Raising and Lowering the American Flag

DrillMasterCommentary, Honor Guard, Instructional 10 Comments

JROTC units are tasked with raising and lowering the flag(s) at their school. Honor guard units perform the same tasks from time-to-time. Many create their formation out of what has been handed down by word-of-mouth which can be unfortunate. Each service’s drill and ceremonies manual is not meant to describe the teeniest details of what is listed there, but we can get a good understanding, especially when taking in all of the information.

Just like when a base or first responder honor guard receives a request for a ceremonial element for a performance- you are the ceremonial expert, not the requesting party (Education is Key!). You are the ones who dictate what happens to follow proper protocol based off the Flag Code and your service manual or The Honor Guard Manual. The requesting party may request slight variations to the norm and that may be OK, but you, as the ceremonial element that will provide the performing members, must be well educated in proper procedures.

Going to Half-staff
One of the two halyard bearers attaches the American flag to the clasps, the flag bearer only unfolds the triangle folds, and holds it in his arms. On the first note of music, the two team members on the halyard, briskly raise the flag while the one pulling counts the number of times he’s pulling the flag up. Once at the top, lower the flag half of the number of pulls using the same arm reach. Secure the halyard. All three members look straight forward the whole time. Once the flag leaves the flag bearer’s hands, that individual renders the hand salute. See also The American Flag at Half-Staff.

A ceremony for Raising and Lowering the American Flag.

Two Flags Going Up
Use one team member for each flag. Attach the American and attach the other non-national flag (POW/MIA, state, etc.). Do not raise the flags any higher the the halyard bearer’s head; attach both flags and bunch them in your arms until raised unless you are working with a crank and internal halyard. DO NOT LOOK UP. Follow the technique outlined above. Do not look up, like these Soldiers are doing.

As for having two flags at half-staff on the same pole/halyard, the American and the POW/MIA, for instance, the Flag Code’s guidance is that only for the American flag goes to half on that pole/halyard. Flying another flag underneath it is not appropriate.

Also read: Guidance for Multiple Flags on a Single Pole

Coming From Half-staff
The flag(s) is raised briskly to the top and lowered all the way down slowly and ceremoniously.  While the flag(s) is lowered, the flag bearer(s) renders the hand salute looking straight forward the whole time (do not look up to see if you need to get the flag!). Use your peripheral vision and  glance at the ground to see the flag’s shadow to gauge when it is getting closer. Once the flag comes into your field of vision – looking straight ahead – drop your salute and proceed to the flag to gather it. If lowering two flag, each team member must gather their own flag while the halyard bearer detaches it from the clasps.

Difference Between Staff and Mast
The word, Mast, is a nautical term used by the Marines, Navy and anyone else associated with water. The term, Staff, is used by the Army and Air Force. Color guards use Staffs and flags are flown outside on a Pole, but “Half-pole” sounds silly.

Distance Between Flags
When flying two flags on a single mast and halyard (there are double-halyard masts), to my knowledge, there isn’t any guidance on the distance between flags except for the USAF. The USAF protocol manual states that the bottom flag must attach to the halyard far enough below the American flag so that the American does not touch the lower flag when at rest.

See also: When to Raise and Lower the American Flag | Folding Multiple Flags When Taken Down |

The Procedure

NCOIC/LPO- Noncommissioned Officer-in-Charge/Lead Petty Officer. Your unit may designate these positions as, “Commander,” as in, Color Guard Commander.

You can download a PDF with the following procedures with images here.

Reveille-RetreatThere are four positions for the Retreat detail:

  • Position 1, Team NCOIC/Folder (carries cased folded flag in)
  • Position 2, Halyard (the Catcher/Folder)
  • Position 3, Halyard (carries cased folded flag out)
  • Position 4, the Catcher/Folder

We will use this diagram as a sample setup

The Team can line up abreast (line formation) or in column formation centered on the flagpole on the starting line. When the team halts in front of the flagpole, Positions 2 and 3 should automatically take their places a step to one side of the pole (not centered on the pole!), face to the center and prepare the halyard. During formal Retreat, all members stop on the halt line, execute Parade Rest and wait for the sounding of the bugle call, Retreat. At the first note, the NCOIC calls the team to attention Positions 2 & 3 move to prepare the halyard.

