The 21-gun salute is often confused with the symbolic act of firing three volleys at military funerals, but these are two completely different rituals.
Not a 21-Gun Salute
This funeral salute often is mistaken by people who aren’t involved in the military as a 21-gun salute, although it is entirely different. The three volleys in the funeral salute are fired from rifles, not “guns.” Therefore, the three volleys isn’t any kind of “gun salute.”
In the military, a “gun” is actually a large-calibered weapon, such as a cannon. The 21-gun salute stems from naval tradition, and it is used to mark certain anniversaries, salute heads of state and reigning royalty, and honor national flags.
At military funerals, one often sees three volleys of shots fired in honor of the deceased veteran, and three spent shell casings presented to the veteran’s next of kin.
The three volleys comes from an old battlefield custom.
The two warring sides would cease hostilities to clear their dead from the battlefield, and the firing of three volleys meant that the dead had been properly cared for and the side was ready to resume the battle.
The three bullets simply represent the three volleys fired. They also represent these three words: duty, honor, country.
The firing team in this ceremony can consist of any number of service members, but one usually sees a team of eight, with a noncommissioned officer in charge of the firing detail. Whether the team consists of three or eight, or 10 service members, each member fires three times (three volleys).
Origin of the 21-Gun Salute
The use of 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. Apparently this custom was universal, with the specific act varying with time and place, depending on the weapons being used. A North African tribe, for example, trailed the points of their spears on the ground to indicate that they did not mean to be hostile.
The tradition of rendering a salute by cannon originated in the 14th century as firearms and cannons came into use. Since these early devices contained only one projectile, discharging them once rendered them ineffective. Originally warships fired seven-gun salutes–the number seven probably selected because of its astrological and Biblical significance. Seven planets had been identified and the phases of the moon changed every seven days. The Bible states that God rested on the seventh day after Creation, that every seventh year was sabbatical and that the seven times seventh year ushered in the Jubilee year.
Land batteries, having a greater supply of gunpowder, were able to fire three guns for every shot fired afloat, hence the salute by shore batteries was 21 guns. The multiple of three probably was chosen because of the mystical significance of the number three in many ancient civilizations. Early gunpowder, composed mainly of sodium nitrate, spoiled easily at sea, but could be kept cooler and drier in land magazines. When potassium nitrate improved the quality of gunpowder, ships at sea adopted the salute of 21 guns.
The 21-gun salute became the highest honor a nation rendered. Varying customs among the maritime powers led to confusion in saluting and return of salutes. Great Britain, the world’s preeminent seapower in the 18th and 19th centuries, compelled weaker nations to salute first, and for a time monarchies received more guns than did republics. Eventually, by agreement, the international salute was established at 21 guns, although the United States did not agree on this procedure until August 1875.
The gun salute system of the United States has changed considerably over the years. In 1810, the “national salute” was defined by the War Department as equal to the number of states in the Union–at that time 17. This salute was fired by all U.S. military installations at 1:00 p.m. (later at noon) on Independence Day. The President also received a salute equal to the number of states whenever he visited a military installation.
In 1842, the Presidential salute was formally established at 21 guns. In 1890, regulations designated the “national salute” as 21 guns and redesignated the traditional Independence Day salute, the “Salute to the Union,” equal to the number of states. Fifty guns are also fired on all military installations equipped to do so at the close of the day of the funeral of a President, ex-President, or President-elect.
Today the national salute of 21 guns is fired in honor of 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 of the day of the funeral of a President, ex-President, or President-elect.
Gun salutes are also rendered to other military and civilian leaders of this and other nations. The number of guns is based on their protocol rank. These salutes are always in odd numbers.
Source: Headquarters, Military District of Washington, FACT SHEET: GUN SALUTES, May 1969.