The 21-Gun Salute

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Let us get this out of the way: a firing party does not fire the 21-gun Salute.  The 21-Gun Salute is fired on land or at sea, and only by cannons, which are called guns. I know we call a rifle a gun, but it’s a rifle. The Firing Party fires the Three Volley Salute. Click here to read Fire Team, Firing Party and Firing Squad. What’s the Difference?

on land

at Sea

The Origins of the 21-gun Salute

(Source: Headquarters, Military District of Washington, FACT SHEET: GUN SALUTES, May 1969.)


The use of gun salutes for military occasions is traced to early warriors who demonstrated their peaceful intentions by placing their weapons in a position that rendered them ineffective. Apparently this custom was universal, with the specific act varying with time and place, depending on the weapons being used. A North African tribe, for example, trailed the points of their spears on the ground to indicate that they did not mean to be hostile.

The tradition of rendering a salute by cannon originated in the 14th century as firearms and cannons came into use. Since these early devices contained only one projectile, discharging them once rendered them ineffective. Originally warships fired seven-gun salutes–the number seven probably selected because of its astrological and Biblical significance. Seven planets had been identified and the phases of the moon changed every seven days. The Bible states that God rested on the seventh day after Creation, that every seventh year was sabbatical and that the seven times seventh year ushered in the Jubilee year.

Land batteries, having a greater supply of gunpowder, were able to fire three guns for every shot fired afloat, hence the salute by shore batteries was 21 guns. The multiple of three probably was chosen because of the mystical significance of the number three in many ancient civilizations. Early gunpowder, composed mainly of sodium nitrate, spoiled easily at sea, but could be kept cooler and drier in land magazines. When potassium nitrate improved the quality of gunpowder, ships at sea adopted the salute of 21 guns.

The 21-gun salute became the highest honor a nation rendered. Varying customs among the maritime powers led to confusion in saluting and return of salutes. Great Britain, the world’s preeminent seapower in the 18th and 19th centuries, compelled weaker nations to salute first, and for a time monarchies received more guns than did republics. Eventually, by agreement, the international salute was established at 21 guns, although the United States did not agree on this procedure until August 1875.

The gun salute system of the United States has changed considerably over the years. In 1810, the “national salute” was defined by the War Department as equal to the number of states in the Union–at that time 17. This salute was fired by all U.S. military installations at 1:00 p.m. (later at noon) on Independence Day. The President also received a salute equal to the number of states whenever he visited a military installation.

In 1842, the Presidential salute was formally established at 21 guns. In 1890, regulations designated the “national salute” as 21 guns and redesignated the traditional Independence Day salute, the “Salute to the Union,” equal to the number of states. Fifty guns are also fired on all military installations equipped to do so at the close of the day of the funeral of a President, ex-President, or President-elect.

Today the national salute of 21 guns is fired in honor of a national flag, the sovereign or chief of state of a foreign nation, a member of a reigning royal family, and the President, ex-President and President-elect of the United States. It is also fired at noon of the day of the funeral of a President, ex-President, or President-elect.

Gun salutes are also rendered to other military and civilian leaders of this and other nations. The number of guns is based on their protocol rank. These salutes are always in odd numbers.

The Personal Color

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Definition -Personal Color

For the US government and military, a personal color is a flag that represents an individual’s rank and/or office. This is where the term Flag Officer comes from. General Officers (GOs), Generals and Admirals, are Flag Officers because they have a flag with 1, 2, 3, or 4 stars on it.

The sample GO PCs above are in no particular order. Notice that the Army uses a red background and several branches use different colors. Most Army flags have gold colored fringe, some organizational and personal/positional colors have fringe based on the branch color.

The Marine Corps uses a darker red background and arranges stars differently. The fringe is gold colored.

The Navy arranges stars like the Marine Corps and has Admiral flags with a blue (line officer) and white (restricted officer) backgrounds. The white background is for officers ineligible for command at sea (Medical, JAG, etc.). The fringe is gold colored.

The Air Force follows the Army with star arrangement and uses the USAF blue for the background. The fringe is gold colored. The CAP seal is in the positional color (covered below) with a brighter blue.

The Space Force follows the Army with star arrangement. The flag color is black with silver colored fringe.

The Coast Guard arranges stars like the Marine Corps, has the service seal in the center. The fringe is gold colored.

Air Force PC furled and Space Force PC unfurled for transitioning GO.

Definition – Positional Color

Any civilian or member of the military who holds a certain office (position) in the US government or a military service is authorized a PC.

Examples of Positional Colors for civilians are each secretary of a military service (Secretary of the Army, Navy, etc.), Secretary of Defense, the President and Vice President, Senior Executive Service personnel, and more.

Examples of Positional Colors for military personnel are Chiefs of staff for the Army and Air Force, Chiefs of Naval and Space Operations, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and there are also several enlisted positional colors holders as well.

There are positional colors for the head of each branch of the Army (Adjutant General, Engineers, IG, JAG, etc.) and many, many more.

Below is the Secretary of the Navy flag. This is a civilian position but rates at the 4-star level. There are Assistant and Under Secretary flags as well.