When Positions 2 & 3 have the halyard in hand, they each take the same number of steps to the rear ensuring the excess halyard is now taught between them, parallel with the ground. Begin lowering the flag hand over hand on the first note of the National Anthem or the bugle call To the Colors.



When the halyard is ready, the NCOIC steps up, attaches the flag, and unfolds all triangle folds still holding onto the rest of the folded flag. Once Reveille sounds, raise the flag quickly; when the flag leaves the NCOIC’s arms, assume attention and render the hand salute.

When the flag is at the top, Positions 2 & 3 stand fast holding onto the halyard with both hands (do not salute). When the music has finished, Positions 2 & 3 step to the center and secure the halyard to the pole. The NCOIC steps back into line facing the away to depart.

Raising multiple flags: The NCOIC hooks up the American flag first and only unfolds the triangle folds while keeping hold of the rest of the folded flag. Raise the halyard and hook up the next flag while keeping hold of it. There is no need to raise the halyard so that the American flag is out of reach as long as both flags are properly secured.




As the flag comes down, the Catcher should move only his/her eyes to monitor the position of the flag. The Catcher should drop his/her salute and move to secure the flag only when the Flag is low enough to retrieve. As the flag continues to come down, the Catcher gathers the flag in his/her arms ensuring all the material is secure stopping as each grommet is unhooked. The Catcher keeps hold of the blue field corner in the left hand and the stripe corner in the right hand. This facilitates the handoff to the NCOIC and the others for folding.

Lowering multiple flags: stop lowering at each grommet as each flag is fully gathered and unhooked and then continue lowering. Use separate people to gather each flag. Fold the American first and then the other flag(s). Use the 2-man flag fold method for multiple flags.

Lower the flag slowly and on the last note of the music, the last grommet of the flag should be unhooked from the halyard. Positions 2 & 3 take 3 or 4 steps to their center and Position 3 then secures the halyard to the pole while the Catcher and NCOIC move into position. Both stand fast.



When the halyard is secure, Positions 2 & 3 move into position (if necessary) and the Catcher hands the stripe corner to the NCOIC while Positions 2 & 3  step in with their inside foot to take hold of their respective corners. Positions 2 & 3 then take side steps away from the NCOIC and Catcher to ensuring the flag is tight. The grip on the flag is thumbs up; hands are shoulder width apart.



Folding the Flag

Flag Fold Precedures

For the first horizontal fold, bring the ‘left’ side of the flag (as we are viewing it here in these diagrams) up to half of the top stripe, which is the same as the horizontal line of the stars.



Those on the ‘left’ side, reach down, grasp the folded end of the flag, and bring it up to even with the horizontal top. You can also bring it up to half of the top stripe, but even with the top make a more solid end fold.


Once finished with the second horizontal fold, the ‘left’ side, then reaches down one last time to bring the flag to flat horizontal.


It is essential that the flag remains tight at all times to: 1) keep the flag from dipping, preserving the dignity of the flag; and 2) keep the wind from inflating the flag making it difficult to fold.

Slide1Flat horizontal


Left side to right or, open end to open end; the 2 team members who are folding can either stand still and have the other 2 team members move toward them, or move as they fold.


Continue triangle folds


There aren’t any hard-and-fast rules about where the flag lands when it hits the canton (blue field). If the point if within the first 2 stars, it will be easier to tuck.


The last fold


Make this fold to achieve the best tuck


After it is tucked, the Catcher can take hold of the flag, ready to march out with it


A more detailed view of the last partial fold


The flag should end up looking somewhat like this. This is commonly called a “1-3, 2-4.” You may even end up with a 1-3-5 on one side.


Marching in Single File

As a variation, the team can march in single file to and from the flagpole.  In order to accomplish this, the NCOIC takes one step forward and in front of Position 2, marching towards the center of the team. On the NCOICs next left step, Position 2 then moves directly behind the NCOIC. On Position 2’s next left step, Position 3 moves directly behind, followed by the Catcher on Position 3’s next left step.

To halt abreast, the NCOIC takes two steps slightly angled toward the right halting on a predetermined halt line. Position 2 halts two steps later abreast of and 4 inches away from the NCOICs left arm. The other members follow in suit.

