21 Gun SaluteUpdated: May 9, 2021
What are the origins of the 21 gun salute? This military honor is performed at high-level funerals, but also in honor of presidents and former presidents, heads of state, and in commemoration of national holidays like Memorial Day, the 4th of July, and on George Washington’s birthday. But where did it come from and what does the 21-gun salute mean?
Not To Be Confused With…
The 21-gun salute is sometimes confused with the tradition of firing three volleys of rifle fire at a military funeral. This technically is NOT a 21-gun salute, but instead refers to a different tradition established during the European dynastic wars from 1688 to 1748.
During these conflicts, fighting was commonly halted on the battlefield to clear the dead. Once the dead were removed, three rounds would be fired to indicate that fighting should resume.
The tradition became part of military funerals to honor the nation’s war dead, but it should not be confused with the higher honor of the 21-gun salute, which has evolved into a category similar to honors like the Purple Heart. It is not offered to all who die in service to the country, but is reserved for those who earned higher honors through exemplary service.
In contemporary times, some military funerals may feature the three-gun salute, while the funerals of flag officers, current and former presidents, presidents-elect, cabinet secretaries, and other dignitaries may feature 21 guns.
A Centuries-Old Military Tradition
The military salute was born out of an ancient custom designed to let an approaching warrior know you were friend and not foe. Raising of the sword arm to show the hand is empty over time became the salute.
In a similar fashion, the 21-gun salute was also born out of the need to show peaceful, not hostile, intent. U.S. Army historians note that salute by cannon began in the 14th century as the firearm-based equivalent of the ancient salute.
Firing your guns out to sea, away from an oncoming ship, was a signal that the ship’s weapons would not be brought to bear on the other vessel.
Military sources suggest the British Navy codified a “seven-gun salute” in this manner as its vessels commonly carried an arsenal of seven cannons. Over time, the number increased to 21 guns. But that’s not necessarily the only possible origin story of this type of military salute.
The American 17-Gun Salute
In the early days of America, the United States War Department issued a definition of a national salute–in 1810, that salute would be delivered by a number of guns equal to the number of the states in the Union. At that time, the number was 17 and this 17-gun salute would be fired on Independence Day, and during any visit by the U.S. president to a military base.
A presidential salute was felt necessary, so come 1842, the U.S. government adopted the 21-gun salute and later decided that 21 guns was appropriate for an international salute, also. This decision apparently was late in coming, much of Europe had adopted an international 21-gun salute earlier.
The 21-Gun Salute Today
In the 21st century, the 21-gun salute is rendered in honor of a national flag, heads of state, royal families, the president, former presidents, and (where applicable) the president-elect of the United States.
Today’s 21-gun salute is also fired at noon on Washington’s birthday, President’s Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, and the day of the funeral of a president, former president, or president-elect. Gun salutes in general are rendered for other military and civilian leaders, but the number of guns in these salutes will be in odd numbers and will vary depending on rank, plus traditional customs and courtesies.
The Presidential Salute Battery
The Presidential Salute Battery (Guns Platoon), 3rd United States Infantry Regiment is responsible for salutes at Arlington National Cemetery. This battery handles ceremonial gun-salute honors in general officer funerals and retirements. It is also responsible for full honor burials of sitting and former presidents of the United States. Other duties include providing similar honors at funerals for sitting cabinet secretaries and flag officers.
The 50-Gun Salute
Did you know there is actually a 50-gun salute reserved specifically for the closing ceremonies of a funeral for a U.S. president, former president, or president-elect? This honor is obviously seldom-used, but is required to take place on military installations with the ability to perform the ceremony at the end of the day following a funeral for a President/Commander-in-Chief, former presidents, or presidents-elect.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News
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