Secretary of the Navy

Several high-ranking enlisted in our military warrant positional colors. They most often have the title of Senior Enlisted Leader. While our enlisted ranks may have stars in the design, it’s the added stars that elevate the individual for a position. Many enlisted leaders receive general officer protocols. As an example, below are the flags of the top enlisted leader of the US military, the Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (SEAC) and the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force (CMSAF).

But Wait, There’s More!

The US government has eight uniformed services: The six armed services (Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, Space Force, and Coast Guard) and the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Public Health Service (PHS).

NOAA (under the Department of Commerce), and PHS have small officer corps. These uniformed services have positional and flag officer colors. Here are some examples.

Interestingly, officers do not take part in color guards, carry guidon flags, or personal colors. So, both organizations do not use formations on a regular basis after training.

JFK funeral – PC bearer at the left


The first recorded use of a PC was for Julius Caesar, but some speculate the Pharaohs may have had them. Personal colors really got their popularity in medieval times when the knights would have their coat of arms emblazoned on a flag with a servant following behind carrying the flag (and possibly knocking coconut halves together). It follows that when the knight died, his PC bearer would be at the funeral. The thought process for trailing is that, in life, the PC bearer followed Caesar and the knights. It makes sense to continue that practice.

As goofy as this reference may be, it’s accurate, minus the coconut halves being knocked together. The knights here in the movie, Monty Python and the Holy Grail are followed by servants who are carrying their respective personal flags.

Still image from the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Precedence Today

The Army, Air Force, Space Force, PC bearers all trail the casket, when it is in motion (caisson, coach, or by the body bearers).

The funeral party travels in the following order (see figure 14-4):
– Clergy.
– Conveyance with casket.
– Active pallbearers.
– Personal flag (if appropriate).
– Family and CAO.
– Friends.

TC 3-21.5, Drill and Ceremonies

The Marine Corps, Navy, and Coast Guard PC bearers precede the casket. This could come from this idea: depending on the Naval vessel, the PC would be flown from a mast or yardarm, usually at the front of the vessel (but it also depends on the vessel). This might be the difference between land-based and sea-based services, but it’s not a hard-and-fast rule.

d. The bearer of the personal flag of the deceased takes position and marches in front of the hearse or caisson.

MCO 5060.20, Drill and Ceremonies

Display of personal flag, command pennant or commission pennant in funerals ashore. If the deceased was a flag or general officer, or at the time of his or her death, a unit commander or commanding officer of a ship, the appropriate personal flag or command pennant, or commission pennant, shall be draped in mourning and carried immediately in advance of the body in the funeral procession to the grave.

OPNAVINST 1710.7A, Social Usage and Protocol

14.2.1. General. The USAF Honor Guard or the Base Honor Guard under the provisions of AFI 34-242, Mortuary Affairs Program, typically conducts military funerals. [This means you would use the applicable honor guard manual to obtain placement guidance – DM] Personal Colors. For funerals honoring general officers, their personal colors are present. During the ceremony, the honor guard will furl and case the personal colors. This is the only instance when personal colors are furled and cased.

AFPAM 34-1202, Guide to Protocol
Medal of Honor Personal Color

Order of Precedence of Multiple PCs

It’s quite possible to have more than one personal color at a funeral. For instance, a Medal of Honor recipient might also have been a prisoner of war. That recipient might be the senior leader of their branch of service, which would bring the total to three PCs.

The order in these instances would be MoH, positional, POW/MIA. The POW flag changes places each year on several holidays (read here), this does not apply to PCs as the MoH would always be first, regardless of the PC lineup and the positional would always take precedence over the POW.

Information on the Medal of Honor flag is found in Title 36 USC section 903 and Public Law107-248.

SEC. 8143. (a) Congress finds that— (1) the Medal of Honor is the highest award for valor in action against an enemy force which can be bestowed upon an individual serving in the Armed Forces of the United States [this means that no other personal color would take precedence- DM].

Title 36 USC section 903 and Public Law 107-248


After the procession is finished and the escort has arrived at the grave site, each ceremonial element posts along with the PC bearer(s). Regardless of the service, the PC bearer posts near the escort officer at the head.

The First Responder PC

A PC for the Fallen might be something your department honor guard would be interested in. A Thin Line flag (black background with the single colored stripe) or a special flag created by your department could serve as a PC. What might add extra significance is using streamers with the names and dates of the department’s LODDs.

Many thanks to DeVaughn Simper, Vexillologist, of and Michael Kelley, DrillMaster002

The DrillMaster Response

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While a massive majority of readers understand exactly what I do, there a tiny few who feel that I need to be told how to do what I do. However, those few are very few and are disrespectful, arrogant, selfish, prideful, vulgar, and many times childish.

Before we continue, let’s define some terms. We need to because some believe they already know what these terms mean, but in reality, they don’t understand them at all and that leads not only to confusing communication but also an adversarial atmosphere which accomplishes nothing.

Applicable Terms

Scorn: a feeling and expression of contempt or disdain for someone or something.

Rebuke/Scold/Reproach: express sharp disapproval or criticism of (someone) because of their behavior or actions.


  • The expression of disapproval of someone or something based on perceived faults or mistakes.
  • The analysis and judgement of the merits and faults of a performance.

Constructive Criticism: The process of offering valid and well-reasoned opinions about the work of others, usually involving both positive and negative comments, not in an oppositional but professional manner.

Destructive Criticism: Purely negative comments purposefully designed as an attack against another. It is never useful.

