The “Why” of the Military Color Guard – Marine Corps, Navy, & Coast Guard

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The third in the series, let’s review the US Army’s standards:

  • Marine Corps, Navy, & Coast Guard: MCO 5060.2 and MCO 10520.3
  • Navy & Coast Guard adds: NTP 13B

The Guards

There are always two guards.


Decades ago, each of the services used their military police to form color guards. The guards were sometimes armed with handguns, but usually used rifles, especially if an infantry unit. Handguns are still authorized as of 2019.

Swords, sabers and fixed bayonets are not authorized for a color guard. How do we know this? Because the MCO shows exactly what is authorized. One caveat to this is mounted color guards. Only mounted teams (Barstow, CA) are authorized to use swords.

m. Color guards do not fix bayonets.

MCO 5060.20

Rifle guards have worn web belts in every uniform combination since the early days of the service. Pictures in the MCO show all members of the color guard with web belts.


The team is addressed as “Colors” as in, Colors, HALT!


b. Flag Cases. Flag cases will be used to cover ceremonial and organizational flags when being stored or carried on other than for ceremonial occasions.
c. Flag Slings. Flag slings will be used at all times to carry ceremonial or organizational flags during ceremonies.

MCO 10520.3

5. Composition of the Color Guard

a. Slings are adjusted so that the colors are the same height when at the carry or, if this isn’t possible, the national colors are slightly higher than the organizational colors. If necessary, have the senior color bearer slightly taller than the organizational color bearer. All members of the color guard wear the pistol belt (white belt if in blues); the color bearers wear the pistol belt over the sling to keep the sling firmly in place. If the color guard is wearing the service or dress cover, then they use two chin-straps. One is worn normally and the second one is worn under the chin.

i. The color bearers are unarmed, but the color guards carry either pistols or rifles (except when inside a chapel). Only color guards mounted on horseback carry the noncommissioned officer’s sword vice a rifle or pistol. When participating in a ceremony inside a chapel, the color guard will be unarmed and uncovered.

MCO 5060.20

The Commander.

Notice here that this is it. The Marine Corps, Navy, and Coast Guard color guard carries only two flags. No more, unless working joint service.

5. a. Two noncommissioned officers are the color bearers and two other members, junior to the color bearers, are the color guards. The senior color bearer carries the national colors and commands the color guard.

MCO 5060.20

Minimum Flags and their Positions.

Composition of the Color Guard
a. The standard Marine Corps color guard consists of four individuals of approximately equal height. Two noncommissioned officers are the color bearers and two other members, junior to the color bearers, are the color guards. The senior color bearer carries the national colors and commands the color guard. The junior color bearer carries the organizational colors, which is always on the left of the national colors. When only the national colors is carried, the color guard will include only one color bearer.
b. Color guards carrying the Navy and Marine Corps service colors will consist of five members, three Marines and two Navy members. The national color bearer and commander of the color guard will be a Marine.
c. A Joint Armed Forces Color Guard will consist of eight members; three Army, two Marine, one Navy, one Air Force, and one Coast Guard. The national color bearer and commander of a joint color guard will be a Soldier. The respective service colors are aligned to the left of the national colors.

MCO 5060.20


Below states the only times that the colors may be dipped. You don’t just dip the colors every time Present Arms is called. Cadets: read here for complete information on carrying and dipping protocols.

5. b. Salutes by the Organizational Colors a. Once the color guard is at present colors, and when appropriate, the organizational color bearer will render a salute with the organizational colors by straightening the right arm and lowering the staff naturally to the front. The staff will rotate naturally as it goes forward causing the sharp edge of the spearhead to face down. [For Navy and Coast Guard units that have the battle-ax finial, do not rotate the staff (“cut the cake”) on Present. -DM]

b. Salutes by the organizational colors are not automatic when presenting colors. They will be rendered only during honors to national colors, to the commander of the organization represented by the colors or to an individual senior in rank to the organizational commander; (e.g., during a parade or review when the adjutant presents the command to the commander of troops. The organizational colors does not salute, unless the commander of troops is the organizational commander or of higher rank.)

c. When musical honors are played, the organizational colors will salute on the first note of music. The colors will be returned to the vertical position following the last note of music or the last volley of a gun salute. If no music is to be played and a color salute is appropriate, the organizational colors will salute immediately after the color guard has gone to present colors.

