The Military Hand Salute

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This article originally published on Dec 30, 2014 under the title, When in Doubt, Salute! This is the second update and rearrangement of information to help everyone understand this subject better.

The two types of authorized salutes used in the US military (not for ceremonial drill)

How to Salute

The services have slightly different techniques. One technique is followed by the Army and Air Force. The middle finger is placed on the corner of the eyebrow/eyeglasses/sunglasses (when uncovered or wearing headgear that does not have a bill) or the corner of the headgear bill with the forearm straight and the elbow slightly in front of the torso (image at far left).

The Marine Corps, Navy, and Coast Guard execute the same salute, but the right elbow is in line with the torso (image on the left at the right). Except that these servicemembers do not salute uncovered.

When and Who to Salute
Protocol requires a salute for the following:

  • President of the USA.
  • Commissioned and Warrant Officers of a higher grade.
  • All Medal of Honor Recipients.
  • Officers of Allied Foreign Countries.
  • US and foreign national anthems or the bugle calls To the Color and Reveille.
  • When passing uncased national colors outdoors from any direction.
  • Raising/hoisting and lowering of the flag.
  • When honors are rendered (Taps, Hail to the Chief, General’s March, etc.).
  • When reporting (MC/N/CG must be covered).
  • When turning over control of formations.
  • Arrival and departure ceremonies for military officers and state officials.
  • Any civilian can be saluted, they just don’t return the salute.

Two Hand Salute Technique Stories

First, take another look at the main photo at the top of the page. You see the female officer rendering a hand salute that is not perfectly straight. Why? For her, I don’t know. It’s most likely her (permanent of temporary) physical difference and since law enforcement officers do not have strict guidelines on rendering the hand salute, she probably has continued in her job just fine.

Let me tell you about an honor guard competition I judged in 2009. One of the team members was not able to salute properly (similar to the female officer above) and I was asked if that would cause the team to be marked down. My reply was that we cannot help medical conditions and points would not be taken off.

What was his problem? Dupuytren Contracture. I eventually found out that his doctors stated that he had to wait until his hand finished drawing up before they could treat the condition. It took a couple of years, but he was able to use his hand eventually. This was a temporary physical difference. Nothing to get bent out of shape about.

My second story is about the thumb on my right hand. It doesn’t stay straight without considerable effort and even then my hand tires within a minute or so. How do I hold a hand salute for longer than 60 seconds? My thumb buckles a little and draws back. From my first salute in Air Force JROTC, through my time at New Mexico Military Institute, and then during my career in the Air Force, my thumb was never addressed except for once. The appearance of my hand is the same as everyone around me unless you look very, very closely. This is my (permanent) physical difference. Again, nothing to get bent out of shape about.

Saluting Update for Veterans

The Defense Authorization Act of 2000 and subsequent years authorizes military veterans in civilian clothes to render the hand salute as the flag passes or for the Star Spangled Banner. All Marine Corps Veterans will NOT execute this salute as part of the strict Marine Corps tradition (see ALMARS 052:08).

Just in case that link doesn’t work at some point, here is paragraph 3: SALUTING. A RECENT CHANGE TO THE LAW HAS AUTHORIZED ACTIVE DUTY AND RETIRED SERVICEMEMBERS TO SALUTE THE NATIONAL COLORS, WHETHER COVERED OR UNCOVERED, INDOORS OR OUT. BY CUSTOM AND TRADITION, MARINES DO NOT RENDER THE HAND SALUTE WHEN OUT OF UNIFORM OR WHEN UNCOVERED. LET THERE BE NO CONFUSION; THAT HAS NOT CHANGED. DURING THE PLAYING OF THE NATIONAL ANTHEM, OR THE RAISING, LOWERING, OR PASSING OF THE NATIONAL FLAG, MARINES WILL CONTINUE TO FOLLOW NAVAL TRADITIONS AND THE POLICY / PROCEDURES CONTAINED IN REFERENCE (A). SPECIFICALLY, MARINES NOT IN UNIFORM WILL FACE THE FLAG, STAND AT ATTENTION, AND PLACE THE RIGHT HAND OVER THE HEART. IF COVERED, MARINES NOT IN UNIFORM WILL REMOVE THEIR HEADGEAR WITH THE RIGHT HAND AND PLACE THEIR RIGHT HAND OVER THEIR HEART. WHEN THE FLAG IS NOT PRESENT, MARINES WILL ACT IN THE SAME MANNER WHILE FACING IN THE DIRECTION OF THE MUSIC. IN CASES SUCH AS INDOOR CEREMONIES, WHEN MARINES ARE IN UNIFORM AND UNCOVERED, THEY WILL FACE THE FLAG, OR THE DIRECTION OF THE MUSIC WHEN THE FLAG IS NOT PRESENT, AND STAND AT ATTENTION.

