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The Origin and Meaning of the 21-Gun Salute

Updated on May 28, 2013

As the fallen soldier was laid to rest, 3 volleys of shots from 7 rifles echoed out. The 21-gun salute was poignant but with a dash of pride. In many military funerals the 21-gun salute is a stark reminder that death comes to all. As the echo of the riffle blasts shoots through the air, have you ever wondered why this is done?

Demonstration of Peace

The US Army Center for Military History says that this practice was a demonstration of peaceful intentions. How is shooting rifles in the air considered peaceful? To unlock this mystery we need to go far back into civilization’s history - even before there were guns.

Rendering a weapon useless showed a sign of peaceful intention. This action is surprisingly universal! Of course the action is dependent on the weapon at hand. African tribes would point their spears to the ground to signify a non-threatening disposition. The samurais would tuck their katana at their backs or even hold them with their drawing hand just to show non-aggressive demeanor. Since guns during the 14th century were single shot weapons, firing it once rendered them “useless”. Of course you can still use it to bludgeon your enemy but I’m sure you get the point.

The practice of rendering weapons ineffective spread even to warships. A total of seven shots were fired as a sign of submission and peaceful intent. Many scholars believe that the number seven had astrological or even biblical meaning. Regardless what it was based on, warships fired seven times.

On the other hand, land batteries fired 3 times that of the warships. Thus a sign of submission or peaceful intent on land was assigned a total of 21 shots. Again, the multiple of 3 assigned to land batteries has its special meaning. Whether it is due to the mystical significance of 3 in ancient civilizations or some other mystical reason, I cannot confirm it.

Royal Navy 21 Gun Salute filmed and edited by Simon Murray

The Highest State Honor

Although the salute was recognized internationally, there were still confusions on how it must be done. In fact, it was only in August 1875 when the United States agreed on the protocols behind the 21 gun salute. Through the years, the salute morphed even in the United States. Initially, the “National Salute” numbered 17 (the number of states in the Union at that time). It was fired at 1:00 p.m. (it was later changed to 12:00 noon) and on Independence Day. By 1842, the gun salute was officially made into 21 shots.

Today, the 21 gun salute is fired in honor of the flag, a sovereign head of state, a member of a royal family, the President, ex-President or the President-elect of the U.S.

21 Gun Salute: U.S.S. Constitution

The 3 Volley Salute

The 3-volley salute is different from the 21 gun salute. This is a military or police funeral custom usually executed by the honor guards. Its origins can be traced back to the European dynastic conflicts. In between battles, there will be a time to collect the dead and the wounded. Once the dead and wounded were collected a volley of 3 shots were fired. This signaled that the battle can resume.

The rifle party who fired the volleys can range from 3 to 7 individuals. The squad usually fires over the casket. However, if there are any persons attending the funeral, the squad is moved back approximately 50 feet away. For the safety of everyone, blanks cartridges are fired.

Although its origins are quite different from the 21 Gun Salute it has also evolved as a custom to honor. Coupled with the “Taps”, the military funeral customs is one that is truly distinct.

In the right circumstances, firing a weapon demonstrates peace and honor.


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