Heraldry is used to identify families, countries and allegiances; a heraldic shield is often carried as a badge of honour and devotion. There are many different devices used on a heraldic shield; learning what to look for can help in identifying who the bearer is or has pledged his honour to. Each element of the heraldic shield has its own name and terms used to describe its appearance.
Note the background. Each heraldic shield is made up of several different features, and being able to isolate these will go a long way in helping to identify the shield. The background of the shield itself is called the "argent," and is patterned with colours or patterns referred to as the "tincture." Some have solid colours or a metallic background, while others have patterns that are designed to represent a particular material such as ermine. Colours are often specified in the description of the device; if they are not, then blue and silver are the most traditional.
Observe the front of the shield. A partition is the method in which the design on the front of the shield is divided. Some individuals take the heraldic devices of each parent and combine them into one shield; this is commonly seen in royal families. A partition can be as simple as separating the shield into two vertical halves, or creating a checkerboard effect with multiple partitions. Lines are as simple as a straight line or as complicated as alternating fleurs.
Note the charge. There is traditionally a device displayed in each of the partitions, called a "charge." Animals, crowns, trees, flowers, crosses and even human figures are all common; each of these charges further has ways to describe the position. For example, a lion with one foot in the air is called a "lion passant," while a lion with all feet on the ground is called a "lion statant."
Some charges are much more simplistic and may include crosses or smaller shield emblems with a variety of different edging. Perhaps one of the most easily recognisable of this type of charge is the red cross, long associated with Saint George and England.
Look for a mark on the shield that is not part of the charge. When someone takes the shield heraldry of his family, it is not uncommon to put his own mark on it to indicate where in the family he falls. Some are as simple as having lines representing birth order; for example, the third son in the family might have three extra lines on the device. In some countries, families may use symbols such as a star, a fleur or a rose to indicate the shield belongs to a specific family member. Learning to identify these individual markings will help identify if the shield belongs to the entire family or to one individual member.
Different countries have different traditions, so finding out what country the shield is from can help determine the family.