Why a Color Guard Does Not Fix Bayonets

DrillMasterColor Guard, Color Guard/Color Team, Honor Guard Training, Instructional Leave a Comment

Fixed bayonets are not authorized for military color guards, so why would anyone else do it? We can speculate as to why color guards chose to do it, but that’s not necessary. What is necessary is to educate everyone as to why it’s not the right thing to do. We will explore the reasons why a color guard fixing bayonets is not appropriate.

The featured image at the top is Fight for the Banner (Mazurovsky, 1910-12) between French Line Infantry and Russian Guard Cuirassiers at the battle of Austerlitz (1805). Notice the historical color guard set up with the infantry soldiers surrounding the colors. The loss of the unit’s colors was and still is an immense disgrace.

Who is Authorized to Fix Bayonets?

All US military squads, platoons, and companies that drill under arms are authorized to drill at fixed bayonets. The service honor guards in and around Washington DC march their platoons and companies at fixed bayonets at all times and there’s a very good reason for this. They never march a color guard at fixed bayonets. A great example is below (photo from 1991).

Joint Service Colors - no bayonets. Platoons in front and behind have fixed bayonets
Joint Service Colors – no bayonets. Platoons in front and behind have fixed bayonets

Here is an explanation of Unique recognition for certain units of the Army. In regard to marching with fixed bayonets, here is what is written at the website.

(b) The (3d Infantry) regiment traditionally marches in review with bayonets fixed. At the battle of Cerro Gordo during the Mexican War the 3d Infantry led a brilliant bayonet charge, and in 1922 the regiment requested permission to pass in review for ceremonies and parades with bayonets fixed. Although the regimental history reports the request was granted by the War Department, there is no record in our (US Army Center of Military History) files of the approval. It was the usual practice in the nineteenth century to have fixed bayonets at dress parades. (Emphasis mine)

US Army Center of Military History website

This is also interesting related to our topic.

14th Major Port. In recognition of the unit’s outstanding achievement between “D” Day and “V-E” Day, the port was granted the privilege of marching through the streets of the town and county of Southampton with bayonets fixed, drums beating, and colors flying. Nearly two million men had departed through Southampton, England. The port is perpetuated by the 374th Transportation Command.

US Army Center of Military History website

The Army does not fix bayonets for parades and ceremonies, but the Marine Corps can. We can see this in the parade sections of TC 3-21.5 and MCO 5060.20. The TC makes no mention of the commander of troops giving the command to fix bayonets while the MCO does. Apparently, special permission is required in the Army to pass-in-review with fixed bayonets. Here is a bit of reasoning behind that.

Why not do it? Safety

Bayonets are incredibly sharp and training to use them does not happen on a regular basis.

Why do it when Authorized? Look – Intimidation and Security

Intimidation. The service honor guards in DC need to have a certain look. Intimidation is part of that. Fixing bayonets for a pass-in-review is part of that as the platoons march by the visiting foreign national dignitary so that they have a certain powerful look. This is the same reasoning why the color guard ceremonial element has the tallest members in the honor guard assigned to it. The color guard is usually the closest element to the dignitary.

Security. The public sees the same parade and feels secure in their military passing in front of them.

A Bit of History

Around the late 1800s the unit color bearer was removed from battle. The practice began to phase out during the American Civil War (1861-1865) due to the increased range and accuracy of firearms, making flag bearers conspicuous and vulnerable targets. Before that, they were used as a center guide to keep the battle lines moving forward. Guards, usually five during the Civil War era (see diagrams at the bottom of this article) and before (approximately 1812 to 1860) were placed around the bearer.

By the Spanish-American War of 1898, the tradition had largely been abandoned for practical reasons, as modern warfare necessitated more discreet and efficient means of communication and unit identification. Thus, while ceremonial use of colors continued, their tactical deployment in battle ceased.

You can still see this type of color guard in military units of other counties like France. The color guard was spaced at normal interval and would march in military parades and fix bayonets for battle.

