An American Heraldic Primer - Page 5

by Philip D. Blanton, MA


There are some heraldic authorities that will not allow multiple people to bear identical arms even if they have the right to inherit those arms from a common ancestor. Instead, these authorities will difference such arms by the application of brissures, or cadency marks, in order to distinguish between the different cadet lines of the family. Additionally, some heraldic authorities use special brissures to identify children who were adopted or born out of wedlock. 

The English system uses brissures to distinguish each son in birth order. The eldest son uses a label only during the lifetime of his father; after his father’s death, he removes the label and bears the same arms as previously borne by his father. The Irish system uses the same symbols as the English system, but applies them to both male and female children in birth order. The Canadian system uses the English symbols for male children and a completely different set of symbols for female children. The Scottish system uses bordures of different colors and patterns in addition to the English brissures, but unlike the English system, these marks are specifically assigned in each case by the Lord Lyon King of Arms and cannot be applied by the armiger on his own. Other systems require that either the tinctures be changed or that the armigers bear a different crest. 

None of this is required or even customary in American heraldry, particularly the brissures for children who were adopted or born out of wedlock. The only exception is if brissures were displayed on the arms of the first ancestor of a family to come to the United States. In this case, the brissures should be retained on the arms of his or her descendants, but further differencing is usually not practiced. If an American adopts new arms then the use of brissures is entirely at the discretion of that armiger and his or her descendants.

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Women’s Arms

A woman may, like men, assume their own coat of arms; however there are a few traditions that are unique to women’s arms. Women have traditionally displayed their arms on a lozenge or oval to show their status as noncombatants, but it has become increasingly popular for women to display gender equality by the use of a shield. A woman who inherits her father’s arms is known as a heraldic heiress. 

An armigerous married woman has the option of bearing her arms undifferenced or, more traditionally, differenced with a small contrasting escutcheon or marshaled with her husband’s arms. Non-armigerous married women may bear her husband’s arms undifferenced or, according to some traditions, with a small contrasting lozenge. A woman’s arms can be inherited by her children equally in the same way as a man’s arms.

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Marshalling of Arms

Marshalling is the term applied to the practice of combining multiple arms together on a single shield. There are three areas in which marshalling is normally practiced: to show marriage, to show inheritance from multiple armigerous lines, and to indicate an office held by the armiger. 

There are four traditional ways of heraldically displaying the marriage of two armigers. One is to simply show both shields of arms accolé, or side by side with the charges respecting each other. Traditionally, the husband's arms would be displayed to the dexter and the wife's to the sinister. A second way of displaying marital arms is to impale the two coats. Originally, impalement was accomplished by taking the dexter half of the husband's arms and combining them with the sinister half of the wife's arms on the same shield. This practice is known as dimidiation. A third and more modern way to heraldically memorialize a marriage is by impaling the husband’s arms, which are squeezed in their entirety onto the dexter side of the uniting shield, with the wife’s arms, which are correspondingly squeezed onto the sinister side. With both forms of heraldic impalement, it is usual that only the wife bear the impaled arms while her husband bears his arms undifferenced. The fourth way to heraldically display a marriage is with an escutcheon of pretence. This is accomplished by placing the wife's arms, in the form of a small escutcheon, or shield, in the center of the husband's arms. 

In some countries, impalement is also used by persons holding certain offices. In these cases, the arms of the organization or office are placed in the dexter half of the shield and the office-holders personal arms are placed to sinister. In the United States, it is rare for such official arms to be impaled other than by prelates of certain churches denoting that they are married to the church or to their position. In addition, some senior officers of some orders have the privilege of marshalling the order’s arms with their own in various ways. 

A coat of arms is, naturally, inheritable by the armiger’s children. If both parents are armigerous, their children could inherit the arms of their namesake, or quarter the arms of their parents. The father’s arms would appear in the first and fourth quarters, the mother’s arms in the second and third.

With changes in American laws and customs over the past several decades, it is appropriate for the traditional heraldic customs to be adapted accordingly. For example, if a man takes his wife's surname, it would be acceptable to marshal the wife's arms to dexter with the husband's to sinister, or for an escutcheon of the husband's arms to be shown upon his wife's arms. Similarly, it would be more appropriate for a child with a combined surname to bear the quartered arms of his or her parents rather than their father’s un-marshaled arms.