The left-handed salute while at Right Shoulder

With the Left Hand

Have you heard something like this: “Always salute with the right hand. Never salute with the left hand.

“Always” and “Never” hardly ever apply. A missing or incapacitated right arm or a right arm that must hold a crutch for handicapped individuals (cadets) are legitimate reasons for the left-hand hand salute.

The left-hand INDIVIDUAL SALUTE while armed is authorized with the left hand for all service guidon bearers and for all Marines, Sailors, and Coasties (Army and Air Force stopped these salutes circa the 1970s) armed with a rifle while at Order or Right Shoulder.

“That’s Disrespectful!”

Saluting with the left or right hand has nothing to do with being disrespectful. The salute, in and of itself, no matter which hand is used, is respectful. The US military uses the right hand for a reason and that reason is utilitarian, not an issue of respect.

The guidon individual salute

Authorized Left-Handed Salutes

Did you know that there are only two authorized left-hand salutes for the American Military? Along with the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps drum major, Boatswain’s Mates are authorized to salute with their left hand when piping a senior officer aboard a ship in either the Navy and Coast Guard. The pipe is held in the right hand when played, and the salute is rendered with the left hand.

Left Salute
The Left-hand salute of the Boatswain’s Mate

The Drum Major as well as the unit he leads, follows Revolutionary War standards of drill and ceremonies. That’s why the left-hand salute and the fact that his salute has the palm facing forward.

Left Salute Fife Drum Major
The drum major of the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps

No one else authorized to render a left-handed salute in uniform, but is there an exception? Yes. Any veteran with a missing or incapacitated right arm is not going to be lectured as to the “proper” way to render a salute.

Sen Bob Dole Saluting the casket of George H.W. Bush

JROTC Competition

There is no such thing as an “authorized” move or position in exhibition drill. Judges: in the case of exhibition drill, please put away your bias of “right” and “wrong” way to do something that is based on what you have learned through the military. Cadets: have fun creating, but don’t allow something that someone else has created to become “absolute law” for you or your team- JROTC cadets have a great tendency to never pick up the manual and only learn by observation. Hence, what one sees must be how “it” is accomplished and no one can tell them any differently.

Saluting for the Pledge of Allegiance

Persons in uniform should remain silent, face the flag, and render the military salute. Please see the Cornell Law website.

7.38. Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag. I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of
America and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty
and justice for all.
7.38.1. In military formations and ceremonies, the Pledge of Allegiance is not recited.
7.38.2. At protocol functions and social and sporting events that include civilian participants,
military personnel should:
7.38.2.1. When in uniform outdoors, stand at attention, remain silent, face the flag, and
render the hand salute.
7.38.2.2. When in uniform indoors, stand at attention, remain silent, and face the flag. Do
not render the hand salute. Where the participants are primarily civilians or in civilian
attire, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance is optional for those in uniform.
7.38.2.3. When in civilian attire, recite the Pledge of Allegiance standing at attention,
facing the flag with the right hand over the heart. Personnel should remove their headdress
with the right hand and hold it over their left shoulder, hand over the heart.

AFI 34-1201 (13 September 2022)

Hand Salute History

Here is the history of the American military’s salute, courtesy of the US Army Quartermaster Historian. No one knows the precise origin of today’s hand salute. From earliest times and in many distant armies throughout history, the right hand (or “weapon hand”) has been raised as a greeting of friendship. The idea may have been to show that you weren’t ready to use a rock or other weapon. Courtesy required that the inferior make the gesture first. Certainly there is some connection between this old gesture and our present salute.

One romantic legend has it that today’s military salute descended from the medieval knight’s gesture of raising his visor to reveal his identity as a courtesy on the approach of a superior. Another even more fantastic version is that it symbolizes a knight’s shielding his eyes from the dazzling beauty of some high-born lady sitting in the bleachers of the tournament.

