Chances are you’ve probably heard of a 21-gun salute. Maybe you’ve even seen it in person or on television. However, you might not know what it is or where the tradition comes from. Find out where the 21-gun salute began, and why it still matters today.
What is the 21-Gun Salute?
First, don’t confuse the 21-gun salute with the three-shot volley, which is fired with rifles at military funerals. A 21-gun salute is a ceremonial gun salute performed by firing artillery or cannons to show military honor. According to the Army’s website, this salute 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 these presidential figures. It is even fired on Memorial Day to honor fallen soldiers and on George Washington’s birthday.
Origins of the 21-Gun Salute
Gun salutes have their origin in the Middle Ages. Back then and for many centuries afterward, they represented placing oneself in an unarmed position to show peaceful intent. The cannon salute originated in the 14th century as a defeated enemy’s custom of emptying their cannons to render them ineffective. This originally consisted of seven shots for naval salutes, which some believe mirrors biblical symbolism, though it’s more likely this was simply because seven was the standard number of cannons on a warship. Since more gun powder could be stored on land, forts would fire three shots for every one shot fired from sea. Hence, the number 21. Ships later adopted the 21-gun salute as gun powder quality improved.
During the colonial period and early years of the United States, the gun salutes consisted of one shot for every colony or state and were fired at each military installation both on Independence Day and whenever the President visited. This changed over time. In 1842, a 21-gun salute was adopted for the Presidential salute, and regulations in 1890 designated it as the “national salute.”
Other Common Gun Salutes
The 21-gun salute is a revered ceremony, but it is not the only ceremonial salute performed at military events or honors. The three-volley salute and the Salute to the Union are other common salutes that are fired on specific occasions.
As mentioned earlier, the three-volley salute is often mistaken as a 21-gun salute. This volley is fired at military funerals and consists of rifles shooting three times to honor the dead. It is usually accompanied by the playing of taps as a United States flag is given to the next of kin. The three-volley salute originated with the custom of ceasing fire during battle to remove the dead and wounded from the field. Once the bodies were removed, each side would fire three shots, or volleys, to resume fighting.
Salute to the Union
As in earlier years, the Salute to the Union consists of one shot for each state. This is fired by military installations on Independence Day and is usually accompanied by a 21-gun salute from naval vessels.
Ceremonial salutes are strong traditions rooted in history and are a special part of the United States military. It is almost certain that you will witness a salute several times in your life. Remember the meaning and the honor that they bestow.
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