When in Doubt, Salute!

The title of this article served me and many others very well for many years. If you don’t know, a salute won’t hurt. If you don’t salute, you could get an ear-full.

“That’s Disrespectful!”
SaluteSaluting with the left or right hand has nothing to do with being disrespectful. The salute, in and of itself, no matter which hand is used, is respectful. The US military uses the right hand for a reason and that reason is utilitarian, not an issue of respect. Here is the history of the American military’s salute, courtesy of the US Army Quartermaster Historian.

No one knows the precise origin of today’s hand salute. From earliest times and in many distant armies throughout history, the right hand (or “weapon hand”) has been raised as a greeting of friendship. The idea may have been to show that you weren’t ready to use a rock or other weapon. Courtesy required that the inferior make the gesture first. Certainly there is some connection between this old gesture and our present salute.

One romantic legend has it that today’s military salute descended from the medieval knight’s gesture of raising his visor to reveal his identity as a courtesy on the approach of a superior. Another even more fantastic version is that it symbolizes a knight’s shielding his eyes from the dazzling beauty of some high-born lady sitting in the bleachers of the tournament.

The military salute has in fact had many different forms over the centuries. At one time it was rendered with both hands! In old prints one may see left-handed salutes. In some instances the salute was rendered by lowering the saber with one hand and touching the cap visor with the other.

The following explanation of the origin of the hand salute is perhaps closest to the truth: It was a long-established military custom for juniors to remove their headgear in the presence of superiors. In the British Army as late as the American Revolution a soldier saluted bv removing his hat. But with the advent of more cumbersome headgear in the 18th and 19th centuries, the act of removing one’s hat was gradually converted into the simpler gesture of grasping the visor, and issuing a courteous salutation. From there it finally became conventionalized into something resembling our modern hand salute.

As early as 1745 (more than two-and-a-half centuries ago) a British order book states that: “The men are ordered not to pull off their hats when they pass an officer, or to speak to them, but only to clap up their hands to their hats and bow as they pass.”

Whatever the actual origin of today’s hand salute, clearly in the tradition of the US Army it has always been used to indicate a sign of RESPECT – further recognition that in the profession of arms military courtesy is both a right and a responsibility of every soldier.

When and Who to Salute
Protocol requires a salute to the following:

  • President of the US
  • Commissioned and Warrant Officers
  • All Medal of Honor Recipients
  • Officers of Allied Foreign Countries

Render a salute for the following:

  • US National Anthem, “To the Color”, “Hail to the Chief”, or the playing of any foreign national anthem
  • When national colors are uncased outdoors
  • Reveille and retreat
  • Raising and lowering of the flag
  • When honors are sounded
  • Pledge of Allegiance – outdoors
  • When reporting
  • When turning over control of formations
  • Arrival and departure ceremonies for state officials

Authorized Left-Handed Salutes
Left SaluteDid you know that there are only two authorized salutes for the American Military? Along with the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps drum major, Boatswain’s Mates are authorized to salute with their left hand when piping a senior officer aboard a ship in either the Navy and Coast Guard. The pipe is held in the right hand when played, and the salute is rendered with the left hand.

Left Salute Fife Drum MajorThe Drum Major as well as the unit he leads, follows Revolutionary War standards of drill and ceremonies. That’s why the left-hand salute and the fact that his salute has the palm facing forward.

No one else is authorized to render a left-handed salute, but is there an exception? Yes. Any veteran missing their right arm is not going to be lectured as to the “proper” way to render a salute.

What about the “Latte Salute”?
While each American President is most likely briefed on how to properly render a return salute, it is not something a President is supposed to do. Actually, any civilian is not supposed to return the salute. President Ronald Reagan began returning the salutes rendered to him (he had a great deal of respect for the military) and it has continued since.

But, what about Exhibition Drill?
There is no such thing as an “authorized” move or position in exhibition drill. Judges: in the case of exhibition drill, please put away your perceptions of “right” and “wrong” that are based on what you have learned through the military. Cadets: have fun creating, but don’t allow something that someone else has created to become “absolute law” for you or your team- JROTC cadets have a great tendency to never pick up the manual and only learn by observation. Hence, what one sees must be how “it” is accomplished and no one can tell them any different.

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