All About the Color Guard

DrillMaster Ask DrillMaster, Color Guard, Color Guard/Color Team, Honor Guard, Instructional, Protocol and Flag 24 Comments

Please read this article very carefully. The following information is based in regulation drill. Much of the information directly relates to ceremonial unit color guards. Even though this is not about ceremonial drill (honor guard), color guards are ceremonial in nature and all must adhere to the standards.

Definitions

  • Military color guard. A uniformed Active Duty, National Guard, or Reserve color guard made up of a minimum of four members.
    • This then extends to all Veteran Service Organizations, First Responders, ROTC and JROTC cadets, Scouts, Explorers, and any other uniformed military or paramilitary organization. If you follow one of the three drill and ceremonies manuals, you then must abide by the other manuals that influence that D&C manual.
    • For first responders who follow the ceremonial aspects of The Honor Guard Manual, much of this applies, see also the Manual.
  • Flag, Colors, or Color. Different terms for the same thing.
  • American, US, Ensign, National Ensign. Terms for the American flag.
  • Color Guard and Color Team can be used interchangeably.

Who is Represented?

All Ceremonial Guardsmen have somewhere in their creed a line that states something to the affect of,

I represent all members past and present”.

The only way to view this information is to think, “Who does my team represent?” If you are in the military, a first responder, a JROTC or other cadet, the answer is easy- the uniform you wear is the service or profession you represent. Other organizations might not have it stated so clearly. I’ll help you with that.

A veteran organization, whether formal or not, wears a uniform. If most people not associated with the military assume JROTC cadets are Active Duty military, its a safe bet someone might think you are too or at least associated with one or all of the branches of service. Here’s the take away: you DO represent all of the military branches. Even if your team is made up of three retired/veteran Sailors and one Soldier, you represent all of the other services as well. Now, pick a manual, Army, Marine Corps, or The Honor Guard Manual, and follow it and the associated protocol and flag manuals for it.

General Information

The senior guidance for the flag comes from Title 4, United States Code, Section 7. All manuals mentioned refer to this section commonly called the “Flag Code”.

The three military drill and ceremonies manuals are:

  1. Training Circular (TC) 3-21.5 (US Army),
  2. MCO (Marine Corps Order) P5060.2 (USMC, USN, & USCG),
  3. and AFMAN (Air Force Manual) 36-2203 (USAF).

All three manuals, plus the other required Protocol and Flag Manuals are available for download here.

The Honor Guard Manual is the only published manual for first responders and others wanting to incorporate ceremonial drill into their program.

Equipment for the Color Bearers

Colors Harness. Air Force: black clarino (fake, shiny leather) for performances, dark blue web (same style) for practice. Personal note: If you get any other type of colors harness/sling/carrier than the one show here, you will be restricted in size and quality. Your hand won’t be able to fit at the cup and there are a couple of others issues I’ve come across as well. The AF mandates this type of harness (AFI 34-1201) that is shown below, the Honor Guard Leather Flag Carrier: Double Harness. This image is from Glendale Paradestore.

Ceremonial or Web Belts. All services except the Air Force require belts for team members.

Flagstaff (vs. “Flagpole”). I differentiate between the two. A flagstaff is what color guards carry and are used for indoor display and a flagpole is a permanent structure outside with a single or double halyard. All color guard flagstaffs must be the same height and use the same finial.

Note: The American flag should not be higher than the other flag(s) in the formation. The only exception to this is when the color bearers are so different in height that the colors harness cups/sockets are as close as possible in height, but the American flag is never lower.

All military service color guards use the two-piece light ash wood guidon flagstaff with a ferrule at each end. The AF may also use one-piece staffs. Metal staffs are not authorized. AR 840-10, MCO P5060.2, and AFI 34-1201.

Staff height goes according to the size of the flag:

  1. Organizational flag: 3 feet by 4 feet, mounted on an 8-foot staff. Battle streamers are not authorized on this staff/flag.
  2. Ceremonial flag: 4 feet 4 inches by 5 feet 6 inches mounted on a 9- or 9.5-foot staff. Battle streamers are authorized on this size flag and staff, but may not be authorized for your unit to carry. Check your specific manuals.
  3. Army JROTC female color guards are most often authorized to use aluminum staffs for the color guard competition. It depends on the Standard Operating Procedure for the competition. Other than this, no one is authorized to use any other kind of staff other than what is stated above.