All images and text ©The DrillMaster 2014

Let’s take a look at what the service manuals say:

Honor Guard Rasing-Lowering FlagAFI 36-2203 states:

7.25.1. When practical, a detail consisting of an NCO and two airmen hoists the flag.

7.25.2. The detail is formed in line with the NCO carrying the flag in the center. The detail is then marched to the flagstaff and halted, and the flag is attached to the halyards. The flag is always raised and lowered from the leeward [the side toward which the wind is blowing; downwind] side of the flagstaff. The two Airmen attend the halyards, taking a position facing the staff to hoist the flag without entangling the halyards. The NCO continues to hold the flag until it is hoisted clear of the grasp, taking particular care that no portion of the flag touches the ground. When the flag is clear of the grasp, the NCO comes to attention and executes present arms.

7.25.3. On the last note of the music or after the flag has been hoisted to the staff head, all members of
the detail execute order arms on command of the senior member. The halyards are then secured to the cleat of the staff or, if appropriate, the flag is lowered to half-staff and the halyard secured. The detail is formed again and marched to the dismissal area.

DrillMaster Note: The two halyard handlers, once the flag is raised to its final position, would step in with one handler handing off the halyard to the other so that the halyard can be completely secured. Once handed off, the halyard handler would step back and salute. Once the halyard is secured, the other halyard handler would step back and salute. The NCO would then give Order, ARMS and Ready, FACE. The halyard members would then take a step or two forward to be inline with the NCO while the NCO execute an About Face. All would step off either automatically or after the NCO’s command. The team could also be dismissed from there without marching off.

flag detail trainingTC 3-21.5 states:

Execute the following actions when raising the flag.
a. The NCOIC forms the detail in a column of twos at Double Interval between files (Figure K-1, page K-2). He secures the flag from its storage area and positions himself between the files and on line with the last two men. He then marches the detail to the flagpole.

b. The detail is halted in column, facing the flagpole on the downwind side or as appropriate. They are halted so that the flagpole is centered between the halyard pullers. The NCOIC commands POST. On this command, the halyard pullers immediately move to the flagpole and ensure that the halyards are free of the pole. The flag handlers face to the center. The NCOIC then directs UNFOLD THE FLAG. On this directive, the two flag handlers nearest the NCOIC begin to (carefully) unfold the flag lengthwise, passing the freed end to the other handlers. When the two handlers nearest the flagpole have firmly secured the flag, the other handlers move away from the flagpole (as necessary) until the flag is fully extended. The flag is not unfolded width-wise. The flag handlers hold the flag waist high with their forearms horizontal to the ground.

c. At the appropriate time, the NCOIC directs ATTACH THE FLAG. On this directive, all flag handlers take one side step toward the flagpole. The two handlers nearest the flagpole immediately attach the top of the flag to the halyard. The halyard pullers raise the flag until the bottom of the flag can be attached.
NOTE: When raising the larger flags, the NCOIC may command Ready, STEP while the halyard pullers raise the halyard until the lower portion of the flag is attached.

d. At the first note of the music, the reveille gun is fired and the halyard pullers rapidly raise the flag. The NCOIC salutes. As the flag is raised from the handlers’ hands, they face the flagpole and salute. (Reveille is about 20 seconds in duration.) At the last note of the music, the NCOIC commands Order, ARMS for himself and the flag handlers while the pullers secure the halyards. The NCOIC then positions himself between the halyard pullers, executes an About Face, and commands Ready, FACE. The detail will face in the appropriate direction to depart the flag pole. He then marches the detail from the site.

DrillMaster’s Note: Unless it’s a huge flag, three people can easily handle this detail, five is a bit much unless you have more than one flag to raise/attach.

Retreat (Lowering the Flag)

The AFI states:

7.28.1. When practical, the persons lowering the flag should be an NCO and three airmen for the allpurpose flag and an NCO and five airmen for the base flag. The detail is formed and marched to the flagstaff, and the halyards are detached and attended from the leeward side. On the first note of the national anthem or, if no band is present, To the Colors, the members of the detail not lowering the flag execute present arms. The lowering of the flag is coordinated with the playing of the music so the two are completed at the same time. The senior member commands the detail Order, ARMS when the flag is low enough to be received. If at half-staff, the flag is hoisted briskly to the staff head while retreat is sounded, and then it is lowered on the first note of the national anthem or To the Colors.

