soil Classification System is based on the airfield classification system developed by A. Casagrande during World War II. With some modification it was jointly adopted by several U.S. government agencies in 1952. Additional refinements were made and it is currently standardized as ASTM D 2487-93. It is used in the U.S. and much of the world for geotechnical work other than roads and highways.

In the unified system soils are designated by a two-letter symbol: the first identifies the primary component of the soil, and the second describes its grain size or plasticity characteristics. For example, a poorly graded sand is designated SP and a low plasticity clay is CL. Five first-letter symbols are used:

G for gravel
S for sand
M for silt
C for clay
O for organic soil

Clean sands and gravels (having less than 5% passing the No. 200 sieve) are given a second letter P if poorly graded or W if well graded. Sands and gravels with more than 12% by weight passing the No. 200 sieve are given a second letter M if the fines are silty or C if fines are clayey.

Sands and gravels having between 5 and 12% are given dual classifications such as SP-SM. Silts, clays, and organic soils are given the second letter H or L to designate high or low plasticity. The specific rules for classification are summarized as follows and described in detail in ASTM D 2487.

Organic soils are distinguished by a dark-brown to black color, an organic odor, and visible fibrous matter. For soils that are not notably organic the first step in classification is to consider the percentage passing the No. 200 sieve.

If less than 50% of the soil passes the No. 200 sieve, the soil is coarse grained, and the first letter will be G or S; if more than 50% passes the No. 200 sieve, the soil is fine grained and the first letter will be M or C.

For coarse-grained soils, the proportions of sand and gravel in the coarse fraction (not the total sample) determine the first letter of the classification symbol. The coarse fraction is that portion of the total sample retained on a No. 200 sieve.

If more than half of the coarse fraction is gravel (retained on the No. 4 sieve), the soil is gravel and the  first letter symbol is G. If more than half of the coarse fraction is sand, the soil is sand and the first letter symbol is S.

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