With apologies to Gertrude Stein, a flag is not a flag, which is also not a flag, necessarily. Let’s wade through what flags are and are not.
What is a Flag?
In general, we usually call any colored material that is attached to a staff or on a pole via a halyard (the rope) a “flag”. But we can get more accurate and better define what we are talking about.
- Flagpole – A pole longer than 10 feet.
- Flagstaff – A staff 10 feet long or shorter.
These two definitions are based off the descriptions of ancient “Pole Arms”, weapons used as spears or other implements in battle.
b. The national and organizational (regimental/battalion) flags carried by dismounted organizations are called the “national color” and the “organizational color”. The singular word “color” implies the national color, while the plural word “colors” implies the national color and organizational color.102. DEFINITIONS, NTP 13(B) Naval Telecommunications Procedures Flags, Pennants, & Customs, 1986
c. The national and organizational flags carried by mounted or motorized units are called the “national standard” and the “regimental/battalion standard”. The singular word “standard” implies the national standard, and the plural word “standards” implies both the national and organizational standards.
d. The words “flags”, “ensign”, “color”, and “standard” preceded by the word “national” are used interchangeably and all mean the emblem to represent the national government.
The US Army, very early on, said a flag is raised from buildings or flagpoles*. These flags have a header band at the header end of the flag. In that band are two or more brass grommets.
The military formation that forms to hoist or lower the flag is called a Flag Detail (see the service drill and ceremonies manuals for specific information on both procedures).
US Flag with Header and Grommets
As well as defining a flag, the US Army that same year also said a Color or Colors is carried*. In military terms, “colors” refer to the national flag (like the U.S. flag) and the flag of a specific military unit. These are ceremonial flags and are often carried alongside each other in parades and during official ceremonies.
The only flag authorized to be mounted on a flagstaff for the US military is one with a staff sleeve. That sleeve is commonly called a Pole Hem, but, since a pole arm is longer than 10 feet, we need to be more accurate in our description. These flags do not have grommets.
The military formation that forms to carry this type of flag is called a Color Guard. Those who carry the colors are called Color Bearers.
*Infantry Drill Regulations (1924)
US with White Staff Sleeve (notice the fringe does not wrap around the staff sleeve)
US with Red, White, & Blue Staff Sleeve (notice the fringe does wrap around the staff sleeve)
Historically, a standard was a type of flag carried into battle. The dimensions were roughly 1:1 creating a very large square. In modern times, it often refers to a flag that denotes the presence of a high-ranking officer, like a general or admiral, or a specific headquarters.
28th Virginia Infantry Battle Standard
Flag of a U.S. Coast Guard Vice Admiral (more commonly called a Personal Color, see below for more)
This is the national flag flown on a vessel to denote its nationality. In the U.S. Navy, the ensign is the U.S. flag, and it is flown from the stern (rear) of the ship when in port and from the mainmast when underway. It’s also flown from an installation or facility of the United States Navy, United States Marine Corps, United States Coast Guard, or the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration ashore.
First US Naval Ensign (1776–1777)
A naval jack is a flag flown at the bow (front) of a ship while anchored or moored. The design often differs from the national ensign and can have specific historic or symbolic significance. The US Navy Jack is the canton portion (often called the Union, since it represents the union of the USA) of the US flag. A blue field with 50 white stars. It is flown from the Jack Staff on a mast.
The First US Navy Jack
Current US Navy Jack
Naval Jack of Mexico
A pennant is a narrow, tapering flag commonly used by naval vessels. Different types of pennants can indicate various things, like a ship’s commission, the absence of a commanding officer, or a specific action like an attempt to set a speed record.
US Navy Commissioning Pennant
US Coast Guard Commissioning Pennant
US Navy Unit Commendation Pennant
Example of a Chapel Service Pennant
When we think of pennants, the two flag types above are what usually come to mind. However, the state of Ohio’s flag is also a pennant.
State of Ohio Pennant with Staff Sleeve and Fringe
A burgee is a distinguishing flag, regardless of its shape, of a recreational boating organization. In most cases, they have the shape of a pennant.
Burgee of the Adelaide University Sailing Club
In the U.S. military, a guidon is a small flag or streamer carried by units. It is typically used by companies, batteries, troops, and similar-sized units for identification and as a rallying point.
Army Adjutant General Corps Guidon (AR 840-10)
Army Armored Corps Guidon
Marine Corps Guidon (MCO 4400.201 Vol 13, Chap 10)
Navy Guidon (NTP 13B)
US Air Force Guidon (AFI 34-1201)
US Space Force Guidon
US Coast Guard Guidon (AUP stands for the Auxiliary University Program, the “ROTC” of the Coast Guard)
A Personal Color
Indicates an officer’s rank. These officers are known as “flag officers” because the flag comes with the rank. All PCs must have fringe (PCs flown from a mast aboard a ship, do not have fringe).
Flag of a US Space Force General
Flag of a US Marine Corps Major General
Flag of a US Army Brigadier General
A Positional Color
This flag denotes an individual’s position within the US government as a civilian or member of the military. The flags do not necessarily signify rank, but the flag can include the individual’s military rank since some positions require a certain rank. All PCs must have fringe (PCs flown from a mast aboard a ship, do not have fringe).
Flag of the Chief of Space Operations (officer)
Flag of the Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Chairman of the JCS (enlisted)
Flag of the Secretary of the Navy (civilian)
The term “Departmental” is widely used, but it separates the service colors from organizational colors, even though the departmental colors are considered organizational colors.
The First Flag of the US Navy
Any military flag representing a command within the service and also joint commands.
Flag of the United States Army 1st Armored Division
For the Marine Corps, every unit that is authorized a flag carries a variation of the Marine Corps departmental color. That variation is the unit’s lettering on the scroll at the bottom of the flag.
Below are images of the US Navy Unit Color based on the original US Navy Flag, pictured above. It is the Infantry Battalion Flag and carried by only a very few commands in the Navy. These photos are from the US Navy Ceremonial Guard in Washington DC.
Written with DeVaughn Simper, Vexillologist at Colonial Flag