AF Colors Whiteman AFB Dec 2019

The “Why” of the Military Color Guard – Air Force and Space Force

DrillMasterColor Guard, Color Guard/Color Team, Instructional 6 Comments

The second in the series, let’s review the USAF and USSF standards:

  • Air Force: AFPAM 34-1203, AFI 34-1201, & AFPAM 34-1202.

The Guards

There are always two guards.


Decades ago, each of the services used their military police to form color guards. The guards were armed with handguns. This is where the tradition comes from that only the guards wear web or pistol belts (used in CAP). However, belts are not mandatory, as shown in the AFMAN pictures.

Swords, sabers and fixed bayonets are not authorized for a color guard. How do we know this? Because the AFMAN shows exactly what is authorized.

Color Bearers

The Air Force uses the guidon manual for the flagstaff with minor adjustments (e.g. not pushing the flagstaff forward but pushing the guidon staff forward at Parade Rest) to account for the flag. The team is addressed as “Color Guard” as in, Color Guard, HALT!

The Air Force barely uses the regulation drill technique information out of AFMAN 36-2203 for a color guard except for AFJROTC. Base Honor Guards have taken on the majority of tasks and use ceremonial drill techniques. Currently, the ones who use the techniques the most are the Training Instructors at Lackland AFB (Joint Base San Antonio) and some Air National Guard and Reserve units without Base Honor Guard support.

The 2013 and 2018 editions of AFMAN 36-2203 have switched the color bearers to holding the staff with the left hand. The previous version had wrong text stating the left hand should be on the staff, but the pictures showed the right hand (the proper technique). The current version updated the pictures to actually show the wrong technique with the wrong text description. While I’ve been saying that the AFMAN has been wrong for years, an Air Force agency specifically told the office of primary responsibility for the AFMAN that the left-hand pictures and text were wrong, but the OPR published anyway. The USAF has never used the left hand on the staff. None of the services have done so. For the AF to change, it would not be a simple text and picture update, because it affects not only AF regulation drill, but the AF Honor Guard, with an impact on the other services and that’s just not going to happen. The left-hand hold technique is wrong, even though.

Where the AFMAN seemingly lacks in information, it is found in the other service manuals. Airmen and AFJROTC cadets are to read AFMAN 36-2203 and follow the techniques pictured (hand positions, fingers, etc.). Rifle guards then use MCO 5060.2 for transitions (because they are at the outside shoulder at Carry) and color bearers use TC 3-21.5 for transitions all while still using USAF guidon staff techniques. AFI 34-1201 and AFPAM 34-1202 have equipment information and other standards that apply. You can download these from the Resources page.

Of significant importance is the position for the commander of an Air Force color guard. This goes for everyone who wears a blue uniform and commands the team. You move with the color guard when you call the team to Attention. You do not go to Attention first. This applies to color guard, flag raising/lowering detail, and parade staff.

Equipment. Traditionally, belts were only worn by the guards. Belts are not currently required. Colors harnesses are mandatory for the color bearers at all times. Why? because the pictures show them and the text mentions them.

2.34.3. Flag Cases. Flag cases are made of any suitable material, preferably waterproof, with sufficient length and width to cover flags when not displayed. Use flag cases to cover flags when being stored or carried on other than ceremonial occasions.

2.34.4. Flag Slings. Flag slings (sometimes referred to as harnesses) must be used at all times to carry flags during outdoor ceremonies. Flag slings are black, patent leather with silver buckles for dress occasions. For practice or non-dress occasions, black leather (non-patent) or dark blue slings are authorized.

2.34.5. Bases. A weighted, silver colored base is the preferred base for use by the Air Force. Upon replacing or purchasing new bases through attrition, the silver colored base should be purchased.

AFI 34-1201

Minimum Mandatory flags and their positions. Notice that the American flag is NEVER carried in the middle of two or more flags and always to the right.