You Put on a Uniform…

When you put on a uniform, you incur a certain amount of responsibility and certain standards must be met. In the case of a cadet org, your responsibility is to your unit, (school), community, cadet HQ, the service (AF, etc.), and the USA (in the case of a color guard). You are not just a regular Joe or Jane. Same for everyone in uniform. You represent something bigger than yourself.

When in that uniform and you pick up a piece of equipment, even more responsibility and higher standards come your way. You will be held accountable eventually. Don’t like it? Don’t do it.

Why do we have competitions?

To hone our skills and to ensure we are following standards (regulation drill) and/or to display our expertise in a certain area to where others approach us to find out how we train and practice. A competition is not about seeing who is better than others, but who or which team has better training and more efficient practice methods. Seeing competitors as the adversary is the wrong outlook.

Team Green should be able to go to Team Blue and ask, “How did you XYZ?” and Team Blue should then be able to then give an explanation. This is explained in the aphorism first coined by President John F. Kennedy, “a rising tide lifts all boats”. It is the idea that improvements in an economy will benefit all participants (all teams) in that economy. For our purposes here economy means a particular system and that system is the Military Drill World.


I have been judging visual performances for many years. While I was stationed in Netherlands, I was certified by Color Guard Nederland (the Dutch sister organization of Winter Guard International) as a General Effect Visual adjudicator. I judged for Drum Corps United Kingdom, Drum Corps Holland, and the Pacific Coast Judges Association in California. Since 1994 I have judged JROTC drill meets in several states and different countries and have judged a fire department honor guard competition. If you look at my Instagram account you will see that I have “judged” thousands of videos and images sent in by followers and posted them on the account. This doesn’t take into account the multiple hundreds of MP3 files that I have sent to Active Duty, Guard, and Reserve military members from all services (yes, Soldiers, Marines, Sailors, Airmen, & Coast Guardsmen), international drill teams, solo Drillers, JROTC instructors, and cadets with my real-time feedback of their performance.

Most of the time my feedback is quite critical and has few positives. That is unfortunate, but many times a rebuke is necessary. We learn from rebukes, not scorn. My comments are based on the written standards (Flag Code, all service D&C, protocol, and flag manuals) for regulation drill elements and the only written standards for exhibition drill, the World Drill Association Adjudication Manual.

“Praise in Public, Punish in Private”

Punishment is a penalty inflicted for an offense, fault, etc.

I can only critique, ladies and gentlemen. It’s impossible for me to punish. Don’t get the “praise in public, punish in private” idea mixed up with constructive criticism. If you train to THE standard, not A standard, then you’ll get more ⭐ than ❌ for your critique on my Instagram account.

I receive appreciative feedback all the time from those who request a critique and on a consistent basis from those who are not even involved with the critique request (helping others learn by another’s mistakes). And then there are those who don’t have a clue.

“They’re just children!” is my favorite ridiculous comment, referring to cadets who have never picked up their service drill and ceremonies manual and yet presented the colors at an event. Other comments I’ve received: “You should thank them (veterans or military in uniform performing horribly) for just being there”, “Their hearts are in the right place”, and the latest, “They are just (Civil Air Patrol) Cadets, give them a break”, and here’s a good one, “I’m just glad they showed up”. Is that the extra

I’ve tried to explain what is going on to these people in an attempt to help them understand that standards always matter regardless of your age or any other factor that happens to come to mind. Unfortunately all I receive in return is scorn, which devolves into personal attacks. I don’t explain anymore.

Fools despise wisdom and instruction.

Proverbs 1:7b NASB

“I’m just happy they showed up” is a new comment. This means some are teaching cadets that standards don’t matter. It means there is no expectation of the achievement of excellence. It means that the bar is set so low that all cadets have to do is roll out of bed, dress, and roll over the bar. It means, in the case of this comment, that the USAF Core Values are MEANINGLESS.

“Ownership Leadership”

There is a (really bad) style of leadership that I call Ownership Leadership. You encounter it every once in a while when someone in a supervisory position tells you to never correct their charge(s) directly, you must see the supervisor as if the supervisor owns the individual(s). Correction on the spot is necessary and those who whine about the correction are insecure, plain and simple. This insecurity stems from the fear that the supervisor isn’t the superstar leader he made himself out to be.

Your cadets already know that you are a good or a bad leader, I talk to hundreds and hundreds of cadets every year about all kinds of things and one consistent topic is adults involved in cadet programs and how good or poor their leadership actually is.

There is No Excuse

If you are military or a cadet, read your applicable service manuals, all of them are available for free here. If you are in a Scouting-type program, stand by, more information is coming from The DrillMaster specifically for you. If you are a first responder, get on board with the United States Certified Ceremonial Guardsman program with the ceremonial standards detailed in The Honor Guard Manual.

A Study of Mark Time

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Marching in place, marking time. Many think they know how to do it. There are three different regulation drill techniques for the US military and two techniques for ceremonial drill.

The Different Categories of Military Drill and Ceremonies

Regulation Drill is all drill and ceremonies in the the three drill and ceremonies manuals in Training Circular 3-21.5 (for the Army), Marine Corps Order 5060.20 (for Marine Corps, Navy, and Coast Guard), and Air Force Manual 36-2203 (for Air and Space Forces).

