If you’ve ever attended a significant military ceremony, you may not have seen it, but you certainly heard it: the booming report of a military gun salute.
Gun salutes have been around for centuries and, as they’ve evolved, shared a common purpose with the hand salute.
Although those origins are not entirely clear, it is believed that both honors were originally intended to show deference on the part of the person saluting to the person being saluted. The honors also demonstrated that the renderer of the salute was for all intents and purposes unarmed – a person using their right hand to salute could not easily wield a sword, and cannons, once fired, required some time to re-load. According to the Naval History and Heritage Command, “Early warriors demonstrated their peaceful intentions by placing their weapons in a position that rendered them ineffective.”
Additionally, it was once customary for a ship entering a friendly port to discharge its cannons to demonstrate that they were unloaded. The tradition of ceremonially discharging a ship’s weapons has evolved more to show honor rather than subservience or a state of readiness.
The U.S. Navy has had a proud tradition of gun salutes since its earliest days. On Nov. 16, 1776, the Continental Navy brigantine Andrew Doria captained by Isaiah Robinson, fired a salute of 13 guns on entering the harbor of St. Eustatius in the West Indies. A few minutes later, the salute was returned by nine guns by order of the Dutch governor of the island. The 13 gun salute represented the 13 newly-formed United States and the return salute was the customary salute rendered to a republic. This has been called the “first salute” to the American flag.
The first official salute by a foreign nation to the Stars and Stripes took place Feb. 14, 1778, when the Continental Navy ship Ranger, under Captain John Paul Jones, fired 13 guns and received nine in return from the French fleet anchored in Quiberon Bay, France.
Since that time gun salutes have been used at many events. The most famous gun salute is, of course, the 21-gun salute. The first written instruction on the 21-gun salute comes from 1818 U.S Naval Regulations which stated, “When the President shall visit a ship of the United States’ Navy, he is to be saluted with 21 guns.” It may be noted that 21 was the number of states in the Union at that time. For a time thereafter, it became customary to offer a salute of one gun for each state in the Union, although in practice there was a great deal of variation in the number of guns actually used in a salute.
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 fired at noon on the day of Washington’s Birthday, Presidents Day, and the Fourth of July. On the funeral day of a president, ex-president, or president-elect, and on Memorial Day, a salute of 21 minute guns is fired at noon while the flag is flown at half-mast.
Though sometimes mistaken for a 21-gun salute, the three volleys fired at funerals by a firing party do not constitute a 21-gun salute.
The custom of firing volleys at a funeral is thought by some to have originated in ancient times in the practice of making loud noises to scare off evil spirits. In the late 19th century in the U.S., the custom of firing volleys included the entire escort (of squad, platoon, company, or battalion strength). That was eventually reduced down to the front rank of the escort, a standard squad of 13 personnel. With the release of the Navy Landing Party Manual of 1960, the firing party was broken off from the escort formation and the size was reduced down to seven personnel. Currently, at funerals where military honors are rendered and a firing party is present, the team composition may consist of three, five, or seven members to fire three volleys.
U.S. Naval Regulations instruct that only those ships and stations designated by the Secretary of the Navy may fire gun salutes. With approval from the Secretary’s office, ships and stations may provide gun salutes for naval officers on significant occasions, using the following protocol 17 guns – admiral, 15 guns – vice admiral, 13 guns – rear admiral (upper half), 11 guns – rear admiral (lower half). Currently, all gun salutes are fired at five second intervals.