The Stories Behind the Modern Military Salute

Navy photo

Photo courtesy of the Navy

When it comes to the hand salute, everyone seems to agree on two things: (1) it’s always a sign of camaraderie and (2) no one knows its exact origin.

But everyone has a theory.

Let’s start with the practical application. Raising the right hand to one’s cap or forehead is not only a gesture of respect, but also a signal that you’re not wielding a weapon (which was far more important information a few centuries ago than it is in today’s military settings). Some believe the salute is the evolution of a gesture dating back a few thousand years when assassins were more prevalent in both military and government circles.

There are other theories, too, dating back to medieval times. The most popular involves knights lifting their visors to identify themselves to superiors.

Whatever ancient customs are to be believed, it’s also reasonable to infer the modern salute is a replacement for removing one’s hat in the presence of a superior. According to the U.S. Army Quartermaster Center and School, a British order book from 1745 dictates “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 and bow as they pass.” A page on the Quartermasters’ website explains military headgear had become so complicated and cumbersome by the time of the American Revolution, saluting was just an expedient change to protocol.

Department of Defense photo

Department of Defense photo

Today’s Salute

According to the Armed Forces History Museum, today’s standard salute – right hand touching the brim of the head cover with the palm down – was in place by 1820. The museum says the palm down portion of the salute may have been influenced by the salute style of the British Navy at the time. A sailor’s hands were often dirty, and exposing a dirty palm – especially to a superior – would have been deemed disrespectful. A correlating legend has it that Queen Victoria was once saluted with a dirty hand and declared thereafter that British sailors would salute with their hands at a 90-degree angle.

So who is always entitled to a salute?

  • The President of the United States
  • Commissioned and warrant officers
  • Medal of Honor recipients
  • Officers of allied foreign countries

What occasions should a service member give a salute?

Civilians have probably seen some of these instances in daily life (especially at a ceremony or a high-profile sporting event). But with rare exception, service members should render salutes in these circumstances:

  • During the playing of any national anthem
  • When the colors of the United States are presented
  • During official ceremonies
  • At a ceremonial reveal or retreat
  • During the raising or lowering of the American flag
  • During the Pledge of Allegiance
  • When reporting to a superior
  • When changing control of a formation

House1

When can service members skip a salute?

There’s protocol, and then there’s practicality. Salutes are not required when addressing a prisoner, when someone is in civilian clothing or when it would be tough or inappropriate to execute (for example, when someone is carrying equipment in both hands or at a crucial point of performing a complex task). Also, salutes are not usually required indoors, unless reporting to an officer while on guard duty, participating in an official ceremony or reporting to a commander or a military board. For a more nuanced look at salute rules, you can search out each individual service’s regulations on honors and salutes online (the Army’s can be found here).

Should civilians perform a hand salute when they see a service member?

Service members don’t expect salutes from civilians, even if those civilians are military employees or contractors. In fact, it could create an awkward moment unless the service member knows the civilian doing the saluting or recognizes the civilian to be a veteran. However, there aren’t any restrictions against saluting, either. The United States Constitution’s First Amendment protection for free speech and expression gives civilians the ability to do what they want when greeting anyone.

Our advice? Smile. Maybe say “hello.” And if you’re so inclined, shake their hand and thank them for their service.