Honor Cordon

The Honor and Sword/Saber Cordons

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The Cordon

  • Comprised of two squads facing each other.
  • Spacing between members of each squad is usually an arm’s distance.
  • Spacing between each squad of the cordon is a safe enough distance for the VIP to pass in between the squads*.
  • The number of members in each squad depends on the type of cordon.
  • The commander positions centered, behind one squad of the cordon or at the end where the VIP will enter.

*You must ensure that if the VIP(s) will walk through in twos, side-by-side, there is enough space to safely do so.

Members of a cordon are sometimes unarmed, armed with rifles, or armed with a sword or saber. When armed with a sword or saber, there are specific commands and techniques that are used for each service. The cordon members form what is commonly called the “Arch of Steel” for VIPs and the bride and groom to walk through.

Note: in a joint service situation, where cordon members are from different military branches, the senior service technique is followed, no exceptions. Click here to read about Joint Service Order. Here is an example of cordon precedence for military and first responders.

Arrival Honor Cordon
Dress rehearsal for an arrival ceremony honor cordon on Kadena Air Base flight line

The Honor Cordon

Performed with unarmed (in a church, for example), with rifles, but never with swords or sabers (a properly executed sword salute presents a tripping hazard for the VIPs.

This cordon recognizes VIPs for an arrival or departure ceremony. An official cordon performed by members of the US military must follow the the size requirements outlined by the DoD:

  • POTUS/Former POTUS, 21 members
  • VP, SecDef, Service Secretaries, Chair of JCoS, Chiefs of Staff and Cmndnts of MC & CG, 19 members
  • 4-Star General/Admiral, 17 members
  • 3-Star General/Admiral, 15 members
  • 2-Star General/Admiral, 13 members
  • 1-Star General/Admiral, 11 members

The odd number is in line with the gun salute for the dignitary and represents an even number of cordon members with a commander.

Similarly for first responders and others at the state, county, and city level, honor cordons could be created with a team compliment of nine. The following paragraph is a quote from the November 2016 memorandum on Revised DoD Order of Precedence:

“When dealing with the United States precedence, there are several general rules which always hold true and which may differ from what one would assume the order of precedence to be. First, no one outranks a governor in his own state except the President or Vice President of the United States. Secondly, no one outranks a mayor in his own city or town or the Chairman of the Board of Supervisors in his own county except the Governor of the state or the President or Vice President of the United States.”

In the image above, you have an example of an arrival at a building. Note that there is not only a cordon, but four door openers. The door openers at the building are in line with the cordon- this may mean that they have to take a large step forward in order to grasp the handle, come to Attention in line with the armed cordon members, and render the hand salute. Note: the door opener with only his left hand free, does not salute. Click here to read about saluting and the left-hand salute.


The Navy’s Side Boys

The custom of using Side Boys, the shipboard honor cordon, to welcome a visiting dignitary or officer aboard a military vessel had a real purpose at one time. Side Boys are two, four, six, or eight Marines and/or Sailors lining both sides of the gangplank or on the quarterdeck in a ceremony now known as Tending the Side. The number of in the cordon is based on the rank of the officer visiting the vessel: two members for ensigns and LTs, up to eight members for admirals.

This system originally served a utilitarian purpose in the British Navy as early as the 17th century. Back then, men did not have the luxury of walking onto their ships: most had to transfer from a small boat to the larger ship by ladder, or by a device called a Boatswain’s Chair, which was essentially a seat attached to a yardarm by a block and tackle.

Here is where the relevance of increasing numbers in the cordon comes in: the younger and less rank you had, most likely, the lighter you were. Thus, a light midshipman or LT needed only two men on the haul rope, while an often very stout Admiral, with a forty-year career, tended to need eight men to pull them up.

Additional jobs, such as steadying the officer after getting them to the deck, and helping with the officer’s luggage, also necessitated a required number of hands.


This is an excellent opportunity to use the 5-foot ceremonial pike pole!

The Sequence of Events

Dress Center- looking for the marks to obtain visual alignment

The cordon forms up (tallest toward the VIP’s entrance) well before ceremony and performs at least one dry run, is then dismissed to change into the ceremonial uniform. At least ten minutes before the ceremony:

  1. Cordon forms up and marches at Port to its marks.
  2. Once at the site, the cordon members pick up an automatic Mark Time.
  3. The commander gives Cordon, HALT; Center FACE; Dress Center, DRESS; Ready, TWO; Ready, FRONT:* and Stand at, EASE (or Parade, REST).
  4. The commander should remain at Attention and, when the VIP arrives, give, Cordon, ATTENTION; Present, ARMS.
  5. After the VIP passes through completely, the commander gives, Order, ARMS; Ready, FACE (face toward departure direction), Port, ARMS; Forward, MARCH. The team then marches off to their transportation.

*Guidance for the dressing sequence (accomplished visually):

  1. Dress Center, DRESS– All heads drop so that all members reposition to their marks. If no literal marks, squad members will align their feet directly across from each other using the squad on the marching right (before the Center, FACE) as the guide.
  2. Ready, TWO– All member’s heads snap to the direction from which the VIPs enter the cordon or, if there is a structure that can be sued for alignment (e.g. a door frame) you can also dress to that. Here, all members ensure that their shoulders are aligned be only moving front/backward.
  3. Ready, FRONT– All heads snap back to Attention.

