Jack (flag)

A jack is a national (originally naval) flag flown from a short jackstaff at the bow of a vessel, while the ensign is flown on the stern. Jacks on bowsprits or foremasts appeared in the 17th century. The word "jack" is said to result from the signature Jacques of King James I in whose reign (1603–1625) the Union Jack was designed.[1] A country may have different jacks for different purposes, especially when (as in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands) the naval jack is forbidden to other vessels. The United Kingdom has an official civil jack; the Netherlands has several unofficial ones. In some countries, ships of other government institutions may fly the naval jack, e.g. the ships of the U.S. Coast Guard and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the case of the jack of the United States. Certain organs of the British government have their own departmental jacks. Commercial or pleasure craft may fly the flag of an administrative division (state, province, land) or municipality at the bow. Merchant ships may fly a house flag. Yachts may fly a club burgee or officer's flag or the owner's private signal at the bow. Practice may be regulated by law, custom, or personal judgment.


A naval jack is usually flown when the ship is not under way, but is moored or at anchor, or when it is dressed overall on special occasions. The Union Jack of the Royal Navy must be run up when the first line is ashore when coming alongside. The same regulations are applied by the Royal Canadian Navy[2]

In the United States, the First Navy Jack is also used as uniform sleeve patches.[3]

A recent controversy at The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina over a Confederate naval jack, model 1863–1865, ended when the school's Board of Visitors voted in favor of moving the flag from the Chapel to what was called "an appropriate location on campus."[4]

Shapes and designs

Naval jacks are usually rectangular, often square, and smaller than the national ensign or war flag. Some countries fly a smaller version of the national or war flag, or its canton on its own. France and some other countries use the same flag or ensign for all purposes, civil or military, and also as their naval jack. Japan and some other countries with civil and war ensigns of different designs fly the civil ensign as a jack and the war ensign at the ship's stern. A shortened, square version of the national flag is used by some countries. A larger group of jacks show the country's national coat of arms, either as a banner of arms, or as a badge displayed on the field. Most countries have chosen a completely different design for their naval jacks, often with some national or maritime symbol, and usually with the same colours as in their flags.

War ensign as jack

Countries that use their war ensign also as a jack, will usually fly a smaller version at the bow.

Union jacks

United or confederated states have in many cases adopted a jack representing their national union. The best known is the Union Jack of the United Kingdom's Royal Navy, composed in 1606 by joining together the flags of England and Scotland. When the Kingdom of Ireland merged with Great Britain in 1801, a red saltire (St Patrick's Cross) was added to form the present Union Flag. The design of the British Union Jack probably inspired later jacks of other nations, e.g. Russia and the Union Jack of Norway and Sweden. The Russian jack in its turn inspired the jacks of Bulgaria, Estonia and Latvia.

From 1777 until September 2002, the United States Navy flew the union jack, the blue canton with white stars from the U.S. national ensign. (Since September 11, 2002, the U.S. Navy has flown the First Navy Jack, originally used 1775–76, with a rattlesnake and the motto "Dont Tread on Me" superimposed on thirteen alternating red and white stripes.)

The Confederate States of America followed the same pattern for its first naval jack (1861–1863), the canton of its first navy ensign, with seven stars forming a circle on a "medium blue" field. Later versions had up to fifteen stars. The Second Confederate naval jack was a rectangular cousin of the Confederate Army's battle flag and was in use from 1863 until 1865.

The Union Jack of Norway and Sweden 1844–1905 was a rectangular cross flag divided per saltire, combining the national colours of Sweden (hoist and fly) and Norway (top and bottom). The naval jack was also used as flag for the common diplomatic representations abroad.

The Soviet Navy was the naval arm of the Soviet Union from 1918 until 1991. Often referred to as the Red Fleet, the union jack its a red flag with a star and the hammer and sickle inside.



  • Album des pavillons nationaux et des marques distinctives. National flags and distinctive markings, Service hydrographique et océanographique de la marine, Brest, 2000

See also

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