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.
Written in 2018, updated in 2022 for clarity.
- 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, Silk, 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, an ROTC/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 takeaway: 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.
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:
- Training Circular (TC) 3-21.5 (US Army)
- AR 840-10
- MCO (Marine Corps Order) 5060.2 (USMC, USN, & USCG)
- MCO 4400.201 Volume 13,
- Navy and Coast Guard add NTP13(B)
- and AFPAM (Air Force Pamphlet) 34-1203 (USAF & USSF)
- AFI 34-1201
- AFPAM 34-1202
All three D&C 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 (shiny poromeric 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 and Space Force require belts for team members.
Flagstaff (vs. “Flagpole”). This has to do with pole arms from ancient armies. A staff measures up to 10′ in length. A pole is anything longer. A flagstaff is what color guards carry and used for indoor display. A flagpole is a permanent structure outside with a single or double halyard. All color guard flagstaffs must be the same length 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 (and/or waist level) that the colors harness sockets* are at different levels but as close as possible to the same level. The American flag is never lower.
*What we are supposed to measure is the finials of the staffs when at Carry (Right Shoulder). However, it is much easier to look at the harness sockets and adjust them since the staffs must be the same length.
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.
Staff height goes according to the size of the flag:
- Organizational flag: 3 feet by 4 feet, mounted on an 8-foot staff.
- Battle streamers are not authorized on this staff.
- Only the Army can mount this size flag on the longer staff (see 2, below).
- AF/SF may use the 7′ staff but only for posting the colors indoors. At no other time are 7′ staffs authorized to be carried.
- Ceremonial flag: 4 feet 4 inches by 5 feet 6 inches mounted on a 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.
- This staff length and flag size are the only ones authorized for the Marine Corps, Navy, and Coast Guard. These services cannot carry the smaller set. While not specifically authorized, cadet organizations may need to opt for the smaller set simply because of cadet size.
Finials (flagstaff topper/ornament)
Army, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Space Force. The only finial authorized is the flat, silver-colored Army spearhead/spade. The upper and lower ferrules and middle screw joint must be silver-colored.
Navy and Coast Guard units are required to use the Gold-colored battle-ax (battalion lance, pictured). The upper and lower ferrules and middle screw joint must be gold-colored. Note: When these two services work with any other service, the staffs must have the flat, silver-colored Army spearhead/spade.
USN and USCG arrival/departure ceremonies, speaking engagements, and in-office displays. The spread eagle finial is authorized for the Presidential Color Guard and those who receive a 19-gun salute. The halberd is for military who receive a 19-gun salute and for civil officials who receive an 11-gun salute or higher, but less than 19. The ball is for Captains and diplomatic officials. The star is for officers with the rank of Commander. The flat truck (finial removed) below the grade of Commander. All of these finials are gold-colored.
Some states, organizations, or foreign countries may have their own required finial (e.g. Canada, MD, TX, LA, etc.).
An “Outside Flag” has a header with grommets. This flag is flown from a stationary or mounted pole on a halyard only. Outside flags are never fringed nor carried by a color guard. This is what the Navy is talking about in NTP 13(B) and US Navy Regulations. It has NOTHING to do with the location of the flag (indoors or outdoors), as if a color guard is inside and steps outside, the flags must be changed. it’s only about flag type.
An Indoor/outdoor Flag is a flag carried by a color guard. It has a staff sleeve (pole hem) for mounting on the flagstaff. Read these, All About Flag Sizes, How to Properly Mount a Flag on a Flagstaff and The Case for Cased Flags and Colors.
Flag Fringe. The Army, Air Force, and Space Force require gold-colored fringe on all flags carried by a color guard and for static display all the time. These flags are called indoor-outdoor flags, have a staff sleeve (pole hem), and do not have grommets. The Marine Corps, Navy, and Coast Guard have gold-colored fringe on all flags except for the national at all times. Please read this: To Fringe or Not to Fringe, That is the Question.
- Army, USAF, & USSF: Fringe on all colors displayed and carried by a color guard. Fringe makes the flag a “ceremonial color”.
- USMC, USN, & USCG: Fringe on all flags displayed and carried by a color team except the National Ensign.
Cord and Tassels
The gold cord and tassels is not authorized for the US military. The only cord and tassels authorized for the American flag is colored red, white, and blue. This cord is mandatory on the national for MC, N, & CG color guards and is optional for the national for Army color guards.
Streamers. When authorized, replace the cord and tassels on the MC departmental/organizational flag. Not mandatory on other service departmental or organizational flags.
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, M4, etc.) does not present a ceremonial image, but are authorized 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 Parade Store. 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 because it is not distinct and does not have easily recognizable features like the axe. See The Honor Guard Manual.
Swords/sabers are not authorized for military teams unless the team is a mounted Army cavalry unit (officer saber), mounted Marine Corps team (NCO sword) or Scottish Rite/American Veterans (broadsword, use Carry or Funeral Carry) or historic like the USS Constitution (cutlass). See also, Of Flags and Sharp Objects.
OK, your school was called up hundreds of years ago to fight in a battle and the corps of cadets marches with fixed bayonets as part of that tradition. So does the Old Guard (the only unit in the Army authorized to parade with fixed bayonets), the platoons of Marine Barracks Washington, the Navy Ceremonial Guard, the Air and Space Force Honor Guard, and the Coast Guard Ceremonial Honor Guard. They all march with fixed bayonets.
What you will never see is the color guard of any of those units with guards that have fixed bayonets on their rifles. Never. Why? Because a color guard is a purely ceremonial element. Color guard members do not fight nor do they represent the ability to fight. Color guard guards, stop fixing bayonets out of ignorance (“we’ve always done it”) or arrogance (“we do it because…”).
LEO color guards with fixed bayonets- you are not a fighting force and the reasons are stated above.
Scouts. The 40″ or 60″ wooden walking staff is most appropriate for Scouting and similar activities for the guards.
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 a color guard is appropriate.
Marching. The majority of the services take a 30-inch step forward at quick time (AF/SF- 24″) and a 15-inch half step (AF/SF- 12″). Both steps for the Army and AF/SF 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. When at Carry, the Army, AF, & SF must angle the staff slightly forward (I suggest about 6″ from the nose).
Tucking Colors. Again, this is regulation drill, not ceremonial drill. For ceremonial drill, all colors are tucked when at Order- see The Honor Guard Manual for specifics. However, MC, N, & CG will have the silk gathered under the right arm and to the right of the staff when at Order and Parade Rest. Army, AF, & SF are not authorized to tuck the silk.
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.
Do not mix positions. (e.g. color bearers at Order/Carry and rifle guards at Port.) If one of the team members is at Carry, 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.
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. Cadets, read about the state flag here.
The minimum color guard authorized for services. 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.
Note: Do not follow the pictures in the 2022 AFPAM 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).
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.
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 (unless immediately posting the staffs in stands), that puts the US subordinate to the departmental. Instead, use the Every Left On method.
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 Star Spangled Banner and Taps at a funeral.
Army, AF, & SF. 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 can also add a state, territory, County, and/or city flag.
MC, N, & CG. You may not carry any flag other than the National Ensign and the Departmental. 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 (or colors) is authorized for a ceremony, another three-man color guard (or more) is most often formed and is subordinate to the standard color guard team shown above. There is one exception here. The MCO does authorize the foreign national to be in the color guard proper to the left of the national and right of the departmental.