While the current Space Marine codex includes various details, it leaves a lot to be desired. Not only does it omit certain bits of information, but what it does present often seems to contradict previous codexes or guides. Where printed information is lacking, I try to follow the examples of GW's official painters. Unfortunately, I think a lot of GW's professionals are aiming for style and the end results aren't always consistent. Recently I've run into the conundrum of how to paint Veteran Sergeant helmets. The answer to that question is less straightforward than I would like.
Before 4th Edition, determining the color of a Space Marine Sergeant's helmet was simple. If he wasn't a Veteran, he wore a plain red helmet. If you upgraded him to Veteran status, or if he led a squad of Veterans, his red helmet had a white stripe running down the middle. This standard held true for Terminators as well. The Insignium Astartes, which was published in 2002, shows exactly what their helmets were supposed to look like:
The white stripe was found on plenty of official models, as well:
With the release of the 4th Edition of C:SM, the idea of using white laurels to indicate veterancy was introduced. Although no mention of the classic white stripe is made in the text, there are still several photographs of Terminator Sergeants with a white stripe painted on a red helmet. There are also photos showing non-Veteran sergeants wearing plain red helmets.
In the 5th Edition of C:SM, the option to take a non-Veteran Sergeant was removed. All of a sudden, the need to distinguish between a Sergeant and a Veteran Sergeant became moot since they all had Veteran stats. Like the 4th Edition codex, the text of the 5th Edition codex makes no mention of the white stripe. The wording of the current codex is similar to that of its predecessor:
|Typically, Sergeants have|
red helmets. Veterancy is
indicated by a white laurel.
The only Sergeant's helmets shown in the codex are from suits of power armor; there is no indication of what markings may be found on a Terminator Sergeant's helmet. (The shape of the Terminator helmet doesn't really accommodate laurels.) The model gallery is of no help since all Terminator Sergeants are shown with bare heads.
Actually, the 5th Edition codex seems obsessed with showing nearly every Sergeant with a bare head. One of the few exceptions is the Assault Squad Sergeant:
|A Veteran Assault Squad Sergeant|
The model above follows the guideline given in the codex. However, at least one model in the gallery strays pretty far from the standard. This model is specifically identified as a "Sternguard Veteran Sergeant":
|This is a Sergeant?|
White helmets, or white laurels painted onto a non-white helmet, are explicitly said to identify a Veteran. Although the C:SM states that Sergeants "typically" wear red helmets, it says nothing that would lead us to expect that a white helmet with red laurels necessarily indicates a Veteran Sergeant.
There are a number of official models that also ignore the red helmet rule. Here are the models for both the Sternguard Veteran squad and the Vanguard Veteran squad:
|No red helmets on the Sternguard Veterans...|
|None on the Vanguard Veterans, either|
GW's painters have failed to identify any of these Veterans as a Sergeant. You can only tell who the Sternguard Sergeant is by his power fist (only the Sergeant can carry a power weapon). The Vanguard Sergeant is probably the one holding the two-handed sword since he's one of the few models that can take a relic blade. Either way, we're forced to look at wargear to determine who the Sergeant is rather than by looking for the red helmet that the codex tells us to expect.
Late 5th Edition
GW uses the same models over and over again in their literature. Once in a while their painters will add a few models as needed to showcase new products or to make an appearance in a new issue of White Dwarf or in new rulebooks. When the Sternguard weapons pack came out, GW did what many modelers do and built a plastic Sternguard Squad. The Sergeant, inexplicably wielding a pair of power claws (special ammunition is already part of the base cost, people!), was shown wearing a red helmet, but the white laurels appeared to be missing:
This sergeant made a reappearance in the recent Apocalypse rulebook along with a newer Terminator Sergeant model:
|Veteran Sergeants as shown in the new Apocalypse rulebook|
While the Terminator Sergeant is shown wearing a red helmet, the iconic white stripe is gone. I didn't see that model until after I had already painted this:
|The stripe took forever to paint!|
I'm rather fond of the stripe, so I'm not going to paint over it. However, it was a pain to paint and I would have skipped it entirely had I seen an official model that omitted it.
Reconciling the Inconsistencies
Although the C:SM makes it clear that the red helmet traditionally marks a Sergeant, and that some sort of white marking can indicate when one is a Veteran Sergeant, it's impossible not to notice that the codex constantly uses words like "usually", "frequently", "typically", or "often". I believe that GW's painters have used the leeway written into the codex to show that Veteran Sergeants can be marked in various ways. The fluff even gives reasons why such a variety would exist. Insignium Astartes says the following about Space Marine markings:
The Codex provides for a number of variations on this basic system and also suggests that each Chapter periodically revise its tactical markings in order to confound the enemy. This has led to many differences between the many Codex Chapters. It also explains why it is that some Chapters have varied their appearance over the course of millennia.The 4th Edition codex also states that the guidance on markings found in the Codex Astartes is relatively general, allowing for a lot of variation between chapters, companies, and even within companies.
In other words, GW has made it so that even obsessive-compulsives like myself can personalize their paint schemes while remaining true to the fluff. A hobbyist may prefer to paint the classic white stripe on his Veteran Sergeants rather than the currently preferred laurels. It could easily be said that the helmet itself is ancient and the current wearer has no desire to alter it or that the Veteran has chosen to use the older symbol for veterancy.
If GW's models can be considered cannon, the variety of acceptable markings may be even greater among the Veteran Squads than it is in Devastator, Assault, or Tactical Squads where the Veteran Sergeant is clearly of a higher rank and has superior leadership. The recent Sternguard and Terminator Sergeant models have red helmets, but they completely lack Veterans' markings, possibly because their armor itself indicates their status. The white trim on the Sternguard Sergeant's shoulder pads shows that he's part of the Veteran Company while only a Veteran may wear Terminator armor.
The fact that the helmets of the original 5th Edition Sternguard and Vanguard Sergeants are painted exactly like those of their squadmates could indicate that some Veteran Sergeants who lead Veterans (all of whom have the same leadership as they do) may feel little compulsion to differentiate themselves from the rest of their squad. Perhaps they considers themselves to be the first among equals and have no desire to set themselves apart from their battle-brothers.
Why Does This Matter?
So, other than to satisfy some sort of obssessive need for accuracy, why does it matter what a Veteran Sergeant's helmet looks like? Well, under the 5th Edition codex, when all Sergeants have the same stats (except for armor saves), or in a Veteran Squad, I guess it doesn't matter. But what about 6th Edition?
I'm flexible with my opponents, but my Ultramarines strive for strict WYSIWYG (although I've proxied Tactical Marines as Sternguard a few times, much to my shame). If the markings on a Sergeant indicate which set of stats he has, you'd better believe that I'll be painting his helmet so as to differentiate him. For Veterans, I'll probably opt for the laurels, but it might be fun to give one or two a white stripe. Just in case, I'll be keeping a few bare-headed Sergeants around so I have models that I can play as Veterans or non-Veterans.
[Update 10/6/13: As more information became available, I did an additional post on this subject. You can find it here.]