DrillMaster Note: The senior member commanding Order Arms would work for a really big flag since several people are needed to handle it, but if the flag you are working with is small (around 4′ x 6′), the member designated as the Catcher, can drop his salute when the flag comes into his peripheral vision. The Catcher does not have to look up, just keep calm and wait for the flag. Once the flag is in view, drop the salute and go catch it without jumping or any other sudden, undignified movements- the Catcher has plenty of time. The Catcher gathers the flag into his arms making sure to keep the grommets separated: the grommet on the blue side in the right hand, the other grommet in the tucked with the flag. This way the Catcher can hand off the proper corner for folding.

The TC states:

Execute the following actions when lowering the flag.
a. The detail is marched and positioned at the flagpole in the same manner as when raising the flag. On the command POST, the halyard pullers free the halyards, untangle them, ensure that they are free from the pole, and then temporarily resecure them; the flag handlers do not face to the center. The NCOIC then commands Parade, REST.
b. At the cannon shot or at the last note of “Retreat” (if a cannon is not fired), each halyard puller immediately frees the halyards. The NCOIC commands himself and the flag handlers to ATTENTION and Present, ARMS. At the first note of “To the Color,” the flag is lowered slowly and with dignity.
c. The call, “To the Color,” is approximately 40 seconds in duration. As the flag is lowered to within reach, the two flag handlers farthest away from the flag terminate their Salute, move forward rapidly, secure the flag, and move back from the flagpole between the columns.
(1) As the flag passes each handler, he terminates his Salute and assists in securing the flag. The flag is held palms down, fingers and thumb extended and joined, forearms horizontal. The NCOIC terminates his Salute at the last note of the music.
(2) Once the flag is detached, it is then folded. (See Figure K-2, page K-4, for correct folding techniques.) After securing the halyard, the handlers assist in the folding.
NOTE: When taking steps forward or backward to fold the flag, the members of the detail always step off with the left foot and always bring the trail foot alongside the lead foot as in the Position of Attention.
(a) To fold the flag the NCOIC commands Ready, STEP. All personnel take the appropriate number of steps backward to ensure that the flag is horizontal, wrinkle free, and centered on the flagpole.
(b) The NCOIC then commands Ready, STEP. The flag handlers take the appropriate number of steps toward each other, making the first fold lengthwise. The members on the NCOIC’s right ensure that their edge of the flag is overlapping the left side by about inch, which prevents any red from showing when the folding is complete. The NCOIC ensures that the flag is straight.
(c) The NCOIC then commands Ready, TWO. The members of the column on the NCOIC’s left reach down and secure the fold with the fingers pointing upward and the palms facing away.
(d) The NCOIC then commands Ready, THREE. The members take the appropriate number of steps backward to ensure that the flag is horizontal, wrinkle free, and centered on the flagpole.
(e) Ready, STEP, Ready, TWO, and Ready, THREE are commanded and executed one more time to get the flag completely folded lengthwise.
(f) The flag handlers nearest the NCOIC then fold a 4-inch cuff and begin folding the flag, starting with the corner on the NCOIC’s left. When folding the flag, the handlers are careful to keep the edges straight and to not bend the flag.
(g) After the flag has reached the position of honor (at the head of the right column), the NCOIC marches by the most direct route to a position directly in front of the flag handler and inspects the flag. The NCOIC then receives the flag and carries it held against his chest with his forearms with the point up.
(h) After the flag has been folded and received by the NCOIC, he positions himself between the halyard pullers and faces the storage site. The NCOIC then commands Ready, FACE. The members of the detail make the appropriate Facing movement toward the storage site. The detail is then marched to the storage site.
NOTE: Once the flag has been folded (cocked hat), it is treated as a cased Color and not saluted by persons meeting the flag detail. The flag will be treated with the utmost dignity and respect but not be rendered any sort of honors.

DrillMaster Note: The TC explanation is basic guidance for folding the flag. However, not having the halyard handlers facing each other is odd to me. Retreat is when you need more people if you have a large flag. If the flag is small (around 4′ x 6′), three people can handle this detail as well. Remember, this is guidance and you really need to be as close to your service’s guidance as possible.

Comments 10

  1. Hello Drillmaster,
    As a former military policeman in the U.S. Army. I was tasked with raising and lowering the Forts flag on a regular basis.
    I remember having to lower the flag on several occasions for bad weather. Especially for high winds. I believe it was for winds 35mph or higher.
    My question is this. Is there somewhere in the regulations that spells out specific weather conditions that require the flag to be lowered?
    I looked through the U.S. Flag code and it only says inclement conditions but does not define what those inclement conditions are.
    I appreciate any help on this matter. Thank you.