See also How to Properly Mount a Flag on a Flagstaff.

Flag Fringe. The Army and Air Force have gold-colored fringe on all flags carried by a color guard, all of the time. These flags are called indoor-outdoor flags, have a pole hem, and do not have grommets. The Marine Corps, Navy, and Coast Guard have gold-colored fringe on all flags except for the American flag at all times. AR 840-10, MCO P5060.2, and AFI 34-1201. Please read this: To Fringe or Not to Fringe, That is the Question.

Service Standards

  • Army & USAF: Fringe on all colors carried by a color guard. Fringe makes the flag a “ceremonial color”.
  • USMC, USN, & USCG: Fringe on all flags carried by a color team except the National Ensign.

Possible reasoning for not having fringe on the American flag

4 U.S. Code § 1 – Flag; stripes and stars on

The flag of the United States shall be thirteen horizontal stripes, alternate red and white; and the union of the flag shall be forty-eight stars, white in a blue field. (July 30, 1947, ch. 389, 61 Stat. 642.)

Subsequent chapters talk about adding stars. Fringe is never discussed.

4 U.S. Code § 8 – Respect for flag:

(g) The flag should never have placed upon it, nor on any part of it, nor attached to it any mark, insignia, letter, word, figure, design, picture, or drawing of any nature.

Flagstaff Finial. The only finial (top for the flagstaff) authorized for all services is the silver-colored Army Spade/Spear. Navy and Coast Guard units may use the Gold-colored battle ax. The spread eagle finial is not authorized for any color guard other then the Presidential Color Guard. AR 840-10, NTP 13B, AFI 34-1201. Some states, organizations, or foreign countries may have their own required finial (e.g. Maryland).

Flags

A Flag has a header with grommets. A flag is flown from a stationary or mounted pole. Flags are never fringed.

A Flag/Color/Colors is a flag carried by a color guard. Flags posted in a flag stand are not mounted and are therefore, called colors. Read these, All About Flag Sizes. See this article: How to Properly Mount a Flag on a Flagstaff. The Case for Cased Flags and Colors.

Cord and Tassels. Not authorized for use on the smaller, 3′ X 4′, flag. Gold-color is not authorized for any color guard. The only cord authorized for the American flag is colored red, white, and blue. Streamers, when authorized, replace the cord and tassels. AR 840-10, MCO P5060.2, and AFI 34-1201.

Equipment for the Guards

Guards, depending on their organization, have several options.

Military, VSOs, Cadets. You are authorized to carry a holstered handgun, but that just doesn’t give off the professional tone that we look for. The M1 Garand, M14, and M1903 are perfect rifles for ceremonial applications. Any kind of more modern rifle (M16, etc.) does not present a ceremonial image. And while, we need to maintain an obvious realism, there is always the ability to use the replica M1 Garand or M1903 sold by Glendale Paradestore.com. If you do decide to go the ceremonial replica route, please do not get the solid wood Parade Rifle or Mark 1 as they will not convey a professional military appearance. Rifles should have slings.

First Responders. LEOs usually carry a rifle or shotgun. Firefighters, depending on their region usually carry either a ceremonial fire axe or rifle. The Ceremonial pike pole is not recommended. See The Honor Guard Manual.

Swords/sabers are not authorized for military teams unless mounted. See also, Of Flags and Sharp Objects.

Scouts. The 40″ or 60″ wooden walking staff is most appropriate for Scouting and similar activities. A complete manual of the Hiking Staff for color guard is forthcoming soon.

Others. Some organizations prefer to not have any kind of weapon for their guards (e.g. Seventh Day Adventist Pathfinder color guards). Unarmed guards for these formations are appropriate.

Techniques

Marching. The majority of the services take a 30-inch step forward at quick time (AF- 24″) and a 15-inch half step (AF- 12″). Both steps for the Army and AF require a heel strike, no stomping. Half step for the other services requires a toe strike.