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In countries where arms are granted, the appearance of an armiger's shield, and sometimes even the crest and supporters, may be altered, or augmented, by the addition of a charge on the shield. These augmentations may be given as rewards for distinguished service to the country or simply as a mark of the sovereign’s favor. Such augmentations are typically shown by a canton, a chief, or sometimes even an escutcheon in honor point. Such augmentations of honor are not used in the United States, although Americans might inherit previously augmented arms from an ancestor. 

Some heraldic authorities also claim that arms may be abated if the armiger has brought some kind of dishonor upon himself. This can include inverting the arms upon a shield, placing a fillet saltire overall, or another of many marks of abatement. Probably the best known abatements are the bend sinister and the baton sinister, sometimes misrepresented as a bar sinister, to denote illegitimacy. While the bend sinister and the baton sinister have historically been used to heraldically identify children born out of wedlock, they are rarely used today. It is unlikely that anyone would actually bear abated arms, and there seems to be little or no evidence that such abatements have ever actually been imposed.

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Heraldry can be used for many purposes. It can be used as a focus of unity within a family or group, but it can also be used to divide those who are “entitled” to arms from those who are not. In the United States, no one is excluded from the possibility of designing and adopting arms of his own, but centuries of misunderstanding based on the belief that arms must be inherited has led many to assume they are entitled to bear the arms of another simply because they have the same last name. This fallacy has been propagated by so-called heraldry “bucket shops”. While they do offer handsome products, most owners of these bucket shops know little, if anything, about heraldry or genealogy and are only interested in making money. Most of the time the arms they sell to unsuspecting buyers have been taken from a questionable collection of arms of prominent European families, often on the basis of the flimsiest similarity of surnames usurped from their owners, and there is no genealogical evidence that they may be inherited or possessed by the buyer. Sometimes the arms that are sold are completely fictitious with no basis in history whatsoever. The problem is that those same arms are then re-sold to every client with that particular family name. It may come as some comfort to those who have been victimized by these merchants that this practice has been going on for centuries. Of course, a profession may be very old without being honorable. The best advice to persons looking to purchase their “family arms” is buyer beware! Even if one finds that an ancestor was armigerous, the arms they are entitled to may be a little different than their ancestor’s arms. Ones personal arms are exactly that—personal—and may only be used by the armiger, their spouse, and their descendants.

Heraldry began as a means of identification and continues to function indisputably in that role even today. While the science of blazoning can seem impossibly difficult to understand, the budding herald or armiger can quickly master it with the right set of tools as supplied in the preceding chapters. Although there are many aspects of heraldry that were not discussed therein, it is hoped that this primer has provided a basic understanding of the fascinating world of heraldry. For more information and a more in-depth study of the heraldic arts and sciences in America, please see the following articles from the American Heraldry Society:

  • Guidelines for Heraldic Practice in the United States,
  • Heraldic Registration in the United States, and
  • Foreign Armorial Grants and Registrations for Americans.

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The following resources are acknowledged as being extremely helpful to the author during the writing of this text:

American Heraldry Society.

Brooke-Little, John Philip. An Heraldic Alphabet. London: Robinson Books Ltd., 1996.

Fox-Davies, Arthur Charles. The Art of Heraldry: An Encyclopedia of Armory. London: Bloomsbury Books, 1986.

International Association of Amateur Heralds.

Moncreiffe, Ian and Don Pottinger. Simple Heraldry: Cheerfully Illustrated. London: Thomas Nelson & Sons, Ltd., 1981.

Neubecker, Ottfried. Heraldry: Sources, Symbols and Meaning. Maidenhead, England: McGraw-Hill Book Co. (UK) Limited, 1976.

Parker, James. A Glossary of Terms Used in Heraldry.

Pastoureau, Michel. Heraldry: An Introduction to a Noble Tradition. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1997.

Slater, Stephen. The Complete Book of Heraldry: An International History of Heraldry and its Contemporary Uses. London: Hermes House, 2003.

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