MCO 5060.20


5. h. The color guard is formed and marches in one rank at close interval with the color bearers in the center. While marching, members of the color guard do not swing their free arms. The color guard does not execute to the rear march, about face, flanking movements or fix bayonets.

MCO 5060.20

Carrying Nonmilitary Flags.

5. f. The flags or banners of non-U.S. military organizations (e.g., Boy Scouts, Kiwanas Club, etc.) are not carried in the color guard.

MCO 5060.20

Enclosure 1

4. Carrying Flags of Foreign Nations and Non-Military Organization. Marine Corps personnel may carry flags of foreign nations in official civil ceremonies when an official of the nation concerned is present in his official capacity and is one for whom honors normally would be rendered. In this capacity the flag of the foreign nation will be carried by a separate color guard (normally three Marines). This color guard will be preceded by a Marine Corps color guard during the ceremony. In all other public events or ceremonies, Marine Corps personnel in uniform and in an official capacity are not authorized to carry flags of foreign nations, veterans groups, or other nonmilitary organizations.

MCO 10520.3

Foreign National, State, and Territory Flags.

You CAN carry a foreign national flag in the color guard formation and that includes a US territory flag (considered a sovereign nation flag by protocol). Let’s read on.

5. e. The national colors of foreign countries will not normally (emphasis mine) be carried by the same color guard carrying the United States colors. When necessary, refer to reference (j).

j. All colors carried by the color guard are attached to staffs of equal height. The standard color staff consists of a 9 ½-foot, hardwood pole capped at each end by metal ferrules. The use of the all-metal staff is only authorized for Marine Barracks, Washington, DC. A metal spearhead screws into the top of the staff and a streamer attachment device may also be affixed to display an organization’s award streamers. (See figure 7-5.) Streamers are placed with the senior streamer at the front of the staff. Subsequent streamers are then placed clockwise, around the staff, as symmetrically as possible.

MCO 5060.20


1. a. The national flag is also called the “national ensign” or “ensign.”

c. When mounted on a staff (pike) and carried by an individual on foot, or displayed or cased in a fixed location, the national flag is
called the “national colors” and the organizational flag is called the “organizational colors.” The term “colors” means either or both the national colors and the organizational colors.

(1) The use of the plural form of the word color (colors) to designate a single flag, ensign, standard, or pennant comes from the ancient tradition of referring to the multiple colors found on these types of standards. This tradition is carried on today when we refer to the national colors; red, white, and blue and the Marine Corps colors; scarlet and gold. The plural form is also used when referring to the types of movements, ceremonies or musical accompaniment involving the colors, (i.e., carry colors, morning colors, “To the Colors,” etc.).

d. When mounted on a vehicle, the national flag is called the “national standard” and the organizational flag is called the “organizational standard.” The term “standard” means the national standard only. The term “standards” means both the national standard and the organizational standard.

q. The U.S. Flag, when displayed or carried on a staff (pike) is adorned with a red, white, and blue rope and tassel. The organizational colors are adorned with a scarlet and gold rope and tassel. However, once a unit has been awarded a streamer, the rope and tassel is removed from the organizational colors and a streamer attachment set added between the upper ferrule and the spearhead. Ropes and tassels are affixed to the top of the staff between the two ribs of the upper ferrule using a girth hitch knot. (See figure 7-5.)

MCO 5060.20

3. National Standard g. The use of fringe on national colors or standards within the Marine Corps is prohibited. [This also goes for the Navy and Coast Guard -DM]Colors and Standards

d. [For the USMC color -DM] Except when streamers are authorized, each standard shall have attached below the spearhead of the staff a cord of scarlet and yellotN threads approximately 3/8-inches in diameter and 8 feet 6 inches in length, with a tassel at each end.

f. There are two type’s of Flags or Organizational Standards. These flags are contained in a joint service specification with Marine Corps flags designated as Type III flags.