Staffs. The flagstaffs always remain vertical when at Attention and Parade Rest (Stand at Ease). Do not push a staff forward for Parade Rest, that is a guidon movement only.

Tucking Colors. Again, this is regulation drill, not ceremonial drill. For ceremonial drill, all colors are tucked- see The Honor Guard Manual for specifics.

Click here for information on marching at Port, Angle Port, or Trail Arms. Don’t forget to read about Cased Colors here. Learn about posting and presenting the colors here and know when to post or present.

Army and Air Force are not authorized to tuck colors. After the command Order, Arms and the staff touches the deck, Marine Corps, Navy and Coast Guard will trim/strip the color by automatically (no command) reaching the right hand straight up, and manipulating the flag material into the fingers and bringing the hand down and moving the flag in between the right arm and the staff. Assume the Strong Grip and wait for, “Ready, Cut”.

Positions. Do not mix positions! (e.g. color bearers at Order and rifle guards at Port.) If one of the team members is at Carry (Right Shoulder), then all members are. This includes all positions: Order, Port, Trail, etc. The team must look, act, and move as one.

Say Cheese! Many a photographer, seeing a color guard standing in column for formation, has approached the team from the right side and asked the team to turn right for a picture. Don’t do it! This puts the American flag to the left of the other flag(s) and the team is then immortalized for setting up incorrectly. Members of the team must know better and ask the photographer to take the picture from a more appropriate position.

Authorized Formations

The minimum standard for all services. You must carry the US and your service’s departmental colors. Color guards are not authorized to replace the departmental flag at any time with any other flag. The image below is called Line Formation, members abreast. TC 3-21.5, MCO P5060.2, and AFMAN 36-2203.

The minimum color guard authorized for Air Force and Air Force-related units. Note: this three-man team is not standard, but may be used in certain circumstances. Try to use a full 4-man team at all times. AFMAN 36-2203

Note: Do not follow the pictures in the 2013 AFMAN of the Airmen holding the staffs with the left hand with the right hand at the side. The right hand holds the staff, the left hand remains at the side.

The Wedge or “V”. This formation is quite common with scouting-type programs for parades. Not authorized for military.

The Line with US in Front. This formation is extremely rare. Flag Code Sect. 7, AR 840-10, MCO 10520.3B, and AFI 34-1201

Massed Flags Formation. Similar to the above. Services carry solely military flags (regiment, battalion, wing) in the massed flags formation. Do not mix departmental or state/territory flags in with the mass formation. Below are massed flag formations for even and odd numbers.

Column Formation and By Twos. Both are authorized for maneuvering through narrow passageways during performances and for greater distances when traveling (to and from a performance/ceremony).

For Column Formation, the right/lead guard always leads with the American flag bearer directly behind, then the departmental flag and left/trail guard. In this formation, the team is Prohibited from turning in place to the right, that puts the US subordinate to the Departmental. Instead, use the Every Left On method.

When traveling By Twos, the flag bearers lead and guards follow. Once the team arrives at their designated position, the team executes Mark Time and the guards move into positions in line formation and can march forward or halt.

NOT AUTHORIZED. US in the Middle, but Taller. Not authorized for any color guard, ever. The position of honor is to the right of the formation. That is the only position for the American flag. The only time the American flag is taller in the middle of a line of flags, is for a permanent (flag poles outside) or non-temporary (posted in stands inside a building) display, never when carried. Flag Code Sect. 7, AR 840-10, MCO 10520.3B, and AFI 34-1201

Foreign National, State, POW/MIA and Other Non-military Flags

All Services. Military personnel in uniform or civilian clothing are not authorized to carry any non-military flag AR 840-10, MCO P5050.2 and AFI 34-1201. This means all military color guards are not authorized to carry the POW/MIA flag in or outside of a color guard formation. The only time the flag is carried on its own (never with guards) is during a funeral for a former POW. It is not carried in parades. Read all About POW/MIA Protocol here.

