What Is The Origin Of The 21-Gun Salute?

By This file was contributed to Wikimedia Commons by National Archives and Records Administration as part of a cooperation project

If you have ever been to a military funeral or watched one on TV or in the movies, you will know that every part of the service has meaning behind it.

Every military service includes playing “Taps,” which has been regarded as “the most appropriate and touching part of a military funeral.”

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After “Taps” is played, the flag that has been lying on top of the casket is folded 13 times to represent the 13 original colonies and handed to the next of kin or close friend if there is no next of kin.

Soldiers assigned to 1st Battalion, 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) and a bugler from the U.S. Army Band, “Pershing’s Own,” conduct modified military funeral honors for U.S. Army Master Sgt. Nathan Goodman in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia, July 23, 2020.<br />A member of the 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne), Goodman had served eight tours overseas, including four deployments to Afghanistan, once to Iraq, twice to Africa and once to Kyrgyzstan. He had been enlisted in the Army since July 2002.<br /> Goodman died January 14, 2020 during a routine free fall training exercise near Eloy, Arizona.<br /> Goodman’s spouse, Kelly Goodman, received the flag from his casket.<br />
U.S. Army photo by Elizabeth Fraser / Arlington National Cemetery / released

Occasionally, but not always, there will also be a gun salute.

What is the history behind a gun salute at military funerals?

According to the U.S. Army Center of Military History, the gun salute was first used to honor “early warriors who demonstrated their peaceful intentions by placing their weapons in a position that rendered them ineffective.”

Firearm salutes can be traced back to the 14th century when firearms and cannons became more prevalent in the military. Back then, it was just a single discharge.

When warships adopted the gun salute, they chose to fire a seven-gun salute due to the seven days of the week created by God.

Eventually, the land provided better access to gunpowder and lasted longer than it would have at sea, so three were made simultaneously on land for every shot made at sea. This became the 21-gun salute and it “became the highest honor a nation rendered.”

U.S. Airmen with the Hill Air Force Base Honor Guard fire three rifle volleys during the funeral service for a fallen Airman on Oct. 26, 2013, near Ogden, Utah. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman Taylor Queen/Released)

The 21-gun salute was used mostly at sea until the late 1800s.

In 1810, the United States War Department announced that the “national salute” would be equal to the number of states in the Union at the time. In 1810, there were 17 states, so there would be 17 salutes.

Every U.S. military installment fired 17 salutes at 1 PM on Independence Day, and the president also received this salute whenever visiting a military installment.

In 1842, the Presidential salute and “national salute” was changed to 21 guns. The Independence Day salute was titled “Salute to the Union,” and was always equal to the number of states in the Union. Since 1959, the “Salute to the Union” has included 50 guns.

The only other time a 50-gun salute is given is at the end of the day of the funeral of a President, ex-President, or President-elect.

When is a 21-gun salute used now?

In modern days, a 21-gun salute is fired at noon on the day of the funeral of a President, ex-president, or President-elect.

It is also used 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.”

A gun salute will take place at military funerals for veterans who retired from military service, service members killed on active duty, and Medal of Honor recipients. The number of salutes is based on their protocol rank, but it is always an odd number.