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 an update and rearrangement of information to help everyone understand this subject better.

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, the forearm is straight and the elbow is slightly in front of the torso.

The Marine Corps, Navy, and Coast Guard execute the same salute, but the right elbow is in line with the torso.

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

  • President of the USA
  • Commissioned and Warrant Officers
  • All Medal of Honor Recipients
  • Officers of Allied Foreign Countries

Render a salute for the following:

  • US or foreign national anthems, Hail to the Chief, or the bugle calls: To the Colors, Taps, and Reveille.
  • When national colors are uncased outdoors
  • Raising and lowering of the flag
  • When honors are sounded
  • When reporting
  • When turning over control of formations
  • Arrival and departure ceremonies for state officials

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.

With the Left Hand

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

The left-handed salute while at Right Shoulder

“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.

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

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 Fife Drum Major

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.

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.

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.

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 Salute?

First off, any civilian may receive a salute. Returning salute is not something any civilian, including the President is supposed to do. 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.

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