Ceremonial Drill is all drill and ceremonies executed by the 3rd Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard), Marine Barracks Washington, US Navy Ceremonial Guard, The USAF Honor Guard, and the US Coast Guard Ceremonial Honor Guard. This also extends to all US Army post honor guards and all USAF Base Honor Guard units.

Within the US military, ceremonial drill is not authorized to be performed by anyone outside of these organizations. That includes Marine Corps commands forcing their color guards to march shoulder-to-shoulder- stop it, you know better, follow the MCO.

Side note: There is another category of military drill, Exhibition Drill. This is further divided into two subcategories: Scholastic/Independent and Ceremonial.

The Requirements

Where will you find the specifics listed below? Only here. These are guidelines to help you look your most professional.

  1. Your ankle must travel up the center of your opposite leg
  2. Do not bring the ankle forward of your leg
  3. Do not bring the ankle behind your leg
  4. Do not extend your ankle and point the toe downward
  5. Do not flex your ankle to point the toe upward
One of my awesome Pathfinder trainees


Most everyone has a right angle at their ankle when viewing the lower leg and the foot. If you are trained in dance, you most likely have an extensive range of motion, especially if you are able to go on pointe (a ballet term for going up on the end of your toes- see the image below). Most of us, if we allow our foot to hang naturally, will keep that right angle, especially if wearing boots, but most likely the ankle’s angle will be a constant 90 degrees.

A ballerina “on pointe” with full extension at her ankles

If you are able to extend farther, don’t. Allow the foot to hang without any added effort.

The Proper Technique

The toe leaves the marching surface last and strikes first. Do not “whole-foot stomp”. This means that, as you bring your foot up, the bottom of the foot is parallel to the marching surface. It can lead to stomping. Don’t stomp! There is not reason to stomp. You must use your thigh a glute muscles to lift and lower your leg. “Must”? Yes, absolutely.

Lift your leg and bend the knee slightly while bending at the hip. Your head and torso will move ever so slightly side-to-side. You do not want excessive movement. That is an indication of poor technique (most often not adequately bending the legs enough at the hip).

Your feet need to be parallel, do not march with toes pointed outward/inward.


There is also no reason to speed up, although we naturally do tend to increase tempo when marching in place or at Half Step. Use a metronome (Loud Metronome on your phone hooked up to a Bluetooth speaker is great) and keep the same tempo at which you were marching. It takes practice!

High Knees! That’s how you get a color guard to slow down.” No, it’s not. Use a metronome. High Knees or Ankle-Knee Technique is widely used in marching bands and is even an exercise method where the ankle is brought up to the opposite knee or to that knee’s level.

Ankle-Knee image from

By using “high knees” you are completely disregarding the guidance explained in your service D&C manual. It’s not a technique authorized for Regulation Drill. It is, however, used in ceremonial drill (colors, pallbearers).

The Regulation Drill Styles

As I noted before, there are three different service techniques: one for the Army, one for the Marine Corps, Navy, and Coast Guard, and one for the Air Force and Space Force.


To march in place, the command Mark Time, MARCH is given as either foot strikes the marching surface and only while marching with a 30-inch or 15-inch step forward. On the command of execution MARCH, take one more step, bring the trailing foot alongside the leading foot, and begin to march in place. Raise each foot alternately 2 inches off the marching surface; the arms swing naturally, as when marching with a 30-inch step forward.

TC 3-21.5 3 May 2021

Raise the “foot”? What part? The toe? Ball? Arch? Heel? Is the sole of the foot supposed to be parallel with the marching surface? We really need a much more accurate description here. However, when looking at the foot as it is raised, it is logical to assume the meaning here is the toe, but this is not a hard-and-fast rule.

Note! The Army does not allow calling Mark Time from the halt (the bold and underlined text in the quote above). Why is this? Because there’s no reason to.

Also! Notice that the trail foot is supposed to be brought alongside the lead foot after the command of execution. This is just like the Marine Corps technique except the heels are not brought together. I’ve never seen a single Army unit ever accomplish this.

Marine Corps, Navy, and Coast Guard

This technique has the best description except for what I put in bold.

While marching, the command will be given as the right foot strikes the deck. The command is “Mark Time, MARCH.”

When Halted

On the command “MARCH,” beginning with your left foot, then alternating, raise each foot so that the ball of the foot is approximately two inches and the heel approximately four inches from the deck at a cadence of quick time. At the same time, swing your arms naturally as in marching.

When Marching at Quick Time

Bring your heels together. Begin marking time without loss of cadence with the opposite foot.

MCO 5060.20 15 May 2019

I very much appreciate the inclusion of the heel measurement here. It makes sense and helps you understand what the whole foot is supposed to look like when lifted off the deck (marching surface). But the ball of the foot? Who looks at feet to see if the ball is four inches off the marching surface? Why not the toe? The toe is so much easier to identify from any distance (think of judging or training). Using the ball of the foot for the measurement does not make sense.

The measurements out of MCO 5060.20 mean the toe will rise to one inch off the deck. Why not just say this in the regulation?

Air Force and Space Force

When the USAF became a service on September 18th, 1947, eventually the leadership developed their own regulations for all kinds of things. Drill and ceremonies was not a high priority, rightfully so, and in 1953 the leadership was finally ready to address Air Force D&C and again in 1956. Most what we Airmen do on the parade ground comes from the Marine Corps and some with minor adjustments. It’s still the same today.