    1. Post

      Mr. Bower,

      The Flag Code is for civilians. Military drill and service manuals are the service’s guide for the Flag Detail. High winds would be the reason to bring the flag down and that would be left up to the local commander. Any other time, TC 3-21.5, Drill and Ceremonies (Army) states the authorized flags for certain occasions.

      I hope that is helpful.

  2. I am the leader of our American Legion Post Honor Guard. We recently did a ceremony with the USA flag, all 5 branches of the military, our State flag, a POW/MIA flag and Purple Heart flag (9 flag poles total). We had several questions and opinions on what is proper procedure. 1. What is the proper order of raising the flags? 2. When using a bugle, what is proper procedure when raising and lowering the American flag?

    1. Post

      Mr. Jenny,

      The American flag is hoisted (raised) first before all other flags, and taken down last after all other flags. You can have all flags ready to hoist/lower with the American going up ahead of the others (down after the others) and once the American reaches half (for instance) you can then begin raising the others. When raising to half-staff/mast, the other flags are raised full truck, the American is raised full truck, and then the others are lowered to half with the American lowered to half.

      Raising more than one flag was never supposed to be an event where there is an audience. It was purely intended to be a military unit (of any size) event on an installation. That’s why there’s very little guidance on this subject in military regs. However, we can still honor our flag and display all others properly by having an in-depth knowledge of current guidance and then having a logical thought process about the procedures. This is why I consult with Vexillologist (essentially a Flag Master) DeVaughn Simper of Colonial Flag, http://www.colonialflag.com.

      The only bugle call to sound is Reveille when raising the American flag (only) and To the Color for lowering the flag (only). Taps is never sounded in association with lowering the flag, FYI. I also consult with Jari Villanueva, the Taps Bugler, http://www.tapsbugler.com.

      Also FYI, I wanted to ensure you know the correct order of the flags. In a straight or curved line, viewer’s left to right, American, state, Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, Space Force, Coast Guard, Purple Heart, and POW/MIA. We now have six branches, by the way. The POW is then moved to the immediate left of the American for specific holidays, read this for complete information: https://thedrillmaster.org/2019/01/15/all-about-the-pow-mia-flag-protocol/. If hoisting on federal property the legislation Pres. Trump signed forces the POW to be displayed next to the American when flown from a separate flag pole. See https://thedrillmaster.org/2020/09/01/the-loss-of-specialness/.

      Beginning sources for this guidance is the Flag Code and AR 840-10.

      Please let me know if you have any further questions.


      1. DrillMaster we need a definitive answer on the proper etiquette for civilians, when lowering the flag at the end of the day. Head covering off, now the tricky part, stand at attention now is the right hand over the heart or are arms at the side? Do you have a source you could cite please? Military salute, that it agreed upon,

        1. Post

          Mr. Loubet,

          The Flag States that civilians should stand, face the flag, men remove hat and place the hand over the heart, which means the hat would be over the left shoulder.

          Civilians do not render a hand salute nir stand at Attention. They merely “stand”. Any veteran is authorized to render the hand salute in civilian clothes except for the Marine Corps vets who do not salute. All veterans can remain covered and stand at Attention as well.

          I hope that is helpful.

  3. When I was still on active duty we raised the flag at 8:00 and lowered it at sundown. Now I am told it is up at sunrise and down at sundown. What is correct?

    1. Post

      Mr. Ecker,
      Thank you for your service to our country.
      Sunrise and sundown are the proper times. However, the beginning and end of the duty day is what is practiced on military installations.

  4. Drillmaster: I am the adult in charge of color guard and flag related activities for Boy Scout Troop 465, Hickory Flat GA
    Please advise if it is appropriate to make announcements regarding Troop activities to the entire Troop while still at the flagpole and just after the flag has been raised and secured.

    1. Post

      Mr Wick,

      Thank you for your question. Yes, of course, it is just fine to do such things after the flag has been raised and secured. The opposite would be to make announcements at the end of the day, lower and fold the flag and then dismissing the Scouts.

      Please let me know if you have further questions and thank you for your service to our nation’s youth!


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