The Sword/Saber Cordon (Swords/Sabers)

The standard compliment for this cordon in nine members; eight with swords/sabers and one to command. Location logistics and manning may play a part in how many are actually in the cordon. The minimum would be four.

The sword/saber is an extension of the right arm and should not take another angle from the arm’s 45-degree angle from the ground. When using a saber (sabers are curved, swords are straight), the curve and sharper side of the blade face up. Swords/sabers do not necessarily have to cross each other to form an “X”. Remember, the squads should be far enough away from each other to allow the VIPs to pass through comfortably, which means the sword tips might look as though they meet when viewed from the front or rear of the formation.

Welcoming the bride. There are two different traditions for the Arch of Steel:

  1. If the cordon is in the chapel, as soon as the bride and groom turn around the first two swords are lowered and the couple kisses, and the swords are raised allowing the couple to proceed through the cordon. This is repeated for each set of swords and can take a considerable amount of time.
  2. Only the last two swords are lowered and the couple is in the middle of both swords, they kiss, the bride receives the “Welcome”, and the swords are then raised. Can save quite a bit of time

The “Welcome” comes when the couple has passed through the cordon as described above. The bride and groom stop just past the last two cordon members and the member closest to the bride taps her on her backside and says, “Welcome to the [insert service]!”, and assumes Attention.

Army/Air Force Technique

Only NCOs and officers may perform this ceremony, junior enlisted are not authorized. The sword/saber is not worn, no belts, only carried.

  1. Cordon forms up and marches to its marks.
  2. Once at the site, the cordon members pick up an automatic Mark Time.
  3. The commander gives Cordon, HALT; Center FACE; Dress Center, DRESS; Ready, TWO; Ready, FRONT:* and Stand at, EASE (or Parade, REST).
  4. The commander should remain at Attention and, when the VIPs/bride and groom arrive, give, Cordon, ATTENTION; Form, ARCH.
  5. After the VIPs/bride and groom pass through completely, the commander gives, Order, ARCH; Ready, FACE (face toward departure direction), Port, ARMS; Forward, MARCH, Halt; Dismissed.
Attention (Order, ARCH) and two views of Form, ARCH

Please note: no other position is authorized except what is pictured here, above. The sword/saber cordon does not use the standard manual of arms.

Marine Corps/Navy/Coast Guard Technique

Only NCOs and officers may perform this ceremony, junior enlisted are not authorized.

Navy/Coast Guard:

Can use the Army/AF sequence above, or the Marine sequence below.

Marines: Are required to be rigged per MCO 5060.2.

  1. Enter at Order (sword in the scabbard).
  2. March into place and align.
  3. At moment required to form the Arch, give Attention; Draw, SWORD (at this point, DO NOT return the sword to Carry at the side, leave it pointed up at a 45-degree angle with the arm fully extended).
  4. When the VIP is through the cordon or after welcoming the bride and all have cleared the cordon, the commander gives, Return, SWORD; Ready, FACE, Forward, MARCH; exit at Order (sword in the scabbard)
  5. Halt; Dismissed.

Comments 3

  1. Hello,
    I am seeking information about the term, “blades to the wind”. I wondered if it might be associated with the ceremonial arch when, having drawn a sword or sabre, to avoid injury the command, “Blades to the wind”, might be used. Or am I being fanciful.
    If you have any further information and can spare the time I would be interested to know. Having read the commands used in the section, “ The Honour and Sword /Sabre Cordons”, I was a little saddened not to come across this term. I understand that most commands in the military need to be short or sound a little staccato but for a wedding arch maybe a touch of mystery or romance might also be appropriate.
    Thank you for reading this.
    Sue Finnett.

    1. Post

      Ms. Finnett,

      I’ve never heard of the term, “Blades to the winds”. Your suggestion does seem quite possible since the only manual in the US that has any direction for the sword arch is MCO 5060.20. The tradition of the Arch of Steel is lengthy, but the Army and Air Force never had published guidance. It is very possible that the Draw, Sword! command was then followed by the Blades to the Winds! command to twist the sharp edge up.

      Staccato commands are definitely necessary when marching, but when static, there are certain instances where a well-trained team can execute the command no matter how long winded it is.


    2. Post

      Ms. Finnett,

      Great news! I put out a request on my social media accounts for information on “blades to the wind” and received great feedback.

      In this book, found here, https://books.google.com/books?id=lTD3DwAAQBAJ&newbks=1&newbks_redir=0&printsec=frontcover&pg=PA224&dq=blades+to+the+wind+ceremony&hl=en&source=gb_mobile_entity#v=onepage&q=blades%20to%20the%20wind%20ceremony&f=false there is a mention of the technique and you got it right! Look at the third paragraph.

      It’s possible that this comes from the US Naval Academy, but I’m not certain. It seems it is a sea service thing as a Sailor and Marine both learned about it over 20 years ago, but no one else had any information.


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