The explanation below highlighted in bold that makes zero sense.

The command is Mark Time, MARCH. When marching, the command MARCH is given as either foot strikes the ground. The Airman takes one more 24-inch step with the right (left) foot. He or she then brings the trailing foot to a position so both heels are on line. The cadence is continued by alternately raising and lowering each foot. The balls of the feet are raised 4 inches above the ground. Normal arm swing is maintained.

At a halt, on the command MARCH, the Airman raises and lowers first the left foot and then the right. Mark time is executed in quick time only. The halt executed from mark time is similar to the halt from quick time.

AFMAN 36-2203 19 June 2018

Again with the “The balls of the feet“! In the image below, I show you the required measurement and, in the brackets at the toe and heel, what the other measurements look like.

Notice for the USAF and USSF that the feet are also to be brought alongside each other before taking the first Mark Time Step. This is also just like the Marine Corps technique except the heels are not brought together. Again, I’ve not seen a single AF unit do this.

From the 1950s and into the 60s and possibly the 70s (I don’t have a 50-14 from that era and I’m not so sure the AF published one), the ball of the foot is lifted two inches. In 1985, we see the beginning of the ball being lifted four inches. There is no reason for the change. I will elaborate on that statement: there is no reason given in the old AFM 50-14, and at the same time, there is literally no reason for this change.

When I was in AFJROTC from 1979 to 1983, and then later when I went through Air Force Basic Military Training, I was never taught any of these particulars for marching in place. We have not done our job well.

To Halt


The Halt from Mark Time is executed in two counts, the same as the Halt from the 30-inch step.

Marine Corps, Navy, and Coast Guard

The MCO does not have information for halting from Mark Time. Apparently, you do not halt, you only resume marching.

Air Force and Space Force

The halt executed from mark time is similar to the halt from quick time.

AFMAN 36-2203

To Resume Marching


To resume marching with a 30-inch step, the command Forward, MARCH is given as either foot strikes the marching surface. On the command of execution MARCH, take one more step in place and then step off with a 30-inch step.

TC 3-21.5

Marine Corps, Navy, and Coast Guard

(1) On the command “MARCH,” take one more step in place.
(2) Step off with a 30-inch step.

MCO 5060.20

Air Force and Space Force

To resume marching, the command Forward, MARCH is given as the heel of the left foot strikes the ground. The Airman takes one more step in place and then steps off in a full 24-inch step with the left foot.

AFMAN 36-2203

If you give any command as the heel strikes the marching surface while the formation marches in place, you have called it to late. You call commands when the toe strikes, not the heel. Proper timing *REQUIRES* calling commands on a toe strike is only for marching in place or marching backwards because the toe strikes the marching surface first. Use a metronome for yourself and see.

The Color Guard is Not First

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Wait a minute, the colors are always first in everything, everywhere, and every time! I know that because I heard it somewhere at some time in the past and it must be true. I just know it.

So, as you encounter some cognitive dissonance while reading that the color guard is not always first in line, rest assured you are not alone.

I don’t know exactly where this thinking comes from. No, the color guard or colors, is not first.

Main image at top: Notice the colors are behind a single platoon with nothing to their rear.

In a military parade (a pass-in-review) or funeral escort, the color guard is located in the center as shown below. Notice the commander of troops (CoT), guidon bearer, band master, and drum major are highlighted in different colors.

Above, you see line and column formation. The block formation to the color guard’s right (front) is either the band or the color company/platoon (Army, Marine Corps, Navy, & Coast Guard) or squadron/flight (Air and Space Forces) with another same-size formation to the color guard’s left (rear). These standards are detailed in the Army’s Training Circular 3-21.5, Marine Corp Order 5060.20, and Air Force Manual (AFMAN) 36-2203.

CoT with guidon bearer, band, colors, and platoon (Baltimore Sun/Al Drago)

If there is a call for a larger formation, then the band precedes the lead marching formation followed by the color guard and the trailing marching formation pictured below.

Band, platoon, colors, and platoon

In the diagrams above, the formation labeled “Band” does not have to be a full size band, it can be any arrangement of a musical ensemble as shown in the following images.

A single drummer in front of the colors with flight trailing
Minimal band in front of the colors with platoon trailing

Guidon Bearer?

Maybe you were thinking of the guidon bearer. In the diagrams I created above, I made the formation CoT a light blue and the guidon bearer green (well, those are the colors I think they are- partially color blind) with a little guidon flag next to him. The formation commander and the guidon bearer will always be out in front.

The same positioning setup is also for a street parade (think of the column formations above). Any group even remotely associated with the military follows these guidelines. Where does this come from, besides the current military drill and ceremonies manuals? Our history.


Note- for the image here, I happened to find it on Pinterest without any information associated with it. If you happen to know anything about the painting, please send me a message through the contact section of the home page and I’ll update this.

If you search the internet, you can find incredible stories of color bearers from many conflicts in the USA’s past, some of which were awarded the Medal of Honor. Those color bearers were integral parts of the formation. Without them, the men would scatter. As long as the the members of the formation could see their flag, which was located at the center, they knew to keep fighting and moving forward. It was and still is a high honor to carry our nation’s colors.

