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Why A 21 Gun Salute?

21 gun salute

If you have ever attended a military funeral, you will likely remember it as a somber, moving experience. Honorably discharged veterans, military retirees, and those who die while on active duty are each entitled to a military funeral. Does this honor entitle them to a 21-gun salute? Not exactly, these funerals typically involve a flag-draped casket, the playing of “Taps,” a three-rifle volley, and the flag folding and presentation. 

However, people often confuse the three volleys with a 21-gun salute. When, in fact, most military funerals do not include a 21-gun salute. Our nation reserves that honor for the funeral of a president, ex-president, or president-elect. 

So if the 21-gun salute is not featured at most military funerals, when is it used? And what determined such an odd number for it? Here is what you should know.

History Of Gun Salutes

Even before guns existed, warriors showed their peaceful intentions by putting their weapons in a position that made them ineffective. This act was a universal gesture that varied with time, place, and the type of weapon. For example, some early African tribes trailed the points of their spears on the ground, signifying they were not hostile.

However, by the 14th Century, firearms and cannons came into use for military salutes. By the late 16th Century warships fired all seven cannons to indicate non-aggression. Firing their armaments left them useless until they could reload. 

Fortified land emplacements, having access to more gunpowder, were able to fire their heavy guns quicker than those on the warships. They soon began firing their guns three times for each of the seven salutes fired afloat.  Thus, it became the 21-gun salute. . 

Potassium nitrate greatly impacted the quality of gunpowder. They could easily store an earlier form of gunpowder, sodium nitrate, in land magazines. It was easy to keep those magazines cool and dry. Potassium nitrate based gunpowder worked better with heavier artillery as its blast was more powerful to shoot a hefty cast-iron cannonball. As the quality of gunpowder improved for cannons, units increased salutes to twenty-one shots.

What Is The Significance Of Ships Firing Seven Guns?

a photo of a historical naval gun salute

The USS Constitution firing a 21-gun ceremonial naval salute.

The 21-gun salute eventually became the highest honor a nation could give. Many sources theorize that the ships fired seven cannons because the number seven has astrological, historical, and biblical significance. For instance, astronomers had identified seven planets in the 16th Century, and the moon’s phases change every seven days. Other reasons for the fascination with the number seven include:

The 21-Gun Salute In The United States

The gun salute has transformed substantially over the years in the United States. In November of 1775, the West Indian port of St. Eustatius gave a nine-gun salute, answering a 13-gun volley from John Paul Jones of the American ship Andrew Doria. It marked the first time another nation recognized and saluted the United States.

However, it wouldn’t be until 1810 that the U.S. War Department would prescribe regulations concerning gun salutes. They defined a national salute as the number of shots equal to the current number of states, which was 17 at that time.

Initially, all U.S. military installations delivered the new 17-gun salute at 1:00 p.m. They later changed this to noon on Independence Day. The President also received the same salute equal to the number of states whenever he visited a military installation.

By 1818, the U.S. had grown to 21 states, and the U.S. Navy instituted a regulation that required 21 guns to salute the President anytime he visited a U.S. Navy ship. The number of firearms used in the “National Salute” varied for many years. Often matching the number of states at the time. But that was about to change.

Presidential 21-Gun Salute

a photo of trump's presidential 21 gun salute

President Donald Trump’s 21-gun salute at his inauguration on January 20th, 2017.

In 1842, the Presidential salute, then at 26 guns, was officially established at 21 guns. In 1890, regulations defined the national salute as 21 guns. While the traditional Independence Day “Salute to the Union” was designated equal to the number of states. The government instructed military installations to fire fifty guns at the close of the day for the funeral of a President, ex-President, or President-elect.

Today, we use the 21-gun national salute to honor a national flag, the sovereign or chief of state of a foreign nation, a member of a reigning royal family, and the President, ex-President, and President-elect of the United States. It is also fired at noon on the day of a President’s, ex-President’s, or President-elect’s funeral.

Gun salutes are also afforded to other military and civilian leaders in the United States and other nations. While the number of guns is based on protocol rank, the salutes are always made in odd numbers. Ceremonial gun salutes are done with powder charges or blank rounds. (There are no projectiles loaded in the cartridges that can exit the barrel when the guns are fired.)

Other Types Of Firearm Salutes

The United States and other countries use firearm salutes. For instance, the tradition of firing three volleys originated on battlefields years ago. Generally, both sides announce a temporary ceasefire to remove its dead from the field of war. They fired three volleys to signify each side cleared the deceased and the battle could continue.

The three volleys fired at military funerals are a different tradition. Gun salutes are often made up of 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, or 19 guns. Each is based on protocol rank. For example, 19-gun salutes honor U.S. vice-presidents, speakers of the House, presidents of the Senate, state governors, and foreign prime ministers. The military also used them for high-ranking officials. Think of people like the Head Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Five-gun salutes celebrate vice-consuls and consular agents.

The 21-gun salute is the highest honor a nation can bestow. If you see or hear volleys being fired at a military honors funeral, such as one at Arlington National Cemetery, you might witness rifle or cannon salutes in numbers determined by the rank of the deceased veteran. But it’s highly unlikely that it will be a 21-gun salute.

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