Color Guard Flag Protocol

DrillMaster Ask DrillMaster, Color Guard, Color Guard/Color Team, Honor Guard, Honor Guard Training, Instructional, Protocol and Flag 21 Comments

The National Ensign/American Flag

For the National Ensign/Color/American Flag, military and other color guards will always hold its staff vertical (Marine Corps, Navy, & Coast Guard and US Certified Ceremonial Guardsmen) or slightly incline it forward (Army only), depending on the service drill and ceremonies manual for regulation or ceremonial drill. The minimum color guard compliment requirement is the American flag and two guards armed with rifles, shotguns, or ceremonial fire axes. Sword, sabers, and fixed bayonets are not authorized for American color guards.

Fringe on the American flag is mandatory for all Army and Air Force color guards. Fringe is not authorized for Marine Corps, Navy, & Coast Guard color guards. No fringe is highly recommended for US Certified Ceremonial Guardsmen

Service Departmental Colors

The Joint Service Color Guard

When it comes to the service departmental flag (the flag with the coat of arms or seal of the service), it is only dipped in salute for the Star Spangled Banner, foreign national anthem of a friendly nation, to the Secretary and Chief of Staff/Commandant of that service, to individuals of equal or higher rank, and at military funerals. At no other time is the service departmental color dipped. On the commands of Present Arms or Eyes Right, if the above requirements are not met, the departmental flag remains vertical (Army-slightly inclined), no exceptions. Departmental colors are always carried with the American flag and never carried on their own or in the second rank of a massed color guard. Click here for information on Joint Service Order.

All service departmental colors are required to have fringe. This also extends to JROTC, Sea Cadets, Civil Air Patrol, and Young Marine organizational flags.

Only a member of the military (Active Duty, National Guard, or Reserve), a member of a service Auxiliary, State Guard, or a US military veteran in a military or veteran service uniform should carry the departmental color.

Cadet and Other Youth Programs

Army JROTC Color Guard

The service departmental flag protocol presents an interesting dilemma for service cadet programs authorized to carry the flag since cadet color guards compete and part of the competition sequence is to execute Present Arms and Eyes Right to include a flag dip. But the head judge for the drill deck does not warrant a salute.

JROTC and other cadet programs are authorized to carry the service departmental flag and to facilitate the competition’s commands and not break protocol, many teams have carried their state flag as the second flag. However, this also breaks protocol since the color guard is required, by service regulation, to carry the departmental flag. My suggestion is to carry the service JROTC, Young Marine, Sea Cadet, or Civil Air Patrol organizational flag, respectively, any time, but especially for competition. These flags and the flags of other youth programs (Pathfinders, Scouts, etc.) would also fall into this category and be dipped any time Present Arms or Eyes Right is given unless specific guidance is provided for that flag.

A side note:

  • Army and Air Force color guards may carry one foreign national, state, and territory flag in the formation along with a unit flag. (TC 3-21.5 & AR 840-10 – AFMAN 36-2203, AFI 34-1201, & AFPAM 34-1202)
    • State and territory flags are carried immediately to the left of the American flag, and to the right of the departmental flag.
    • Massed formations may have only unit flags beginning in the second rank.
  • Marine Corps, Navy, and Coast Guard color guards are not authorized to carry a state or territory flag at all, the second flag must be the departmental/unit flag. (MCO 5060.2 & MCO 10520.3)
    • Only the National Ensign and Departmental flag are authorized in these service color guard formations.
    • The only time these service color guards may carry a foreign national flag, is in a separate three-man (one flag, two rifle guards) formation.
    • Massed formations may have only unit flags beginning in the second rank.
  • All military color guards will not carry any non-military flag, no exceptions. See POW/MIA flag information below. (AR 840-10, MCO 1052.3, & AFI 34-1201)
    • Non-military flags are not authorized in any military color guard, no matter who carries the flag.
  • Joint Service color guards may only carry the American flag and two or more departmental service flags. No other flags are authorized in partial or full joint service color guards. (Service flag and protocol manuals)

First Responder Department Flags

It’s quite possible that this has not necessarily been considered before, but the police or fire department or sheriff’s office flag should only be dipped for the Star Spangled Banner, foreign national anthem, police/fire chief or sheriff, those of equal or higher rank, and at the funeral for a first responder. Click here for First Responder Joint Service Order information.

  1. First Responder Joint Service color guards should carry the American, state, and department flags.
  2. First responders should not carry military departmental colors.
  3. Check with your state, territory, tribal nation to see if the local regulations require flags to be dipped to the state, territory, tribal anthem, if there is one.

State, Territory, & Tribal Flags

Each state and territory creates it’s own laws and standards for their flag. Interestingly, when the Founding Fathers of the USA decided to call each Colony a State, other countries were a bit angered. A state = a country, which is a community under one government (yes, our state governments were supposed to have much more control).

