The Only 10 Tactical Hand Signals You Need to Know

Fergus Mason
By Fergus Mason January 18, 2018 00:00

The Only 10 Tactical Hand Signals You Need to Know

What do you do if you need to pass instructions to someone, but you don’t want to make any noise? In a major crisis there are likely to be criminal gangs and armed looters around, and your preparation is going to need to include plans to defend against that. Unfortunately, barricading yourself in your house with a pile of ammunition isn’t going to be enough to guarantee your security. What if you have crops planted that you can’t see from the house? Does your power come from a turbine or generator that intruders could reach undetected?

If you really want to be secure you’re going to have to patrol your land and the areas around it regularly. The best way to do this is to work with friends and neighbors, so you have enough people to scare off or defeat any threats. Sometimes a visible presence is what you need – someone standing sentry duty on an entrance road will be enough to make many scavengers go looking for an easier target. Other times, stealth is going to be required. What if you know there’s a group of looters in the area, and you want to find them without being detected?

The trouble is, working in a group means you have to communicate with each other – and sometimes you’ll have to do that silently. Especially at night, shouting instruction – even talking normally or using a radio – can be heard from a long way away. But how do you communicate without making a noise?

Related: Camouflage and Concealment: The Art of Staying Hidden

This is a problem that armies have faced for centuries, and their solution is to use hand signals. When troops move, they always aim to maintain visual contact with the men around them, and they space themselves out so they can do that. Soldiers advancing across open ground in daylight might be spaced fifteen or twenty yards apart; in the woods at night that might fall to only three or four feet. The rule is that they’re always close enough to see at least the men to either side of them, or the ones in front and behind. That prevents people getting separated and lost – but it also means they can use silent hand signals to pass messages.soldiers communicating hand signals

If you google “tactical hand signals” you’ll find dozens of different sites explaining hundreds of signals. The problem is, this is far too complicated for most people. In fact it’s too complicated for most soldiers, who regularly rehearse hand signals in field training. A lot of the ones you’ll find online are highly specialized ones used by special forces or police SWAT teams. What you really need is a handful of basic signals that let you carry out simple patrols and security tasks.

Here are the top ten signals you’ll need to operate tactically in a post-SHTF scenario. They’re all tried and tested signals used by the US and British armies, and they’ve helped a lot of soldiers get through some very tough times. Learn them, pass them on to the people around you, and they’ll help you too.

Line formation

If you’re searching open ground, or doing a sweep to find intruders, moving forward in a broad line is the way to do it. Silently tell everyone to spread out into line by holding both arms straight out to the sides. If you’re moving, slow or stop to let people catch up with you and move out to your flanks. Remember that a line is hard to control; everyone has to look to both sides every few seconds, to check spacing and be aware of any new signals.

File formation

In the woods, or high scrub, a line isn’t just difficult to control; it’s impossible. Signal to move into file formation by holding both arms straight up above your head. This indicates a double file, which is ideal for moving along roads or tracks – with one file on each side of the track, you have people ready to react to trouble on either side.

On a very narrow track switch to single file; to order this, hold up one arm.

Enemy Seen/Not Seen

To signal that you have seen a hostile or unidentified person, hold one arm out to the side, fist clenched and thumb pointed down. This is just a sign that someone has been sighted; it isn’t a command to open fire. If you do want to open fire that should be ordered with a whistle or shouted command, or simply by opening fire yourself. Make sure everyone knows this in advance.

To let people know that there are no hostiles in sight, hold one arm out, fist clenched and thumb pointed up.

Related: A Green Beret’s Guide to EMP: Practical Steps to Prepare for a “Lights Out” Scenario


If you need everyone to slow down hold one arm out to your slide, angled down, with your hand flat and palm downwards. Slowly wave the arm up and down, then drop your own speed. Everyone should match their own speed to yours.

Telling people to slow down also warns them to be extra quiet and alert for possible trouble.


Stop movement by holding your hand up with the flat palm towards your people. If you’re moving in line remember to repeat the signal to both sides, and watch to make sure it’s observed. Whenever you stop, everyone should take up a fire position so you have observation and weapons coverage in all directions. In woods or long grass a kneeling position is fine. If you’re in open ground and want everyone to go prone, repeat the stop signal.

Move Out

To get moving again after a halt, hold your hand up shoulder high or higher, palm to the front, and sweep it forward. Make sure everyone gets the signal; it’s surprisingly easy for someone to miss it and get left behind, especially in the woods.

At The Double

If you want to pick up the pace hold one arm up vertically, then pump your fist up and down. Again, everyone should match their speed to yours.

On Me

Need to talk to someone? Point at them, then place the palm of your hand on your own head. If you want to bring everyone in for a discussion, skip the pointing part – if this signal is given without pointing to one or more people, it means everyone should close in on you.

Obstacle Ahead

If you spot an obstacle to the front, turn round and hold up your arms, with the forearms crossed over. What you do next will depend on the obstacle. If it’s a road, move into a line just back from the edge of it, then at a signal all cross it quickly together. Crossing a road one by one just splits your group and makes it more likely someone will be seen. If it’s a fence or river you’ll need to defend one side, then move people across to start building a defense on the other side as quickly as possible.