2.11. Order of Precedence of Flags.
2.11.1. The United States Flag.
2.11.2. Foreign national flags. Normally, these are displayed in alphabetical order using the English alphabet. When in NATO countries, NATO member country flags are displayed in French alphabetical order.
2.11.3. Flag of the President of the United States of America.
2.11.4. State and territorial flags. State flags should be displayed in order of admittance of the state to the Union. Territorial flags, when displayed, are displayed after the state flags in the order they were recognized by the United States.
2.11.5. City Flags
2.11.6. Departmental Flags

AFI 34-1201

The Commander. The senior flagbearer carries the US flag, commands the color guard, and gives the necessary commands for movements and rendering honors. The junior flagbearer carries the Air Force flag. The Air Force flag is placed on the marching left of the US flag in whatever direction the flags face. When only the US flag is carried, the color guard is composed of one flagbearer and two guards. The Air Force flag is never carried without the US flag.

2.2 Rules for Commands

2.2.2. When the commander is a member of a staff or detail and is required to perform a movement at the same time as the formation, the commander will maintain the same position as the formation while giving commands and will respond to his/her command.

AFMAN 36-2203

Spacing and Staffs.

7.32.2. With the flagbearers in the center, the color guard is formed and marched in one rank at close interval.

7.33.2. The staff is inclined slightly to the front.

AFMAN 36-2203

Saluting. Below states the only times that the USAF 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.

7.35.1. The Air Force departmental flag is an organizational flag and is dipped while the National Anthem, “To the Color,” musical honors for CSAF or higher or a foreign national anthem is played. The departmental flag is also dipped when rendering honors to the SecAF, the CSAF, their direct representative or any government official of equivalent or higher grade, including foreign dignitaries. Additionally, the departmental flag and other subordinate flags will be dipped during military funeral honors.

AFMAN 36-2203

Carrying Nonmilitary Flags. The USAF does not specifically address this issue, but the Army does. The following means that your team cannot carry flags like the POW/MIA (addressed in AFI 34-1201), Military Order of the Purple Heart, or any other non-government or military flag. State and territory flags are authorized.

Chapter 1, 1-7

f. Carrying of nonmilitary organizational flags. U.S. military personnel in uniform or in civilian clothing acting in an official capacity will not carry flags of veterans’ groups or other nonmilitary organizations; however, commanders may authorize military personnel to carry State and territorial or national flags during military ceremonies.

AR 840-10

Joint Service Standards. In Joint Service Color Teams, the Army carries the United States Flag and commands the color team as the senior service. Rifle guards nearest the United States Flag are Army and the Marines on the far end of the Joint Service Color Team.

AFI 34-1201

Foreign National, State, and Territory Flags.

Table A2.1. Table of Honors

Note 9. For events honoring foreign dignitaries, the flags of the foreign country of the guest(s) being honored should be included in the color guard when available.

AFI 34-1201


2.22. United States Air Force Departmental Flag. There are two authorized sizes of the United States Air Force Departmental Flag. The ceremonial (4 feet 4 inches by 5 feet 6 inches) is authorized for optional use with streamers. The smaller Air Force flag (3 feet by 4 feet) will not be used with streamers. Uses and descriptions for each size are detailed below. These provisions also apply to Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard organizations.
2.22.1. The ceremonial size United States Air Force Departmental Flag, with or without streamers, is 4 feet 4 inches by 5 feet 6 inches, and is trimmed on three edges with a rayon fringe of yellow 2 inches wide. The ceremonial size of the United States Air Force Departmental Flag also serves as the Headquarters United States Air Force flag.
2.22.5. The 3 feet by 4 feet version of the Air Force Departmental Flag is identical in design to the ceremonial size, but is displayed without streamers. This smaller version may be used on all occasions the larger ceremonial flag may be used; however, it is not to be used with streamers. Its size matches identically with the size of the General Officers’ flags and the Air Force Senior Executive Service flag and should be used in ceremonies or events in which all flags need to be the same size.
2.22.6. When displayed with departmental flags of other United States military services, precedence is as follows: Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard.
2.22.7. When displayed or carried with flags of other Air Force organizations, foreign national flags, or State flags, the order of precedence is as follows: The United States Flag, foreign national flags, state flags, Air Force flag, and flags of other Air Force organizations.