With that knowledge, and short of reaching out to all 50 states and 16 territories to find their specific requirements, we can begin to understand that state and territory flags probably should not be dipped just any old time.

The State, Territory, and Tribal flag should be dipped for the Star Spangled Banner, foreign national anthem, and for the funeral of a member of the state, territory, or tribal government, and anyone ranked higher and a member of the US military. The following are in order of presadence:

  • There are 50 United States (listed below). I really hope you knew that.
  • There is one district: District of Columbia.
  • There are five major territories: Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, U.S. Virgin Islands, and Northern Mariana Islands. A U.S. territory is a partially self-governing piece of land under the authority of the U.S. government. U.S. territories are not states, but have representation in Congress.
  • There are nine minor territories: Baker Island, Jarvis Island, Howland Island, Navassa Island, Johnston Atoll, Kingman Reef, Midway Atoll, Palmyra Atoll, and Wake Island.

When carrying all state (and territory) flags are carried as a separate formation, referred to as “S&Ts”, these flags have their own commander who is outside the formation. Guards are not necessary. The commands should be separate from the color guard, but executed at the same time. The preparatory command for the color guard is, “Colors!”, for the S&Ts, its “Flags!” as in “Flags, Carry, Flags!” It may sound strange, but it helps to create the separation.

Use these guidelines, but I highly encourage you to research your state, territory, and/or tribal requirements. Begin with the Attorney General and National Guard Adjutant General.

The POW/MIA Flag

The POW/MIA flag is not authorized to be carried in ANY military color guard formation nor paraded on it’s own. It is only carried as a personal color for the funeral of a former prisoner of war or military member who was missing in action.

The Flagstaff and Finial

The light ash wood guidon staff

The only authorized flagstaff for all military color guards is the guidon staff topped with the flat, silver Army Spearhead (spade) finial, pictured (Navy and Coast Guard units may use the battle-ax with local funding only).

  1. Upper Ferrule
  2. Spade Finial
  3. Middle Screw Joint
  4. Lower Ferrule

Any civilian organization carrying flags may use any staff they choose with the flying eagle as the finial. The spread eagle is exclusively for the President of the United States. Note: NTP 13B, Flags Pennants, and Customs, states the spread eagle is for civilian officials and flag officers whose official salute is 19 or more guns.

State flags in order:

  1. Delaware, December 7, 1787
  2. Pennsylvania, December 12, 1787
  3. New Jersey, December 18, 1787
  4. Georgia, January 2, 1788
  5. Connecticut, January 9, 1788
  6. Massachusetts, February 6, 1788
  7. Maryland, April 28, 1788
  8. South Carolina, May 23, 1788
  9. New Hampshire, June 21, 1788
  10. Virginia, June 25, 1788
  11. New York, July 26, 1788
  12. North Carolina, November 21, 1789
  13. Rhode Island, May 29, 1790
  14. Vermont, March 4, 1791
  15. Kentucky, June 1, 1792
  16. Tennessee, June 1, 1796
  17. Ohio, March 1, 1803
  18. Louisiana, April 30, 1812
  19. Indiana, December 11, 1816
  20. Mississippi, December 10, 1817
  21. Illinois, December 3, 1818
  22. Alabama, December 14, 1819
  23. Maine, March 15, 1820
  24. Missouri, August 10, 1821
  25. Arkansas, June 15, 1836
  26. Michigan, January 26, 1837
  27. Florida, March 3, 1845
  28. Texas, December 29, 1845
  29. Iowa, December 28, 1846
  30. Wisconsin, May 29, 1848
  31. California, September 9, 1850
  32. Minnesota, May 11, 1858
  33. Oregon, February 14, 1859
  34. Kansas, January 29, 1861
  35. West Virginia, June 20, 1863
  36. Nevada, October 31, 1864
  37. Nebraska, March 1, 1867
  38. Colorado, August 1, 1876
  39. North Dakota, Nov. 2, 1889
  40. South Dakota, November 2, 1889
  41. Montana, November 8, 1889
  42. Washington, November 11, 1889
  43. Idaho, July 3, 1890
  44. Wyoming, July 10, 1890
  45. Utah, January 4, 1896
  46. Oklahoma, November 16, 1907
  47. New Mexico, January 6, 1912
  48. Arizona, February 14, 1912
  49. Alaska, January 3, 1959
  50. Hawaii, August 21, 1959

Comments 21

  1. Is it proper for the color bearers to be seated holding the colors during an outdoor memorial day service. During covid our Legion shortened the service and moved it outdoors to a local memorial. However we had a tradition of reading a list of all deceased members with a reply which we omitted last year. Community members desired we continue the reading. Even tho we are a small rural community the list is in double digits and the majority of our color guard are in their 70s. It is generally quite windy so posting would require special anchoring of the base.

