Heraldry began as a system of insignia which, when applied to a banner, shield or clothing would identify the bearer.(7.42) Instituted originally as a means of identification for warring factions, heraldry eventually evolved into a system of honor by which descendants of a particular individual (who had distinguished himself in some way and was granted a coat of arms) could identify themselves as kinsmen of that individual.
The thing that most people associate with heraldry is the coat of arms. It is often believed that the entire design as shown in the following example is the thing that is called a coat of arms. The actual coat of arms is simply the shield shaped element in the center of the entire design. The coat of arms got its name from the practice, begun in the 12th or 13th Century, in which the heraldic design was embroidered or painted onto the mantles (or surcoats) which soldiers wore over their coat of mail.
The entire design, on the other hand, is called the heraldic achievement or the achievement of arms, or sometimes simply the achievement. The various elements in the design of the heraldic achievement, sometimes referred to as the armorial bearings, include, in addition to the shield, the supporters, the crest, the motto, and so on. The shield, or coat of arms, may be used alone, but the additional elements of the achievement may not be used alone. All these elements will be discussed in greater detail later.
The written description of the armorial bearings is known as the blazon. The blazon is always described as if from behind the shield. Therefore, an element said to be on the dexter side, which means the 'right' side, would appear on the left side of the achievement to the viewer.
The heraldic achievement was issued to a single individual. The recipient of the heraldic achievement was usually a nobleman or hero in battle. A common mistake that many uninformed people make in regard to heraldry is that a coat of arms was/is issued to a family. The Smith family might believe that there is a Smith family coat of arms; the Jones family might believe that there is a Jones family coat of arms. And while there may, indeed, have been a coat of arms issued to a particular man by the name of Smith or Jones, it does not follow that the coat of arms is to be claimed by all persons of that surname. It is unfortunate that there are companies in business making money by hoodwinking uninformed persons into purchasing what they are told is their family coat of arms.
The thing that is known in Scotland as the clan badge is not the same thing as an heraldic achievement, although the primary elements of the badge might be used (usually in the crest) in an achievement. The clan badge is a type of insignia that belongs to all the members of a clan, the use of which is not dependent on direct lineal descent from a particular individual.
The heraldic achievement is initially drawn in trick. That means that it is drawn by the artist as an open line ink drawing. Colors are indicated in the drawing by the addition of standard textures, and confirmed in the description by name, such as or for gold, argent for silver, and so on. Colors are only added to the line drawing for purposes of making it presentable to the owner.