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U.S. Military Salute

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Silhouette of veteran US Army Colonel Chaplain wearing hat and saluting with an American flag flying behind him
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The origin of the Hand Salute is uncertain. Some historians believe it began in late Roman times when assassinations were common. A citizen who wanted to see a public official had to approach with his right hand raised to show that he did not hold a weapon. Knights in armor raised visors with the right hand when meeting a comrade.

This practice gradually became a way of showing respect and, in early American history, sometimes involved removing the hat. By 1820, the motion was modified to touching the hat, and since then it has become the Hand Salute used today.

In British history, in the early 1800s, the Coldstream Guards amended the British military salute custom of tipping the hat. They were instructed to clap their hands to their hats and bow as they pass by. This was quickly adopted by other Regiments as wear and tear on the hats by constant removal and replacing was a matter of great concern. By the mid 19th Century, the salute had evolved further with the open hand, palm to the front, and this has remained the case since then.

Most historians believe, however, that the U.S. Military salute was influenced more by the British Navy. The Naval salute differs from the "Open Hand" British Army Salute in that the palm of the hand faces down towards the shoulder. This dates back to the days of sailing ships, when tar and pitch were used to seal the timber from seawater. To protect their hands, officer wore white gloves and it was considered most undignified to present a dirty palm in the salute so the hand was turned through 90 degrees.

When to Salute

The salute is a courteous exchange of greetings, with the junior member always saluting first. When returning or rendering an individual salute, the head and eyes are turned toward the Colors or person saluted. When in ranks, the position of attention is maintained unless otherwise directed.

Military personnel in uniform are required to salute when they meet and recognize persons entitled (by grade) to a salute except when it is inappropriate or impractical (in public conveyances such as planes and buses, in public places such as inside theaters, or when driving a vehicle).

Persons Entitled to a Salute

  • The President of the United States (Commander-in-Chief)
  • Commissioned Officers and Warrant Officers
  • Any Medal of Honor Recipient
  • Officers of Friendly Foreign Countries

A salute is also rendered

  • When the United States National Anthem, "To the Color," "Hail to the Chief," or foreign national anthems are played.
  • To uncased National Color outdoors.
  • On ceremonial occasions (such as Change of Command, and Military Parades).
  • At reveille and retreat ceremonies, during the raising or lowering of the flag.
  • During the sounding of honors.
  • When the Pledge of Allegiance to the U.S. flag is being recited outdoors.
  • When turning over control of formations.
  • When rendering reports.

Salutes are not required when

  • Indoors, except when reporting to an officer or when on duty as a guard.
  • Addressing a prisoner.
  • Saluting is obviously inappropriate. In these cases, only greetings are exchanged. (Example: A person carrying articles with both hands, or being otherwise so occupied as to make saluting impracticable, is not required to salute a senior person or return the salute to a subordinate.)
  • Either the senior or the subordinate is wearing civilian clothes (a salute in this case is not inappropriate, but is not required.)
  • Officers of equal rank pass each other (a salute in this case is not inappropriate, but it is not required.)

Prisoners whose sentences include punitive discharges have lost the right to salute. All other prisoners, regardless of custody or grade, render the prescribed salute except when under armed guard.

Any military person recognizing a need to salute or a need to return one may do so anywhere at any time.

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