    1. Post

      Mr. Persson,

      There is no provision in any drill and ceremonies manual for a color guard member or members to be seated while still holding the colors. However, the manuals were written for those who are of age and able bodied. I have attended at least one funeral where a single color bearer was seated in a small scooter. I see nothing wrong with having veteran honor guard members serve as long as they wish in their own capacity due to their health circumstances. I think we all need to recognize the need for honors and the possible physical limitations of those who wish to render those honors and understand when we are not able to perfectly fit into the strict standards designed for the younger generation. a little leeway is appropriate here.


  2. In followup to previous email regarding color bearers being seated the deceased members would be in the triple digits not double digits .

    1. Post

      That’s an excellent question!
      Technically, none of the JROTC units are authorized to carry all of the service departmental colors. Per each manual, it’s just the parent service color, in your case that would be USN, that the unit is authorized to carry. The organizational color, again in your case, the NJROTC color, is the most appropriate for the unit.
      Now, having said that, I completely understand why JROTC units carry all the departmental colors. It’s a patriotic thing and appreciated by the general public for parades. But, only the national and departmentals should be carried. No other flag is authorized in that formation (not the state and NEVER the POW/MIA flag). Any other time, carrying all the departmental colors it’s not appropriate.
      I hope that helps.

  3. We are celebrating French Alliance day during the American revolution. Our color guard is carrying US and French national colors. I assume the US does not dip during the French anthem. Does the French flag dip for the US National Anthem?

    1. Post
      1. f marching with colors if the staff is going to hit something carry the american flag . what do u do can u dip the flag to enter a room or do u bring it down to u side .

        1. Post

          Mr. Lopez,

          Thank you for the question. You bring the staff to Port. Port for the flagstaff means it is carried at the right side with the right arm pointing straight down, lower ferrule about 6″ off the marching surface, and the left forearm horizontal across the front of the body with the left hand grasping the staff.

          There is much more to understand about this position for a color team: coming down at once, rippling up to Right Shoulder, and when and how to accomplish each move. My book, The Honor Guard Manual, has a complete explanation.


  4. This may sound stupid but I have a question of precedence. I am a Veteran training a Junior AMVETS COLOR GUARD. We are required to carry the National Colors and Our Junior AMVETS Flag. We have a POW/MIA event where we post the POW/MIA flag. Up to now they have been marching with the organization flag to the right of the colors. I know this is wrong but how do we post the POW/MIA flag without carrying it in our formation???

    1. Post

      Mr. Elkins,

      The national flag must always march at the far right in line formation and at the front in column formation.
      The Flag next to the American (on the left) could then be the state and to the left of the state, could be the organizational. Without the state, the organizational marches to the left of the national.
      Most veteran organizations completely ignore the POW/MIA flag protocol of not including it in the formation and only uding it as a personal color for the funeral of a former POW.
      The POW flag should be preposted off on its own near the missing man table. I know that this could ruffle some feathers so, as a sort of middle ground, you could present (and post) the colors (US, state, & org or US & org) and then, at a special time in the ceremony, you could have one color bearer post the POW near the table. That might be the best.

  5. We will be conducting a Navy retirement and my question is, other than the National Ensign and the Navy colors, is there another flag that can be used?

    1. Post

      Do you mean another flag that can be presented/posted or presented to the retiree?

      If it’s for the retiree, only the small-star national ensign is folded and presented at government expense. If the retiree wishes another flag, it would be at the Sailor’s expense.

  6. At a sporting event, during the Anthem, if there is a color guard on the field with a flag, and a flag on a pole in the stadium, which is the proper flag to face during the hymn?

    1. Post


      This is a great question! First, it’s the flag that you can see. If you can see both, then you should face the color guard. The color guard is there to formally present the colors and should have all attention focused on that flag. After the Star-Spangled Banner, the focus is no longer on the color guard flag.


  7. This season the NFL will feature a second song in addition to the National Anthem. This second song is being defined as the “black national anthem”. What is the protocol for the color guard, with the American flag presented, while this second song is played?

    1. Post

      Mr. Gerard,

      As with any other music played, the team should stand at Attention. In regulation drill terms, they would go back to Carry. In ceremonial drill terms, they would resume Right Shoulder.


  8. Question: I believe I know and have the answer to the following question, but I want to double check my assumptions and experience. Marine Corps Color Guards can or cannot conduct a color guard ceremony with non-military personnel (i.e. Law Enforcement, Fire Department, American Legions, etc)??


    1. Post


      There is no published restriction specifying combined (not joint service) teams, however, the standard is military only for color guards. We know this because none of the manuals have any other option.

      Additional, since military members are forbidden to carry no government flags, we can then extrapolate from that guidance that members also cannot march on the same team when those flags are carried by others- no association with those organizations since that would possibly be seen as endorsement.

    1. Post

      Hi Chief,

      It depends on your service which flags are authorized. If you are Army or Air Force/Space Force, you can carry all those flags. If you are Marine Corps, Navy, or Coast Guard, you can only carry the national and departmental/organizational.


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