Gun Salutes

The use of the gun salutes for military occasions is traced to early warriors who demonstrated their peaceful intentions by placing their weapons in a position that rendered them ineffective. The tradition of rendering a salute by cannon originated in the 14th Century in the British Navy. Since discharging the cannon rendered it ineffective, by custom, warships fired seven-gun salutes while shore batteries, which had a greater supply of gunpowder and were able to fire three guns for every shot fired afloat, fired a 21 salute. In 1842 the U. S. established the Presidential salute at 21 guns while in 1890 it was established as the National salute. Today, the 21-gun salute is fired in honor of the President while guns salutes of less numbers are rendered to other military and civilian leaders based on their protocol rank.

In the days of cannon, it took as long as twenty minutes to load and fire a gun. When a ship fired her guns in salute, she rendered herself powerless for the duration. By emptying their guns, the ship's crew showed shore batteries and forts that they were no threat. Over time, this gesture became a show of respect, with both shore and ship gun batteries firing volleys.

The origin and significance of the military custom of firing rifle volleys at funerals is interesting. During the funeral rites of the Roman Army the casting of the earth THREE times upon the coffin constituted the burial. It was customary among the Romans to call the dead THREE times by name, which ended the funeral ceremony. As friends and relatives of the deceased departed they said "Vale", or farewell, THREE times. Over time when firearms were introduced on the battlefield the custom of firing volleys was established to halt the fighting to remove the dead from the battlefield. Once each army had cleared its dead it would fire THREE volleys to indicate that the dead had been cared for and that they were ready to go back to the fight. Today, when a squad of soldiers fires THREE volleys over a grave, they are, in accordance with this old custom, bidding their dead comrade farewell.

Today, after the last rifle volley, the bugler then sounds TAPS. The fact that the firing party consists of seven riflemen, firing three volleys does not constitute a 21-gun salute . The 3-volley salute is a salute performed at military and police funerals as part of the drill and ceremony of the Honor Guard. A rifle party, usually consisting of an odd number of firers, usually from 3 to 7 firearms. Usually the firearms are rifles for military, but at some police funerals, shotguns are used. The firing party is positioned such that, when they shoulder their arms for firing, the muzzles are pointed over the casket of the deceased who is being honored. If the service is being performed inside a church or chapel, or funeral home, the firing party fires from outside the building, typically positioned near the front entrance. On the command of the NCO-in-charge, the firing party fires their weapons in unison, for a total of three volleys. Because unbulleted blanks (which will not cycle the action of a semi-automatic rifle) are used, in the United States, M1 or M14 rifles are preferred over the current issue M16 rif le, because the charging handles of the M1/M14 are more easily operated in a dignified, ceremonial manner than on the M16.

Many confuse the 21-gun salute with the 3-volley salute. The 21-gun salute is used primarily as a greeting. It's fired during presidential arrivals and departures and when heads of state visit. Also, it's not limited to the United States - many countries have similar ceremonies. The 3-volley salute, on the other hand, is performed during police and military funerals by the Honor Guard and is intended as a reminder. While the two salutes look (and sound) similar, the 21-gun salute is considered the higher honor.

While many people like to say the 21 gun salute was a tribute to the American Revolution, a number determined as a result of adding together the numbers 1 7 7 6, the truth is, the 21 gun salute was an effort to cut costs. The habit of firing salutes became wasteful, with ships and shore batteries firing shots for hours on end. This was particularly expensive for ships, which had a limited space to store powder (which went bad quickly in the salt air).

The British admiralty first dictated the policies now in place as a practical matter to save gunpowder. The rule was simple, for every volley fired by a ship in salute, a shore battery could return up to three shots. The regulations limited ships to a total of seven shots in salute, so the 21 gun salute became the salute used to honor only the most important dignitaries.

Today, the USN Regs proscribe that only those ships and stations designated by SECNAV (Secretary of the Navy) may fire gun salutes. A national salute of 21guns is fired on the following:

  • Washington's Birthday
  • Memorial Day
  • Independence Day
  • To honor the President of the United States
  • To honor heads of foreign states

Additionally, ships may, with approval from the office of SECNAV, provide gun salutes for naval officers on significant occasions, using the following protocol:

  • Admiral.................................17 guns
  • Vice Admiral..........................15 guns
  • Rear Admiral (upper half)......13 guns
  • Rear Admiral (lower half)......11 guns
All gun salutes are fired at five second intervals.

Gun salutes will always total an odd number.


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