AFI 34-1201

2.8.4. Securely fasten to the flagstaff to prevent sliding down the staff during the event.

AFPAM 34-1202

Flagstaffs. Ceremonial and Organizational. Use flagstaffs at all times when displaying or carrying ceremonial or organizational flags. Only flagstaffs displaying ceremonial size flags (4 feet 4 inches by 5 feet 6 inches) are 9 [previous version stated 10 feet, all other services use 9.5 feet -DM] feet in length. When displaying other sized flags, the flagstaffs can be either 7 or 8 feet in length plus the staff ornament. When displaying 3 feet by 4 feet flags, a flagstaff of 7 feet in length is recommended and the flagstaff of 8 feet in length is an option; the flagstaff of 9 feet in length should not be used. Flagstaffs can be one piece or a breakdown style and should be ash in color.

AFI 34-1201

2.8.1. Use the same size and type of flagstaff.

AFPAM 34-1202


2.34.2. Staff Ornament, Flagstaff Head or Finial. The decorative device at the top of a flagstaff is the finial. It is precedence the eagle finial be used only with the Presidential flag. However, if the United States Flag is displayed with the Presidential flag, then both may have the eagle finial. The spearhead, acorn, and ball finials that were previously used are no longer Air Force standard. Upon replacing or purchasing new finials through attrition, the eagle, spearhead, acorn, or ball should not be purchased. All finials in a display or ceremony should be the same. This does not restrict the display of a state flag from a staff bearing a state device when national and other state flags are displayed from adjacent flagstaffs; however, the Air Force does not provide such devices. The following finials are authorized for flags used by Air Force organizations: Spade, silver in color (primary finial used by the Air Force).

AFI 34-1201

Comments 6

  1. DrillMaster,

    In CAP color guards, is it required that the Texas Flag be dipped in honor to the US flag when rendering honors, or is it permitted to leave the Texas Flag erect. I would note that, in recognition of its history of sovereignty, the Texas Flag is routinely flown on a staff at the same height as the US flag (though not required – it is the only state flag that may be so flown). What about the flags of other sovereign nations when carried? Do they dip when honors are rendered to the US flag?

    1. Post

      Much of the information passed along in Texas schools about the Texas flag and the honors it receives is purely myth. It is not the only flag flown at the same height as the US and it is not carried at the same level either due to it’s history. None of that has anything to do with flag protocol. It is a state flag and all state flags are flown and carried at the same height as the US. All state flags dip when the Star-Spangled Banner or foreign national anthem is sung or played. Always. Foreign national flags do not dip and neither does the US.


  2. DrillMaster,

    For a Civil Air Patrol color guard, when the National Commander is a member of the official party and is speaking at the conference, does the color guard pre-post the General Flag or carry it with the US and Organizational for posting? I just don’t see much guidance in general about mixing pre-posting with posting/retrieval.

    Also, do you know whether or not the National Commander is supposed to be honored with Ruffles and Flourishes?


    1. Post

      Personal colors are NEVER carried in a color guard. Prepost the PC – it’s actually best to prepost all colors and then bring in a second set to formally present with a show-n-go.

      Posting is for formal occasions, but not mandatory. Retrieving is for VERY formal occasions, which are very rare.

      The NC is authorized the appropriate ruffles and flourishes.


  3. I’m not sure if it’s mentioned somewhere in another blog post, but where in Army TC 3-21.5 are transitions for flag bearers mentioned?

    1. Post

      Cadet Mell,

      Are you talking about moving the flagstaff from Order to Carry and the reverse? There is nothing in the TC that defines the required techniques and that is why cadets across the country have such strange adaptations.

      If you have Instagram, look up #MakeFlagstaffManualGreatAgain and #makecolorguardgreatagain to see the technique I recommend.


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