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What is a 21 Gun Salute?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A 21 gun salute is a military honor which is accorded to someone such as a visiting head of state or an object such as a national flag. Gun salutes have been used for ceremonial purposes since firearms were invented, and the precise numbers of guns or other artillery weapons fired tends to vary, depending on the nation and the level of honor which the salute is designed to imply. One famous form of the 21 gun salute is in the three volley salute, a gun salute which accompanies high-ranking military burials.

The history of the 21 gun salute is actually far older than the gun itself. Since ancient times, people with peaceful intentions have approached with their weapons held in a way which disables them. For example, people carrying spears might drag them along the ground. The disability of the weapon implies a genuine peaceful intention, and also an honor, as someone with a disabled weapon is in the power of someone with a functional weapon.

The earliest form of the gun salute was a naval convention. Many ships would fire their guns when they approached a port, to alert the residents to their approach and also to convey peaceful intentions, since a painstaking reloading process would have been required to get the guns ready to be fired again. Over time, these gun salutes were deemed celebratory as well as functional, and the idea of firing weapons to honor someone and to celebrate an event also began to appear on land.

At funerals, weddings, and ceremonies held to celebrate someone's change in status, a gun salute is a very formal honor, and the number of guns is dictated by the rank of the person involved and by the nation. In the United States, for example, gun salutes have fluctuated, at one point based on the number of states in the Union, for example, with the current formal number being set at 21. A full 21 gun salute is reserved for the President of the United States and certain visiting dignitaries, although a President may be honored with a different number of guns when he or she travels abroad.

In the United States, a 21 gun salute is fired at noon on Memorial Day to commemorate American war dead, and it is also fired at noon on the day of a death of a President or former President. Presidents are also entitled to a 21 gun salute when they are buried. On the Fourth of July, a whopping 50 gun salute is fired to honor all 50 states in the Union, and gun salutes of varying numbers may be fired to celebrate individual state constitutions and other major political events around the United States.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon329049 — On Apr 07, 2013

Is it OK to have a 21 gun salute at the opening flag ceremony of our memorial moonlight parade?

By anon94153 — On Jul 07, 2010

Would it be offensive to have five groomsmen fire off one shot at the same time in honor of a newly married couple?

By anon86279 — On May 24, 2010

A 21-gun salute and the "traditional three volleys" are completely different. The 21-gun salute evolved from a naval custom of saluting other vessels and upon entering ports. The number of guns has varied, and varies today based upon the occasion.

The president of the US (and other heads of state) get 21 guns, the VP, Secretary of Defense, and Sectretaries of the Army, Navy, and AF get 19, four-star generals get 17, etc. On the Fourth of July, Army posts have traditionally fired a "Salute to the Union" of 50 guns (for the 50 states).

The "Traditional Rifle Volleys" on the other hand, comes from a land-based custom. I've heard several versions -- one that links it to the "three cheers" given by knights in the middle ages and another that a three-rifle volley signified the end of the "free period" when each side could go onto the battle field and recover their dead and wounded.

The number of riflemen does not matter. In my military career, and afterwards, I've seen as few as three riflemen (firing three times) and as many as 12 (still firing three times).

Keep in mind that in the military, a "gun" is a large weapon -- howitzer, cannon, naval gun, etc. -- while the smaller weapons (rifle, pistol, shotgun, etc.) are never referred to as "guns."

Both the gun salute and the three volleys are forms of honors -- please don't confuse them.

By anon51590 — On Nov 07, 2009

The firing of three rifle volleys, at a military funeral or commonly seen at Veteran's Day and Memorial Day ceremonies, is not a 21-gun salute, despite the coincidence that there are seven in the rifle party. Please refer to more accurate resource material, such as the Military District of Washington's site or other Army or Navy sites.

By anon15264 — On Jul 06, 2008

There is no 21 gun salute to the president on memorial day - only if he's visiting Arlington National Cemetery -- in that case there's 21 guns on his arrival timed from the entry to the cemetery to where he exits the limo - likewise the same is done as he leaves....

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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