Heraldry in itself has always been connected to the military. It is said to have originated in the Middle Ages as a means for distinguishing different warlords, although the Egyptians and the Romans used similar practices to denote military allegiances. The difference between ancient heraldry and medieval heraldry is its use: In ancient times, coats of arms were used for military units only while in more modern times coats of arms were attributed to families or individuals.
The meaning of heraldry as inherited emblem came into being in the 12th century when every person entitled to bear a coat of arms could bequeath it to their sons. In the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, heraldry became systematic and was regulated by professionals. When its use in jousting was no longer required, heraldry became popular for otherwise identifying people. Consequently, coats of arms were used as banners on houses, on family tombs or as seals on documents and letters.
In modern times heraldry does not cease to attract attention: Like nations and churches, also military institutions still build upon heraldic traditions. In military contexts heraldry is a very contemporary topic: Military coats of arms are still developing and use modern blazons that have not been used in medieval heraldry.
The United States Army Institute of Heraldry is an administrative government organisation entrusted with the furnishing of coats of arms for the American forces and other governmental organisations. It is a relatively small institution located at Fort Belvoir in Washington, D.C..Their primary work consists of the research, design and standardisation of symbolic items – including medals, flags and other decorations – worn by government officials. They also control the use of army insignia on items that are intended for sale.
In the United States, heraldic symbols have been popular since the American Revolution. However, the use of such symbols was not co-ordinated until 1919 when a military heraldry programme was initiated. During the Second World War, the interest in symbols grew steadily and with it the heraldry programme of the United States government.