What is a Shoulder Cord?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A shoulder cord is a military decoration which is worn on the shoulder. It may loop around the shoulder under the armpit, rest on the shoulder of the uniform, or attach to a point on the front of the uniform, depending on the design. There are a number of different types of shoulder cords used by militaries all over the world, ranging from the blue infantry cord worn by American infantry soldiers to the Schützenschnur, an honor awarded by the German armed forces in recognition of marksmanship. A number of regulations govern the wearing of shoulder cords.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

The origins of the shoulder cord are a bit unclear, but militaries all over the world use them to recognize proficiency, distinguish service branches, and award people for distinguished service, and have done so for centuries. There are also several different decorative devices which are referred to as “shoulder cords,” including the basic shoulder cord, aiguillettes, and the fourragere. As a general rule, all are made from braided or knotted materials which come in different colors.

Aiguillettes, usually gold or silver, are worn by high ranking members of the military and people who have received special awards. They are attached to the shoulder and worn across the chest, and distinguished by the presence of small tips which may include decorative devices such as the seal of a service branch. They may be worn on the left or right shoulder, depending on nation, service branch, rank, and purpose.

The fourragere is a special type of shoulder cord awarded by the French military, with a handful of other militaries following suit. Members of military units which have been recognized with the fourragere may wear this decoration while they serve in the unit, and people who belonged to the unit when it was recognized may wear it on the outside of the shoulder and retain the right to wear it for life. This award has been given to foreign units on occasion, and is still worn in the ceremonial dress of such units.

When a shoulder cord is awarded, it is typically pinned on or attached during a ceremony which recognizes the accomplishment which merited the award of a shoulder cord. Members of the military can also order shoulder cords for additional uniforms. A thriving trade in so-called “unauthorized” shoulder cords worn by soldiers who wear them to distinguish their service branch is seen in the United States. People may not technically be entitled a shoulder cord under military regulations, but the wearing of the cord is commonly accepted and tolerated.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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