Did you catch that? The American flag bearer was at the center of the formation. Flags back then were sometimes massive banners as you can see from a couple of photos I found.

Nowhere in any text, military or civilian, is there any information that is contrary to what I have written above. Vexillologist DeVaughn Simper of Colonial Flag adds, “The only thing even remotely close is in the Flag Code where it states that you need only to stand for the 1st US flag that is in the parade.”

If anything, reenactors stive to be as accurate as possible.

Civil War reenactors with the flag in the center of the formation

In the image below you can see that flags were in several formations in this depiction of a brigade.

The Why of the Military Color Guard – JROTC and the State Flag

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I didn’t have the initial intention of expanding my Why of Color Guard series, but it is a natural progression. This article looks at the question of why a JROTC color guard carries the state flag, but needs to get out of the ubiquitous habit.

It is very common to see JROTC color guards carrying their state flag instead of the departmental or organizational flag. The reason behind teams carrying the state flag is that military flags have very specific requirements to be dipped, state flags don’t. I’ll share a quote from TC 3-21.5 regarding the standards for dipping in salute.

15-12. The organizational color salutes (dips) in all military ceremonies while the national anthem, “To the Color,” or a foreign national anthem is being played, and when rendering honors to the organizational commander or an individual of higher grade including foreign dignitaries of higher grade, but in no other case. The U.S. Army flag is considered to be an organizational Color and, as such, is also dipped while the national anthem, “To the Color,” or a foreign national anthem is being played, and when rendering honors to the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, their direct representative, or an individual of equivalent or higher grade, but in no other case.

TC 3-21.5 15-3 03 May 2021

To elaborate on the above quote

A flag is called a color. The departmental color (US Army, Marine Corps, Navy, etc. flags) for each service is treated the same as what is written above. This means the departmental colors only dip for the Star-Spangled Banner, the bugle call To the Color, a foreign anthem, during the bugle call Taps, the service Chief of Staff, Commandant, or Secretary, their equivalent or those ranked higher, which includes foreign dignitaries.

Organizational flags are treated the same! I’ll explain. Below is the US Marine Corps Departmental flag. It’s also called the USMC Standard and USMC Battle Color. This flag is only dipped, just like the other departmental flags, only in the above circumstances. Just because the commander of the color guard gives the command, “Present, ARMS!” does not mean the departmental dips.

USMC Departmental

The following image is of a USMC Organizational Color. For the Marine Corps, all of the organizational flags look exactly like the departmental except for the wording on the scroll. The reason for this is that most Marine Corps color guards are restricted from carrying the departmental and must carry their own organizational.

Organizational flags have the same requirements as above for dipping in salute with an expanded requirement. The expansion is to the unit commander, everyone of equal rank/position, and those higher. So, let’s look at a JROTC, Sea Cadets, and Civil Air Patrol flag.

Cadet Unit Organizational Flags

Unit flags are organizational flags. Organizational flags dip in salute to the unit/organization commander and everyone above. In the case of the JROTC organizational, that flag dips to the commander of NJROTC (for the above pictured flag) and in every case required that is detailed above.

Replacement Ideology

For a JROTC color guard in competition the idea behind carrying the state flag in place of the departmental or even the JROTC organizational is to not break military flag protocol and that’s understandable. However, this idea has backfired so that just about every JROTC color guard believes that carrying the state flag as a substitute for the military flag is perfectly acceptable for every colors presentation. The idea has even spilled over into some Active Duty, Guard, and Reserve units.

Information should have been provided from the start to let instructors and cadets know that outside of the competition environment, the substitution cannot happen.

Having said this, the Army, Air Force, and Space Force can all add the state flag to the formation (in the second position). These service color guards can also add a foreign national, territory, county, and/or city flag. Since TC 3-21.5 has information for Colors Reverse for a team of six, we can then understand that up to four flags may be carried by these three services.

The Marine Corps, Navy, and Coast Guard are strictly limited to carrying ONLY the national ensign and the service departmental/organizational. Just those two flags with two rifle guards.

The Why of the Military Color Guard – Precedence and Command

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There are times when you have read manual after manual, read them for multiple years, and a certain issue that you are trying to understand just doesn’t seem clear. A “forest for the trees” situation, if you will.

That has been my dilemma for a while: I know the precedence of the military, I know who is supposed to command in multi- or joint-service situations, and I understand what technique takes precedence in those situations, but how can I explain this and point to where it’s written?

Well, thank you to an Army NCO friend of mine who is currently an Army ROTC instructor. I truly appreciate my readers who are also focused on standards. Our community is small, but we have a large impact!


The precedence of the US military is found in DoD Directive 1005.8, Order of Precedence of US Armed Forces, 1977 (yes, it’s been current ever since, a new one will come out with Space Force in there one day).

This information is repeated in MCO 5060.20 and AFI 34-1201. However, the 2020 version of 34-1201 is wrong in precedence with the addition of the Space Force after the Coast Guard. The Coasties are part of the Department of Homeland Security and will therefore come last in order. When Congress officially* declares war (that has not happened in a very, very long time), the Coast Guard then moves to the Department of the Navy and thus service order then changes.

*The last time the United States Congress met its constitutional mandate to officially declare war by voting, for the record, to engage members of the US military in conflict was in 1942.

