How Does Saluting Work in the Military?

armed forces salutes

We see service members saluting each other in movies, at parades, and at military events. And, most of us have seen the now famous picture of a three-year-old JFK junior saluting his father’s casket.

The hand salute exchanged between members of the U.S. Armed Forces may be the most recognizable military gesture among civilians. However, most people may not know that much about the significance of the salute.

We thought it would be interesting to delve into how salutes work in the military.

History of the Military Salute 

No one knows exactly where the military salute may have originated, but we do know that some version of a salute has been used by armies around the world for thousands of years.

According to Marine Corps University, when soldiers in ancient Rome approached one another, they raised their right hands with palms open to show they were unarmed and friendly. Over time, it became a custom for lower ranking soldiers to greet their superior commanders with an open palm as a sign of respect.

Fast forward several hundred years to medieval Britain. At that time, it was customary for knights who were dressed in armor to raise their face plates when approaching their superiors or members of the royal court for purposes of identification. Eventually, knights started to tap their right hands to their forehead even when not in armor, simulating the raising of the face plate, as a sign of respect when interacting with their superiors and comrades.

Most scholars agree that the modern salute as we know it today can be traced back to the early British Navy. As far back as the 1600s, British seamen removed their caps when addressing a senior officer. Gradually, that gesture was simplified to simply tapping the brim of their caps, or their forehead if no cap was being worn, with the right hand.

What is the Proper Way to Salute?

What is the Proper Way to Salute?

The salute may look like a simple gesture, but it’s not easy as you might think to do it properly. A sharp, quick salute conveys confidence, respect, and pride.

This is the correct way for a member of the military to perform a hand salute:

  1. The servicemember’s right hand should be raised swiftly until the tip of the first finger touches the lower part of their head covering. If there’s no headgear, then they should touch their forehead slightly above the right eye with their first finger.
  2. The thumb and fingers should be extended straight and all touching.
  3. The service member’s palm should be turned slightly inward just until it enters their field of vision.
  4. The service member’s elbow should be slightly in front their body, and the upper part of the arm should be parallel to the ground.
  5. The forearm should be at a 45-degree angle.
  6. The service member should hold the salute until the salute is returned by the superior officer. Once the salute is returned, the service member should drop their arm to its normal position in one swift motion.

While not part of the salute, it is customary for the junior officer to greet the superior officer during the salute.

For example, the junior officer would say “Good morning, Officer Smith” while looking the officer in the eye and standing at attention. Obviously, the greeting would change depending on the time of day.   

Rules for Saluting 

armed forces salutes

The salute is widely misunderstood among civilians to be a gesture of subservience, but that’s not at all true. The fact that lower ranked service members salute officers first is simply a sign of respect. The military salute is used as an expression of comradeship and recognition of shared sacrifice amongst all members of the Armed Forces.

All enlisted servicemembers of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard are required to salute their officers. All officers are required to salute their seniors. The superior officer will return the salute or otherwise acknowledge the salute with a greeting or nod.

Servicemembers are required to salute officers across branches. Additionally, salutes are given to officers in the Public Health Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Of course, the President of the United States is always saluted by any and all members of the U.S. military.

Here are a few other situations where a service member is required to salute:

  • When the national anthem or Hail to the Chief are played.
  • At ceremonies such as funerals or changes of command.
  • During the raising or lowering of the flag.
  • When arriving or departing from a ship.
  • When greeting officers of foreign nations.


When Not to Salute

armed forces salutes

Servicemembers aren’t expected to salute when:

  • Exercising or playing sports.
  • In public settings such as theaters, concerts, restaurants, or on public transportation.
  • In combat or in simulated combat situations.
  • Guarding prisoners.
  • When eating in the mess hall. However, if addressed by an officer during a meal, the service member should stop eating and give the officer their full attention.
  • Carrying something in both hands.
  • An injury prevents a salute.

It should be noted, however, that even if carrying something or an injury prevents a hand salute, the service member should stop, stand at attention, and greet their superior with respect.

Is it Appropriate for a Civilian to Salute a Veteran or Servicemember? 

A salute is reserved for active members of the military only. It’s rarely displayed among Veterans or even among active duty servicemembers who aren’t in uniform.

It would be inappropriate and confusing to a servicemember if he or she were saluted by a civilian. There’s a good chance that attempting a salute as a civilian would even offend a service member.

The best way to show respect for a servicemember or a Veteran is to thank them for their service, donate money to a reputable Veteran’s charity, volunteer at a VA hospital, or patronize a Veteran-owned business near your home.

Military Salutes are Sacred 

The simple hand salute holds tremendous importance to all the men and women of the military—no matter their rank. It is used to show respect for each other, the military, and their shared commitment to serving the United States.

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