The Service Departmental Flag does not dip to anyone except the The Secretary and Chief of Staff of that service or equivalent and anyone ranked higher, including foreign nationals. The flag always dips in salute to the National Anthem, The Star Spangled Banner.

  • Cadet units are often authorized to carry either organizational (JROTC, Sea Cadets, or Civil Air Patrol), unit, or state flag. I highly suggest that you carry your organizational color for competition and parades.

Army and Air Force. Foreign national and state flags are authorized in the color guard formation as an additional flag (singular); this additional flag will not replace the departmental. You cannot mix foreign national and state flags since the largest authorized formation is three color bearers and two guards. At a funeral, Special, Positional, or Personal Colors (flag officer, Medal of Honor, POW/MIA, [in that order] etc.) are authorized. This extends to honor guard units. AR 840-10, 1-7 (4) f. and AFI 34-1201

Marine Corps, Navy, and Coast Guard. MCO P5060.2. You may not carry any flag other than the National Ensign and the Departmental. The only exception to this is at a funeral when Special, Positional, or Personal Colors (flag officer, Medal of Honor, POW/MIA, [in that order] etc.) are authorized. State and Territory flags are only carried by Marine Barracks Washington Marines for certain ceremonies in and around the Nation’s Capital. The only color guard formation authorized for these three services is right rifle guard, US color bearer, departmental color bearer, and left rifle guard.

Marine and Navy Joint Service

When a foreign national color is authorized for a ceremony, another color guard must be formed and is subordinate to the standard color guard team shown above.

 

Full Joint Service Color Team

Please make every attempt to have each service represented by a member of that service carrying their service departmental flag. From right to left: Right Rifle Guard, Soldier; American flag, Soldier; Army flag, Soldier; MC flag, Marine; USN flag, Sailor; AF flag, Airman; CG flag, Coastie; Left Rifle Guard, Marine. Any colors formation with more than one departmental color follows the senior service’s standards.

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  1. The Color Guard of four, for the Marine Corps League, stopped in the middle of the Forth of July parade and fired a volley of three rounds. Where can I find in print that this is not proper protocol?

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      Hello Sir,

      Thank you for the question. If I understand you correctly, the color guard stopped and the two rifle guards actually fired three rounds.

      I get all kinds of questions here and through social media and just when I think I’ve heard of the most outlandish and disrespectful acts, the list gets topped again.

      This is obviously not authorized and I would say that I have no idea how this could enter anyone’s mind, but it comes down to a disregard for standards. The color guard members went through Boot Camp, served, and now rely completely on their memories of their training instead of digging in the manual.

      The manuals that govern all Marine Corps, Navy, Coast Guard, Marine Corps League, Sea Cadets, MCJROTC, NJROTC, and Young Marines color guard activities are MCO 5060.20, Drill and Ceremonies, and MCO 10520.3, Flag Manual.

      Your question boils down to, “Where can I find a list of’ don’ts’?” There isn’t one because that list would be endless. What we do have in Chapter 7 of 5060.20, is exactly what a color guard CAN do, period. When we get into the thought process of “Well, it doesn’t say we can’t do XYZ”, then we are on a slippery slope and missing the intent of the regulations.

      Long answer, but I wanted to communicate the importance of following our service manuals.

  2. Just curious what reg this is coming from, that the staffs be the same height?

    “All color guard flagstaffs must be the same height and use the same finial.”

    “Note: The American flag should not be higher than the other flag(s) in the formation. The only exception to this is when the color bearers are so different in height that the colors harness cups/sockets are as close as possible in height, but the American flag is never lower.”

    I’m looking through TC 3-21.5 and AR 840–10 and it’s not jumping out at me.
    Appreciate the help.

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      Hi Linda,

      Great question! First, you would need to establish a standard and decide if your team will follow military standards and use rifles, or have your guards be unarmed. You will also need some sort of uniform – even kahkis and a polo with a baseball cap would be good.

      Next, you will need at least three people – American flag bearer and two guards. Once you have the people, getting the equipment is the next step. Two flags, flagstaffs, and rifles.

      Train using TC 3-21.5 or MCO 5060.2 and practice, practice, practice.