Multi vs. Joint Service

Our six military services in order (non-wartime): Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, Space Force, and Coast Guard.

Our six military services in order (officially declared wartime): Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Coast Guard, Air Force, and Space Force.

Technically, Multi-Service is two to five services represented. Joint-Service is all six. Sometimes we say partial or full joint service.

Who commands?

The senior service officer or, in the case of the color guard, the senior service non-commissioned officer who is the national color bearer.

What techniques are used?

Regulation Drill. This is drill and ceremonies that comes out of TC 3-21.5, MCO 5060.20, and AFMAN 36-2203. The US military has three drill and ceremonies manuals. We used to have one drill standard that Baron von Steuben created for the Continental Army that the Marines used as well.

That served our nation well for many years until before, during, and after the Civil War era when certain officers (COLs William J. Hardee, 1820; and Silas Casey, 1862) began to experiment and come up with variations to von Steuben’s original writings. From there, we began to write separate drill and fighting techniques, including the Navy’s Landing Party Manual.

Ceremonial Drill. This is drill and ceremonies that comes out of manuals that are not used outside of a ceremonial setting. For example, only Air Force and Space Force Base Honor Guards are authorized to train using Air Force Honor Guard-developed Standards contained in AFMAN 34-515.

The same goes for US Army Active Duty, National Guard, and Reserve honor guards that follow the 3rd Infantry, Old Guard, standards. The Marine Corps uses MCO 5060.20 only while Marine Barracks Washington has it’s own Barracks Order that details their ceremonial standards. The Navy and Coast Guard are the same, following the MCO while the ceremonial teams in and around DC have their own written standards.

When the honor guards get together, the senior service standards apply, whether ceremonial or regulation. As an example here, when on the plaza of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier or full joint service ceremony anywhere else, US Army ceremonial standards are followed.

This is great to know, but where is it written that the senior service standards are used?

Here (bold emphasis mine):


E8.5.1. In public programs for which DoD support has been authorized and at which the display of the U.S. flag and the flags of the Military Services is applicable, a Joint Armed Forces Color Guard shall be employed, when available, using the following composition:

E8.5.1.1. Two Army bearers with the U.S. flag and Army flag.

E8.5.1.2. One each Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, [Space Force will go here -DM] and Coast Guard bearer with individual Military Service flags.

E8.5.1.3. One Army and one Marine Corps rifleman, as escorts.

E8.5.2. When a Joint Armed Forces Color Guard, as specified in paragraph E8.5.1., above, cannot be formed, the senior member of the senior Military Service in the color guard shall carry the U.S. flag. The DoD Components shall be guided by DoD Directive 1005.8 (reference (t)).

E8.5.3. U.S. military personnel may carry the official national flag of foreign nations participating in official civil ceremonies, defined as a “public event,” that are funded, sponsored, and conducted by the U.S. Federal Government or a State, county, or municipal government, when an official of the nation concerned is present in an official capacity to receive such honors, and the official is one for whom honors normally are rendered. In all other public programs or ceremonies, U.S. military personnel in uniform and in an official capacity are not authorized to carry flags of foreign nations, veterans groups, or other non-military organizations.

DODI 5410.19, Nov. 13, 2001

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, [Space Force will go here -DM] 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 as depicted in figure 7-4c. For color guards involving service academies, reserve or National Guard colors, refer to enclosure 2, chapter 3, for the proper precedence.

MCO 5060.20, May 15, 2019 In Joint Service Color Teams, the Army carries the United States Flag and commands the color team as the senior Service. The rifle guard nearest the United States Flag is Army and the rifle guard furthest from the United States Flag will be a Marine.

AFI 34-1201, August 18, 2020

Now that you have read all of that, I have a question for you. Why would the commander have to learn another standard? The answer is, they don’t. That would not make sense.

We have to know what the manuals say and what they don’t.

Can Any Event Have a Colors Presentation?

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Can anyone request a colors presentation for any event? Must the event be formal and military only? Just a short time ago, I received a message through my website asking if an organization could have a color guard present the colors for their annual fundraising gala.

The Message

The Organization of location Chapter Number is a DOD Veterans Service Organization. We have had galas where a color guard posted the colors. It has been brought to our attention that we should not be presenting the colors because our fundraising gala is not a formal military event. What is the correct protocol to present the colors at our event?

My Response

Whenever I receive questions like this through my website or social media, I envision one of two situations: 1) someone sincerely came to you wondering if protocol allows a colors presentation or, 2) a know-it-all barked at and belittled you. I very much hope it was the former and truly appreciate those who want to ensure proper flag and color guard protocol is followed.

Whoever said you should not have a colors presentation is misinformed. Anyone at just about any occasion may present the colors. There is no restriction on presenting the colors for an event, marathons, car races, school board meetings, city or county council meetings, and even horse riding competitions have colors presentations, none of which are a “formal military event”.

Colors Presentation at Golf Tournament – how much less of a “formal event” can we get?

If you wished, you could invite the Boy Scouts, a local veterans group, police or fire department honor guard or Explorers, Sea Cadets, Civil Air Patrol, Young Marines, ROTC, JROTC, or local military color guard to present the colors for your event. Your fundraising gala is just fine for a colors presentation. I suggest that you have a US and state flags already preposted before your event and then the color guard can enter to formally present, Star-Spangled Banner (played or sung), and then the team departs. Simple.

