The U.S. Navy has its roots in the British Royal Navy, and as such, has retained some of the intriguing traditions of this well-respected institution. One such throwback is the Arch of Swords (so called in the Navy and Marine Corps), also known as the Sword Arch (Army or Air Force) or Saber Arch—and always known as a special military “salute” to a couple that has just been married. It’s a powerful symbol that pledges loyalty and protection to the couple, and welcomes them into the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps family.
Related: What It’s Like to Wed on the Yard.
Setting up the Sword Arch
Directly after a wedding ceremony, guests exit the place of worship or ceremony venue so they can get a great view of the newly married couple. With a sword arch, they’ll typically see six or eight women and/or men lined up on either side of the doorway in two columns. They’ll look especially striking in their dress uniforms and white gloves. Enlisted personnel will usually create the same arch with rifles, and any military members who do not typically bear arms often replace weapons with hand salutes. They stand at the foot of the stairs or just outside the door, facing each other, with the most senior in rank the farthest from the door. All swords stay sheathed until the ceremony begins.
Behind the Scenes
The best man or groom typically manages the honors ceremony, ensuring it runs smoothly by picking participants and ensuring they have their sabers. Then it’s the senior usher's job to confirm all of the ushers are prepared for their roles, both in the matrimonial ceremony and in the Sword Arch. While those participating in the Arch of Swords do not need to be ushers, they commonly are. They can be commissioned, non-commissioned and warrant officers.
The Walk Under the Arch
Time to shine. After the newlyweds leave the receiving line, they approach the arch of swords. If the wedding ceremony was in a house of worship, the arch must be set up outside of the building since no weapons (even ceremonial ones) are allowed inside. If the ceremony was in a non-religious venue, the arch can form inside.
Then the fun begins. The head usher announces, “Ladies and Gentlemen, it is my honor to present to you, [Rank or Rate] Name and [Mrs. or Mr.] Name." This greeting is customized to each couple, depending upon who is in the military. It may be both people. Then the usher gives the command: "Draw swords!” All ushers raise their swords and touch the tips, with the blades facing away from the newlyweds. Thus the arch is started. “Invert swords,” creates the arch. This can be done similarly with rifles or may be rendered with salutes.
It’s a striking scene, and one that inspires excitement and pride among all who witness it. The couple walks under the arch and is stopped by the final two ushers, who have lowered their swords in front of the couple so they cannot pass. Then the couple kisses. The usher on the right pats the bride gently on her backside with their sword, with a hearty, “Welcome to the Navy!” Of course if she is already in the military, they skip this step.
Once they have passed through, the rite continues with the command: "Return swords," and each places their swords into the scabbards simultaneously, stopping when four inches of the blade top remain. They click the swords into place at the same time. The head usher then gives the command to dismiss them. At this point, the bridal party has paused behind the couple and waits until the arch has dispersed before continuing out of the venue. The saber is then used to cut the cake. Traditionally, the groom puts his hands over his bride’s and they cut the first piece together.
New Takes on an Old Tradition
Recently at the U.S. Naval Academy, an arch of swords was formed with an all-female group of soldiers and sailors from various branches. It was a first-of-its-kind event and a welcome addition to this time honored tradition. You’ll also see non-military couples take up the fun with hockey sticks, cricket bats or their weapon of choice!
Say I Do to the Yard!
The Yard hosts beautiful weddings all year long, set against the backdrop of stunning Beaux Arts architecture, gorgeous walkways and the magic of this seaside town. If you’re lucky enough to attend a wedding on the Yard, you’ll also enjoy world-class catering and amenities not found anywhere else. Even if you’re not coming for a wedding, a trip to USNA is always magical. When you take a USNA tour, dine in our excellent restaurants or pick up a souvenir from our shops on the Yard (or on Navyonline.com), you’re also giving back to the midshipmen who give so much for our freedom. All proceeds help make extracurricular activities such as cultural arts, theater, music, club sports and more possible. The Arch of Swords is just one tradition in a place where history is happening every day. Come visit and experience the thrill!