Color guards have two basic formats. In the military variety, military members present their nation's flag — or colors — and the flags of their military branch and, possibly, company or division. In the entertainment variety, color guard members are often part of a high school or college marching band or independent drum corps. Their job is to use flags, decorative rifles and sabers, and dance to provide a visual interpretation of the band's music. While the two specific types of color guard have their own sub-types and are quite different on many levels, they also have some shared features.
Entertainment color guards often perform with marching bands or drum corps. The primary difference between these color guards is the kind of musical instruments used by their accompanying bands. While a marching band includes percussion, woodwind and brass instruments, a drum corps features only brass and percussion.
Color guards that perform with drum corps and marching bands often do so at sporting events, especially football games, and during parades. The color guard is essentially a visual interpretation of the music played by the band. To accomplish this interpretation, members use flags and other props, a variety of dance styles and sweeping marching formations that can span the entire football field.
Flags used by performance color guards are usually made from lightweight silk materials that move easily through the air. The flags are often spun or otherwise moved in a flowing fashion. Rifles are usually twirled and thrown high into the air before being caught. Members of the color guard must perform cohesively to make the routine look polished and appealing.
Another type of performance-based color guard is winter guard. The main difference between a traditional color guard group and a winter guard is that the winter guard performs indoors, often on a basketball court, during the winter months. Routines can feature props but also may have more of a dance emphasis to accommodate the tighter space. Winter guard performs independent of a marching band, often using recorded music. The lack of a band means choreography doesn't have to account for the band's placement.
Military color guards are much more formal. The term "color guard" traditionally refers to the group responsible for presenting a nation's flag and treating it with respect. These presentations are performed by military members in full uniform, often at military events or military funerals but also at various sporting events and other functions.
The types of military color guards vary by country and by military branch. Each one has controlled, formal movements that are performed. The United States Color Guard Marines, for example, is a four-person formation. The flag is posted and retired through formalities that represent respect for the flag as a symbol of the country and those who have served the country.