Presenting, Posting, and Retrieving

When it comes to presenting and then posting the colors (placing the staffs in stands), the event must be formal (sit-down evening meal- black tie). For retrieving/retiring the colors, the event should be even more formal (very formal- white tie). Depending on your location, posting could be limited to once a month or fewer times. Retrieving the colors would be at a yearly event. Why? Because posting the colors and retrieving the colors are supposed to be uncommon, special occasions. The more common posting the colors becomes, the danger of the ceremony becoming less special looms ever closer.

I mentioned location as a factor above and I will explain what I mean by that. The Presidential service honor guard units in and around Washington DC are presenting and posting the colors several times a day for informal, formal, and very formal events. The same goes for some National Guard teams around state capitols. The farther you go from these political centers, the less formal events become on a regular basis. It just depends.

The Show-N-Go

The Show-n-Go is the most common, or at least, should be the most common presentation technique used by a color guard. This technique entails a pre-posted set of colors already displayed. The color guard then enters the room, marches up to centered on the audience, formally presents the colors, remains for the Star-Spangled Banner, and departs. No posting of the colors.

Why would not posting the colors be a preferred method? Several reasons: (1) Using another organization’s flags is inappropriate, (2) only presenting requires the least amount of training for the team when honor guards are Active Duty, National Guard, and Reserve ceremonial units are Congressionally mandated for Military Funeral Honors first with everything else taking a back seat, and (3) not every event is formal enough for posting.

Usually, the Protocol office has a complete set of flags and preposts them. The BHG then presents their set. BHG teams should have at least two sets of colors for every occasion that is usual to their particular location.

But Only One American Flag is Authorized at Ceremonies!

There is no “one American flag only” rule. It’s a myth. If this rule existed, every time the President speaks, his protocol team that sets up multiple US and presidential seal flags, is breaking the rules. Not to mention a sports stadium with a large flag on a tall pole and then a color guard on the field. I’m sure there are many more examples.

Having only one flag at an event was the personal preference of General Douglas McArthur and the knowledge of that standard being elusive and yet “somewhere” has existed ever since.

Now, the way some politicians and others alternate the US flag with another flag to make the “Media Wall Flag Display” is inappropriate because it puts the US in an inferior position.

The next two images show flags displayed properly.

Example of correct protocol for flag display
Example of correct protocol for flag display

In the image directly below, you can see different finials (flagstaff topper) and different length staffs. That makes three protocol issues in one display.

Inappropriate flag display

In this last image, a still from a video, there is one more American flag off to the left that you can barely see. The display starts off correctly, but the Second and third American flags are in the inferior position.

Inappropriate flag display

Politics and other Flags

US military and cadets in uniform cannot present colors at a political rally or any event that would imply endorsement of a candidate or party.

See also this article about using other organization’s flags. No one in uniform is authorized to carry unofficial flags.

Official and Unofficial USAF Flags

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As much as it may cause discomfort for some readers, facts outweigh feelings. I updated the #NotTheUSAFFlag tag on Instagram to include a couple more posts of mine. I do not mind being respectfully challenged, sometimes it’s the only way we get to learn. But the research I accomplished this morning has only solidified my stance.

I Chinese Communist Party Plot?

Within about an hour’s worth of research and I noticed a couple more of my Instagram posts of color guards that I didn’t recognize as carrying the Chinese knockoff novelty flag.

USAF Seal flag

Above is the official US Air Force seal on a flag, which is not an authorized flag. This is what is called a novelty flag. A novelty flag would be one for your favorite sports team, a corporation, or even a school.

Even the Thin Line series of flags that have the image of the American flag in black and white with a colored line or lines to identify military, law enforcement and more, looks like they are inappropriately using the stars and stripes (I’ll agree with that). However, technically, since there are no red stripes and no blue canton, it’s not infringing on the Flag Code and is just another novelty flag.

USAF Emblem flag

Novelty flags are everywhere and sometimes it’s difficult to tell what is official and what is not. The flag above uses the US Air Force Emblem and is approved by USAF Public Affairs for use when use of the USAF Seal is not authorized. Only the Emblem may be used for public/commercial use and requires an official license agreement.

Covering All Bases

Let’s make sure we identify everything necessary here. You may see flags with the following images, they also are novelty flags and not authorized for color guards to carry.

The USAF Symbol
The USAF Signature

Before we Finish…

I wanted to just briefly touch on our newest service, the US Space Force.

Below, is the official US Space Force departmental flag when it was presented to then President Trump. This is the only authorized Space Force flag and must have silver-colored fringe. Note: going into 2022, there is a shortage of silver fringe and some USSF flags will have white fringe. No other flag is authorized to be carried in military color guards.

This is the US Space Force logo:

US Space Force logo

For more information, contact:

Air & Space Forces Intellectual Property Management Office
Air Force Public Affairs Agency
555 E Street East
Bldg T-581
JBSA-Randolph, TX 78150

Governing directives for the information in this article: 10 U.S.C. § 2260, 15 U.S.C. § 167; 1114-1125, DODI 5535.12 and DAFI 35-114, Air Force Branding and Trademark Licensing Program, and DOD Guidelines about the use of DOD Seals, Logos, Insignia, and Service Medals. All of these links are available here.