Related: 3 Non Lethal Booby Traps From An Army Vet

RV/All Round Defence

If you want to take a break, check the map or make sure you’re not being followed, point at the ground and spin your hand in a circle. Then stop and take a fire position in the direction you were moving. Everyone else should move up and start taking positions clockwise from yours, until they cover a complete circle. The location you stop in becomes a rendezvous, or RV. If you run into trouble and have to separate, everyone should move back to the last RV and regroup there.

If you don’t plan to stop, but want to mark a location as an emergency RV, carry out the same point-and-spin signal, then stab your finger down towards the ground twice and keep moving. As your followers cross the same point they repeat the signal, letting everyone know where to regroup if there’s trouble. The usual drill is that, if necessary, everyone moves to the last RV that was signaled; if that isn’t far enough away from the problem -for example, if you’re at the last RV and people are still shooting at you – go back to the one before that.

Check out this video tutorial:

The big danger with hand signals is that somebody will miss them. When you give voice or radio commands you can ask everyone to check in, as a verbal confirmation that they’ve got the message. That doesn’t work with hand signals. It’s important that you don’t just give the signal then assume it’s been understood and passed on; when you give a signal to someone, watch them until you see them repeat it to the next man in line. If everyone does that you shouldn’t have any issues, and you’ll be able to communicate and move in perfect, tactical silence.

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Fergus Mason
By Fergus Mason January 18, 2018 00:00
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  1. Clergylady January 18, 13:22

    Good article. Informative and to the point. Here just two doing guard duty keeping thieves out on odd evenings. No set pattern. Sometimes every night. Some times miss a night or two and depend more on barking dogs. Silent signals work great.
    Wonder how well a rag tag group might work?
    Thieves have almost stopped trying now.

    Reply to this comment
  2. E-Prep lady January 18, 16:08

    This is so interesting! I’m going to present this to my group!

    Reply to this comment
  3. red January 18, 16:30

    Good, common sense signs. One thing the ancestors did was everyone learned hand signing. It was a great advantage over invaders (like the Calvary 🙂 and, if allies didn’t speak your language, you could still communicate in hand. I have a deaf neighbor and while I was very rusty, I’m picking American sign up again.

    Reply to this comment
    • red January 18, 16:31

      Sorry for the typo! Clergylady made me do it! (joking! 🙂

      Reply to this comment
    • PB- dave January 19, 02:59

      Having work on and off over many years with deaf/HoH people, I can see the value in ASL. Well worth studying, not only for communicating with the deaf, but very handy in loud noise areas, quiet situations, even under water. And surprisingly efficient , 2 or 3 signs can replace a long spoken sentence and still convey the same message.

      Reply to this comment
      • red January 19, 05:20

        We had to learn it in grade school, but it was one of the things cut off as ‘unnessary’ by those who fight for teachers’ pay increases. I came in handy around here when playing soldier in the woods. It will again, but no playing this time.
        For clergy lady: “I will say only nice things about clergy lady.”“I will say only nice things about clergy lady.” (I’m getting there! 🙂

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  4. G January 18, 19:55

    Pictures of the hand signals would go a long way. Maybe take the extra 5 minutes to do that next time.

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  5. Clergylady January 18, 22:11

    Red, write 100 times on the blackboard ; “I will only say nice things about clergylady”. 🙂

    Reply to this comment
    • red January 19, 05:03

      Yes, boss! “I will say only nice things about clengy lady (should I include the smiley?). I will say only…

      Reply to this comment
  6. Clergylady January 18, 22:16

    I learned most of the signs here but as a kid I learned Indian Sign language quite well. The only problem with that was, it was about a century too late to be of much use.

    Reply to this comment
    • red January 19, 05:06

      You might be surprised. A lot of Native Americans learned to sign back in the 60s and 70s, even in C. America, where it wasn’t used. American sign, tho, is something we all should learn.
      Mmm, OK, back to work…“I will say only nice things about clergy lady.”“I will say only nice things about clergy lady.”“I will say only nice things about clergy lady.” “I will say…

      Reply to this comment
  7. Xyz January 19, 00:55

    We gave our credit info, but there was no address line to send the book to. For Carol McLeod. Send us confirmation through the email we gave We will send address.

    Reply to this comment
  8. Clergylady January 19, 06:40

    I learned native sign in 1958. As for America sign, I think it would be well worth learning.
    I did know a bit of it but it’s been nearly 60 years since I used any of it.

    Reply to this comment
  9. Clergylady January 19, 07:04

    My two best friends in First grade were deaf. Had to sign a bit to play games. That would have been 1954. So I’m a bit rusty.

    Reply to this comment
  10. TruthB Told April 27, 16:39

    Don’t forget that old standby “middle finger” salute. Always useful in those “silent” arguments.

    Reply to this comment
  11. EDDIE February 20, 20:50

    VERY good message. My sister in law and her brother are deaf from a young age. Difficult in a country of 11 languages

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