No one knows the precise origin of today’s hand salute. From earliest times, when meeting another warrior, the right hand or "weapon hand" was raised as a greeting, a symbol of friendship, and to show that the hand did not hold a weapon. Courtesy required that the inferior make the gesture first. There seems to be a connection between this old gesture and our present salute.
One 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 legend 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 print, 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 most likely origin of the hand salute is that 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 by removing his hat. However, 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, 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, it is used in today’s military as a sign of respect. Some point to remember about hand salutes:
- Salutes are customarily given with the right hand, but there are exceptions. A sailor with his right arm or hand encumbered may salute left-handed; however, a soldier or airman never salutes left-handed. A sailor does not salute when uncovered, but may salute when seated in a vehicle; however, a soldier or airman may salute while sitting or uncovered.
- Women follow the same customs and rules as men, with one exception. A woman in uniform indoors, where men customarily remove their hats, need not remove her hat.
- Salute all officers of all U.S. services and all allied foreign services. When enlisted chief/senior/master chief petty officers perform duties normally assigned to an officer, such as standing JOOD watches or taking a division muster, they rate the same salute as an officer.
- Unless walking, always salute from the position of attention. If you are walking, you need not stop; but hold yourself erect and square. If you are on the double or running, slow to a walk before you salute.
- Look directly into the officer’s eyes as you salute
- If you are carrying something in both hands and cannot render the hand salute, look at the officer as though you were saluting, and render a verbal greeting as described below.
- Remove a pipe, cigar, or cigarette from your mouth or hand before you salute.
- Salute officers even if they are uncovered or their hands are occupied. Your salute will be acknowledged by a verbal greeting, such as “Good morning,” “Good afternoon,” or something similar.
- Since Army and Air Force policy is to salute when uncovered, when you are around a group of Army or Air Force personnel, and all of you are uncovered, and an officer enters and the soldiers rise and salute, you should do likewise to be respectful.
- If you are walking or standing with a commissioned officer and the occasion for a salute arises for you and the officer, do not salute until the officer starts the salute and then quickly do the same.
- When approaching an officer, start your salute far enough away from the officer to allow time for your salute to be seen and returned. This space can vary; but a distance of about six paces is considered good for this purpose. Hold your salute until it is returned or until you are six paces past the officer.
- Salute all officers who are close enough to be recognized as officers. It is not necessary to identify an officer by name; however, ensure that he/she is wearing the uniform of an officer.
Proper Way to Salute
Salute from a position of attention. Upper arm should be parallel to the deck or ground, forearm inclined at a 45-degree angle, hand and wrist straight, palm slightly inward, thumb and fingers extended and joined, with the tip of the forefinger touching the front edge of the cover, slightly to the right of the right eye. Hold the salute until the officer has returned or acknowledged it, and then bring your hand smartly to your side.
The salute is normally accompanied by a word of greeting. The junior looks at the senior’s eyes and says (depending upon the time of day) the following:
- From first rising until noon: “Good morning, …”
- From noon until sunset: “Good afternoon, …”
- From sunset until turning in: “Good evening, …”
It is preferable to call the senior by grade name such as “Commander Jones,” rather than by the impersonal “sir” or “ma’am.”