The military salute has in fact had many different forms over the centuries. At one time it was rendered with both hands! In old prints one may see left-handed salutes. In some instances the salute was rendered by lowering the saber with one hand and touching the cap visor with the other.

The following explanation of the origin of the hand salute is perhaps closest to the truth: It was a long-established military custom for juniors to remove their headgear in the presence of superiors. In the British Army as late as the American Revolution a soldier saluted bv removing his hat. But with the advent of more cumbersome headgear in the 18th and 19th centuries, the act of removing one’s hat was gradually converted into the simpler gesture of grasping the visor, and issuing a courteous salutation. From there it finally became conventionalized into something resembling our modern hand salute.

As early as 1745 (more than two-and-a-half centuries ago) a British order book states that: “The men are ordered not to pull off their hats when they pass an officer, or to speak to them, but only to clap up their hands to their hats and bow as they pass.”

Whatever the actual origin of today’s hand salute, clearly in the tradition of the US Army it has always been used to indicate a sign of RESPECT – further recognition that in the profession of arms military courtesy is both a right and a responsibility of every soldier.

What about the President’s or Governor’s Salute?

First off, any civilian may receive a salute. Returning salute is not something any civilian, including the President is required to do. However, President Ronald Reagan began returning the salutes rendered to him (he had a great deal of respect for the military) and it has continued since.

Please see this article on The Presidential Return Salute. The President of the United States and the Governor of each State are the commander-in-chief of their respective militaries. The President has the US military and each governor has the state’s National Guard (State Guards as well in some states).

Comments 11

  1. Further comment on a salute touching the eyebrow. In the Air Force, and other services that wear a flight cap, a proper salute would touch your right eyebrow. Saluting in the service cap touches the front right of the brim. In the USAF Honor Guard we stand at attention differently for job requirement reasons, but saluting remains the same! Love the website!

  2. I think the ALMARS applies to all DoN veterans. Sailors and Marines do not render the hand salute when out of uniform or uncovered. Because of this, as a Navy vet, I will not salute during the National Anthem. I choose to put my hand on my heart. An exception, to me, is if wearing the uniform of a veteran’s association, such as with a Legion or VFW garrison cap. In these cases, a hand salute could be appropriate. If I’m wearing a civilian ballcap, off it comes.

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      Author
  3. Active US Navy service member. The first paragraph is incorrect.

    I will not speak for the other branches because we all have very different traditions, but in the Navy your hand does not touch your eyebrow. It touches the edge of the brim your cover or hat. And you never salute without a cover. If you are on duty, you will wear a cover indoors and salute the officer you are reporting to. If you are outdoors, you have a cover on and salute every officer you pass whether you are on or off duty.

    If you are in uniform and outdoors, you have to have a cover on.

    What I said my vary from command to command, but what I said is what’s taught at basic training and my current command.

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      Author

      MMN3 Swanson,

      You are correct in as much as you not saluting uncovered. I made a slight adjustment to the text to reflect that and to be more accurate as to when your finger touches your eyebrow- and it does. The next time you are wearing your Dixie Cup and render the hand salute, your finger should touch the corner of your eyebrow or the corner of your eyeglasses/sunglasses.

      What matters is what the Navy standard is and that comes from MCO 5060.20, Drill and Ceremonies. If a command is teaching something different from the Navy standard, they are either wrong or have been authorized to supplement due to a particular situation that is only within that command.

      DM

      1. Actually the MMN3 is correct about what the Naval services ( Marine Corps included) teach regarding the hand salute. You do not salute when uncovered and since you remove your cover, unless you are under arms, indoors , you do not salute. That is what I was taught at MCRD San Diego 37 years ago. Also it is rendered touching the bottom of your headgear and slightly to the right of your right eye. That is how it is described in MCO 5060.20 and that is how you are taught in boot camp. Touching the right eyebrow is not mentioned at all, regardless of the headgear.
        Lastly , the ALMARS you mentioned is a reminder to Marine Corps veterans that rendering a hand salute is going against the naval services tradition of not saluting when out of uniform and is inappropriate as a veteran of the Naval services.

  4. God bless our soldiers and veterans.
    Wanted to brief myself on the salute and respect for our men in and out of Uniform.

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