(1) Type III, Class 1, Command Battle Standard and Organizational Standard, USMC Type III, Class 1. The name of the organization is
embroidered on the scroll. This flag is only authorized for Commandant Approved Command Slated billets (See Figure 3-1) . The “Battle Standard” is the distinguishing flag authorized for Headquarters Organizations, to include units at the battalion/squadron level of the Operating Forces, Supporting Establishment Commands, Marine Corps Reserve and the Marine Corps Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (USMCJROTC) which requires the organization embroidered on the scroll.

(2)Type III, Class 2, Organizational Standard USMC. The words United States Marine Corps are embroidered on the scroll (See Figure 3-2) This flag is authorized for Supporting Establishment. See Appendix A for descriptive information.

MCO 10520.3


Notice that there is only one size of staff. Where the Army and AF use 8′ staffs with the smaller flag or the 9.5′ (AF 9′) with the larger flag, the Marine Corps, Navy, and Coast Guard are required to use only the 9.5′ staff.

1. t. National and organizational colors will only be carried on wooden 9 ½-foot flagstaffs.

5. j. The standard color staff consists of a 9 ½-foot, hardwood pole capped at each end by metal ferrules.

MCO 5060.20

Enclosure 1

a. Flagstaffs. Flagstaffs will be used at all times when displaying or carrying ceremonial or organizational flags. Flagstaffs and components authorized for use within the MarIne Corps follow.
(1) Flagstaff, colors and standards, 9′ 6″
Flagstaff 8′ 9 7/8″ W/2 No, 7, 3/4″ round head wood screws
Spearhead section
Connector section

MCO 10520.3

Finials. Marine Corps Only.

5. j. A metal spearhead screws into the top of the staff and a streamer attachment device may also be affixed to display an organization’s award streamers. (See figure 7-5.) [Figure 7-5 shows exactly the staff, ferrules, middle screw joint, and finial. -DM] MCO 5060.20

Finials. Navy and Coast Guard Only

b. The topping ornament shall have a highly polished brass finish and be displayed as follows:
(1) A SPREAD EAGLE – For civilian officials and flag officers whose official gun salute is 19 or more guns. This includes such individuals as the President and Vice President, Secretaries of State, Defense, Army, Navy, Air Force; Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, State Governors, and Service Chiefs. Tables of gun salutes of military officers and civil officials are contained in Chapter 10, U.S. Navy Regulations.
(2) A HALBERD – For flag officers whose official gun salute is less than 19 guns, and for civil officials whose gun salute is 11 or more but less than 19 guns. Included in this category are such individuals as the Under and Assistant Secretaries of the Army, Navy, and Air Force; Naval or Military Governors; and flag officers of the Armed Forces other than those of 5-star rank or Service Chiefs.
(3) A BALL – For officers of the grade or equivalent grade of Captain in the Navy, and for such diplomatic officials as Career Ministers, Consuls, or First Secretary of an Embassy or Legation.
(4) A STAR – For officers of the grade or equivalent grade of Commander in the Navy.
(5) A FLAT TRUCK – For officers below the grade or equivalent grade of Commander in the Navy, and for civil officials for whom honors are prescribed on the occasions of an official visit, but are not the equivalent of those officials listed above. (just remove the finial. The top of the upper ferrule is the truck. DM)

a. The staff ornament for the national ensign, when displayed other than in boats, shall be the battle-ax. (Emphasis mine. This means color guards. DM)
b. Personal flags and command pennants shall be topped with the ornament prescribed for boat display when displayed indoors.

A battle-ax shall top the flagstaff on which is flown the Navy flag and battalion colors.

The flagstaff topping ornament for the guidon shall be the spearhead.

NTP 13 (B)

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