      Advertising your availability to go perform would be good as well.

  3. DrillMaster, I am arranging a welcome home for a flight of Veterans returning from Wash DC on an “Honor Flight”.
    Two color guards units want to participate in the procession through the airport when the Vets return. What is the proper use of two color guards? One will lead the procession. What do I do with the other?
    Thanks, Dick

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  4. DM, with multiple color guards (CG) in line (6) when the colors are retired can the CG march out in front of the others guards??

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      I’m sorry, I don’t understand the question.
      You have six separate color guard formations or you have six color bearers?
      Whatever the number of color bearers, they can move behind or in front of the rifle guards to facilitate posting or retrieving.

  5. Hey DrillMaster,

    As an AFJROTC Cadet performing in a Competition Color guard, the memo the hosting school sent out said we must comply with AFM 36-2203 standards of holding the flags with the left hand and freely swinging our right arms while the rifles are at Right and Left shoulder.

    Reading the article I noticed you said,
    “Note: Do not follow the pictures in the 2013 AFMAN of the Airmen holding the staffs with the left hand with the right hand at the side. The right hand holds the staff, the left hand remains at the side.”

    Previously, we have done it the “normal” way where we would use our right hands to hold the flag as it just makes sense, so I am just wondering to as why AFM shows a picture of Airmen using left hands, if we are not suppose to be using left hands? Just wondering about your thoughts and opinions on this situation, and which way is truly the right way, as everything is contradicting itself.

    If it is indeed where the left arm holds the flag, how would you perform Carry Colors and At Close Interval, Dress Right, Dress?

    Thank you for your time,
    Losey.

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      Cadet Losey,
      Great questions! Dress Right is accomplished at Order, the flag is at the right.
      I won’t go into details, but there is one AF unit that contacted the office that publishes AFMAN 36-2203 and told them about the discrepancy of the left hand, which made its way into the manual to editions ago in pictures and now in this most recent edition, is backed by text.
      Another unit, along with the other, will not follow this ridiculous left-hand technique. There’s no reason for the change, it’s out of left field, and goes against decades of not only Air Force, but also Army tradition.
      The correct way to hold the staff at Carry is with the right hand at shoulder height with the forearm horizontal and left hand at the side. If there is strong wind, the left hand is placed on the staff under and touching the right hand.

      Air Force JROTC cadets are to read AFMAN 36-2203 and follow the techniques pictured. Rifle guards then use MCO 5060.2 for transitions (because they are at the outside shoulder at Carry) and color bearers use TC 3-21.5 for transitions all while still using USAF techniques. AFI 34-1201 and AFPAM 34-1202 have equipment information and other standards that apply. Download these from the Resources page here.

  6. Great information. Thank you. I would like your input or a ‘point in right the direction’ for information regarding civilian color guards and regulations for flag standards (frills, flag/pole sizes, differences from military protocol, etc…)

    A bit of background: I am a former Marine and I am a leader of an Employee Resource Group for Veterans within our company. We’ve been asked to open ceremonies for an event at work that falls on Veterans’ Day. I have asked someone from each branch to carry their respective flag and I would be acting as the Color Sergeant and carry the National Standard.

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      Mr. Callahan,

      Thank you for your service and the question.

      The only information a civilian color guard has is the Flag Code. However, through my research I find that every civilian organization has always gone to the military for further guidance. Since the Army is the senior service, a majority of that guidance has come from Field Manual 22-5, Drill and Ceremonies, which is not Training Circular 3-21.5. The next most common regulation is Marine Corps Order 5060.2, Drill and Ceremonies. Both are available for download from the Resources page here.
      As veterans, we are still required to follow our service standards and since your team will be full joint service, the Army standard is required and military protocol is in force. I recommend 9.5′ guidon staffs with silver hardware and the Army Spearhead and 4’4″ X 5’6″ colors all with fringe.
      I actually have used staffs that are less than half price, if you are interested.

  7. We are having trouble finding a coast guard representative to carry the CG flag for our event coming up. Who would be able to carry that flag in the absence of a coastie? Could a veteran of another branch carry it?

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