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What is the order of the flags in the color guard?

The color guard is an important part of military and civic ceremonies. It consists of service members carrying flags during events to represent different organizations or countries. The exact order and number of flags can vary, but there is a specific protocol for the arrangement of the color guard.

The U.S. Armed Forces Color Guard

For events involving the United States Armed Forces, the color guard will carry the U.S. flag and the flags representing each branch of the military. The flags are arranged in a specific order, with the U.S. flag always leading the color guard.

The standard order for a U.S. Armed Forces color guard from front to back is:

  • U.S. flag
  • U.S. Army flag
  • U.S. Marine Corps flag
  • U.S. Navy flag
  • U.S. Air Force flag
  • U.S. Coast Guard flag

The U.S. flag always leads the color guard and represents the entire country. The military branch flags follow in order of when they were established, with the Army flag coming first as it is the oldest branch.

4 Flag Color Guards

For some military events, a 4 flag color guard is used instead of the full 6 flag arrangement. This is done to simplify the color guard formation when space or personnel are limited.

The 4 flag color guard consists of:

  • U.S. flag
  • Army flag
  • Marine Corps flag
  • Navy flag

The Air Force and Coast Guard flags are omitted from the 4 flag color guard. The U.S., Army, Marine Corps, and Navy flags maintain their positions as the lead flags in the color guard.

Other Color Guard Variations

Certain events may call for different flag arrangements or additional flags to be carried by the color guard. Some variations include:

  • Retirement ceremonies – The flag of the retiring service member’s branch is carried directly behind the U.S. flag.
  • Memorial/funeral services – The color guard may carry an MIA/POW flag or a ceremonial state flag.
  • Historical events – Flags like the Betsy Ross flag or Gonzales flag may be carried to represent earlier time periods.
  • Allied forces – The flags of allied nations like the United Kingdom or France may lead the color guard.

However, even with additional flags, the U.S. flag always leads the color guard formation when it is present.

Flag Positions and Bearers

In a standard 6 flag U.S. Armed Forces color guard, the flags are arranged symmetrically with 3 flag bearers on each side. The positions are:

Left side Right side
U.S. flag Coast Guard flag
Marine Corps flag Air Force flag
Navy flag Army flag

This arrangement balances the heavier Army and Marine Corps flags between the lighter Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard flags. It also alternates the order of the flags aesthetically.

In a 4 flag color guard, the U.S. flag bearer still leads on the left. The Army flag moves to the far right position, while the Navy and Marine flags shift to the center positions.

Marching Order and Formation

When marching, the color guard keeps the flags in the same relative order, with the U.S. flag still leading the formation. However, the actual positions of the bearers may be adjusted.

Common color guard marching formations include:

  • Column – Bearers march one after the other with the U.S. flag leading.
  • Line – Bearers march abreast in a line with the U.S. flag on the left flank.
  • Diamond – Bearers march in a diamond shape with the U.S. flag at the front point position.

During the march, bearers keep even spacing between flags. They also try to maintain proper flag etiquette, holding the flags upright and aloft at a consistent height.

Flag Folding Order

At the conclusion of a ceremony, the color guard flags are retired in a specific sequence. When folding the flags, military tradition dictates the following order:

  1. U.S. flag
  2. Army flag
  3. Marine Corps flag
  4. Navy flag
  5. Air Force flag
  6. Coast Guard flag

The U.S. flag is always folded first and treated with the utmost dignity and respect. The remaining service flags are folded in the order of seniority, starting with the Army flag.

For color guards with additional ceremonial flags like an MIA/POW flag, those special flags would be folded following the Coast Guard flag.

History of the Color Guard

The use of flags in military units and processions dates back centuries in history. However, the modem concept of the color guard developed in the early 20th century as the U.S. Armed Forces expanded.

Early History

In ancient armies, different flags helped identify and locate specific units on the battlefield. later, flags and banners became rallying points for troops in combat. This evolved into using dedicated flag bearers to mark the position of the commander.

In the 18th century, the U.S. Army carried national and regimental colors to represent the entire military force and individual units. The Army officially established its modern standards for color guards and honor guards in 1834.

Growth of the Color Guard

With the creation of the U.S. Air Force and consolidation of the Armed Forces in the early 20th century, the military color guard expanded. New service flags were added to represent each branch.

The protocol for the color guard order and composition formalized leading up to World War II. This allowed color guards to properly commemorate events involving multiple services with coordination and precision.

Modern Color Guards

Today, strict military guidelines dictate composition, marching, flag folding, and training for color guards of the Armed Forces. The U.S. Army commonly takes the lead in coordinating joint-service color guards for major national events.

In addition to military color guards, civilian color guards often perform at schools, sporting events, and civic ceremonies. They follow similar practices but have more flexibility in their flag arrangements and protocols.

Training and Qualifications

Serving in the Armed Forces color guard requires extensive training and perfection of skills. Those who carry our nation’s colors are held to the highest standards.


Each branch has its own criteria and competitive selection process for color guard members. Candidates must pass requirements like:

  • Fitness testing
  • Military bearing evaluation
  • Color guard performance tryouts
  • Command recommendation
  • Interviews

Only those who demonstrate the utmost professionalism, discipline, and ability are chosen for the prestigious duty of representing their service in the color guard.


Color guard members undergo intense training to perfect their skills. This includes:

  • Marching – Precise steps, formations, facing movements, salutes.
  • Rifle manual – Complex rifle spinning and handling.
  • Flag handling – Unfurling, flourishing, folding, dipping.
  • Commands – Verbal calls and non-verbal cues.
  • Ceremonies – Practicing all steps for different events.

Units constantly drill for several hours a day over many weeks to achieve color guard perfection. Their routines and performances must be flawless.

Continuing Practice

To maintain top proficiency, color guards rehearse together prior to every event. Refresher training and tryouts for new members also occur annually.

Being in the color guard requires extensive dedication. But it is an esteemed privilege to carry the flags for fellow servicemembers past and present.


The color guard has a truly noble purpose – to honor the nation, military branches, and all who served before us. The precise flags and bearing of the color guard reflect the strength, pride, and dignity of America’s Armed Forces.

While ceremonies may vary, the color guard follows time-honored traditions. Its proper flag order and drill instill respect and preserve military customs for future generations.