Veteran's Day: History of the Salute

The salute probably developed as an alternative to raising a hat.

On Veteran's Day, Americans symbolically salute men and women in the military. Wondering where the actual tradition of saluting came from? There are many legends, but the most likely explanation involves hats.

The long-held custom of removing hats in when superiors were present evolved into today's salute when headgear got too cumbersome too remove.

"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," a 1745 British order book explained.

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In 1700, some soldiers wore tall, elaborate hats with chinstraps, according to HistoryExtra. Instead of removing the hats, the soldiers made the gesture of touching their hats. European armies made it their formal salute in about 1780, and it spread from there.

Other legends go back to medieval times. One uncorroborated story goes that soldiers would lift their helmet visors in order to be recognized, and the salute developed from there, according to HistoryExtra. Others say that in late Roman times, citizens approached public officials with their right hand raised to show they did not hold weapons, according to Army Study Guide.

However it evolved, the current correct form involves one quick motion, as shown here by a sergeant on Howcast.

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Former president Ronald Reagan famously coached former president Bill Clinton on executing a more powerful and accurate salute. Time tells the story, adapted from a book by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy:

"Reagan noted that he had seen Clinton salute during the campaign and found his military method well, a little wanting. If Clinton was going to employ the gestures used by the military, Reagan urged, Clinton needed to be firmer, stronger, more commanding...But how to do it, exactly? The old Army cavalry officer explained the hand had to come up slowly, like it was covered with honey, and then brought down sharply, definitively, as if it was covered with something far less pleasant. Clinton listened and soon the two men were standing in Reagan's office, practicing their salutes together."

Photo: U.S. Marine 2nd Lt. Adam Carroll salutes during the playing of the National Anthem prior to a speech by President Barack Obama in honor of Memorial Day at Arlington National Cemetery. Credit: Getty Images