Reason 1 Why it’s Inappropriate

We look to military manuals for what they say, for what we are authorized to do. Just because a manual doesn’t have a list of “Don’t do that” doesn’t mean the floodgates are open to your ideas of how to make things #ceremonialer. We are to follow what is in the manual and, if necessary, create techniques to do the best job we can for a ceremony that may have an odd setup. We are not to use our imagination and add to the standards.

The Army’s TC 3-21.5 and the USAF AFPAM 34-1203 do not have bayonet and color guard guidance. They both do have information on what to do on a color guard. However, MCO 5060.20 does specifically state that guards for the color guard are forbidden from fixing bayonets.

1. m. Color guards do not fix bayonets.

5. h. The color guard does not execute to the rear march, about face, flanking movements or fix bayonets.

MCO 5060.20, 15 May 2019, Encl. 1, Chapter 7

Reason 2 Why it’s Inappropriate

Sharp objects and flag material do not mix well at all. Even though you may have those cheapo telescoping metal staffs (not authorized for the military) raised to 9′ with 3’x5′ colors attached, there’s always a possibility of the material getting caught.

Reason 3 Why it’s Inappropriate

The color guard has not been a fighting element in battle for 150+ years. Fixing bayonets shows you are going to battle and that’s not what a color guard of today should be communicating, especially for law enforcement.

The act of fixing bayonets has been held to be primarily connected to morale, the making of a clear signal to friend and foe of a willingness to kill at close quarters.

Holmes, Richard (1987). Firing Line. Harmondsworth: Penguin. pp. 377–9

There is no such thing as a “ceremonial use” of a bayonet on a color guard and simply no reason why a law enforcement color guard should signal a willingness to kill at close quarters.

Random Military

Every once in a while, someone makes a mistake or thinks it’s a great idea to have everyone fix bayonets. The US Air Force Academy cadet honor guard made a bad decision that night. They realized it too late. The 82nd stillAirborne decided it would be a good thing at one point.

VMI and Citadel

Both Virginia Military Institute and the Citadel have similar histories. Both schools had cadets called up for battles in the Civil War. In honor of that, the corps of cadets marches in review with fixed bayonets. Both schools’ color guards also fix bayonets and when I bring it up, all that I receive in reply is “tradition!” even though I provide the reasoning behind why they should not fix bayonets for their guards.

I do, however, understand that tradition is necessary to uphold and that’s why I suggest that both school teams never fix bayonets again since the color guard is always in the modern shoulder-to-shoulder line formation. There is an alternative!

Civil War Era Color Guard Formation
Civil War Era Color Guard Formation

Start forming the Civil War era-ish color guard formation at normal interval. The formation, developed in the early 1800s, would consist of as many color bearers as you need (this would be a necessary modern alteration) with a guard on each side, and have a number of guards in the second rank. Traditionally, the first rank had one color bearer with a guard on each side and the second rank had three guards centered behind the three in front. You could then have more guards, one for each bearer, if you want. Here are a couple of suggestions.

Modern Adaptation of Odd Number Civil War Era Color Guard Formation
Modern Adaptation of Odd Number Civil War Era Color Guard Formation

In the graphic above, I provide the idea of either one guard in the rear rank per bearer (five), or having just three with the middle guard centered on the middle bearer.

Modern Adaptation of Even Number Civil War Era Color Guard Formation
Modern Adaptation of Even Number Civil War Era Color Guard Formation

In the graphic above, I provided an idea to use only three guards in the rear rank with the center guard in the “window” of the two center bearers as opposed to six guards.

Virginia Tech

VA Tech
VA Tech

VA Tech was founded shortly after the Civil War. Cadets volunteered to the Governor to serve in 1898 for the Spanish American War, but the cadets did not see service.

There is no historical reason for the color guard to fix bayonets like the Citadel and VMI push. Really, there’s no reason for a modern color guard to fix bayonets at all.

Many thanks to Michael Kelley, DeVaughn Simper, Mark Schmitt, and Fire Chief Donald Butz for their input for this article.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *