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Why the 21-Gun Salute?

The firing of gun salutes during military occasions has been there for many decades. In the days of old, warriors placed their arms in positions that made them useless to demonstrate peaceful intentions. 

In the times of war, soldiers rested the points of their rifles or similar weapons on the ground, showing they were on a peaceful mission. The act was universal, depending on the time, place, and type of weapon being used. Both soldiers on land and sea adopted the practice.

Soldiers out in the sea would fire their guns once, as most firearms contained only one projectile. Therefore, a single shot would render the weapon ineffective. On land, warriors would drop off the point of their swords or present their arms as a sign of surrender to those being honored.  

The practice held, even as warfare changed over the years, evolving and taking new forms. Today, what we know as the 21-gun salute traces its roots back in the 17th century. While the gun salute was a sign of defeat on the battlefield, it’s currently associated with special occasions. 

The sound of 21 gunshots means something unusual is happening, and you only need to draw closer and be part of it. 

What’s the Meaning of the 21-Gun Salute?

Several customary gun salutes exist, but most people recognize the 21-gun tribute. It’s a Naval tradition that evolved to be what it is today. Some centuries back, a warship would fire its cannons out into the sea, exhausting all its ammunition to show that the sailors were disarmed. 

At that time, the ships were small in size and could only contain a few guns. Also, most arms just managed a single shot. So the rounds were limited. Initially, only seven shots would be fired, as the standard number of weapons on a vessel was seven. However, people came up with theories to explain the Navy’s choice. 

According to some, it was because seven planets had been discovered by then, and the moon’s phases changed after seven days. Others associated the number with luck and firing seven times, as the ship approached the shore after a long journey, was a sign of tranquility and victory. Actually, for some time, an even number of shots signified the death of a captain or soldier during the voyage.

It became a tradition for most warships universally, but as time went by, the number increased to 21. It could be because the ships became more massive and could now be equipped with more weapons. As warfare changed, the firing of 21 shots became an official salute, rather than a symbol of peace by an approaching warship. 

The 21-gun salute was first recognized in the 1730s, whereby it would be performed to honor British government officials. Later on, it became the Navy’s tradition to fire 21 shots to recognize the British Royal Family on specific anniversaries. And in 1808, the 21-gun salute became the official way to honor British Royalty. 

Other nations also adopted the practice, and it became popular in state-related events, whereby 21 guns would be fired in honor of a head of state. In some exceptional circumstances, the gun salute was performed for government heads.

It’s worth noting that the rounds of shots in any salute vary depending on the conditions. The circumstances include the type of occasion, the branch of service, and a person’s rank in the case of military funerals. Most people confuse the 21-gun salute with the gun firing meant to pay the last tribute to fallen soldiers. Depending on the laws of a country, the shots could go beyond twenty-one.

The History Of Gun Salutes

The act of saluting has been there for centuries, long before firearms came to be. In the olden days, performing a salute was a way of showing one is disarmed and under the power of those being honored. 

In the past, a salute was done by removing the headdress or dropping the sword’s point. In that way, an opponent understood that one had peaceful intentions, as there were frequent wars between communities. Warriors guarded their territories to attack invaders before reaching their land. So the sight of approaching strangers meant war, and only until a salute is performed, one was considered an enemy.

Some times later, in the 17th century, saluting became a maritime practice. An enemy defeated in the battle was required to expend all its ammunition as a sign of surrender. Things changed over time, and the salute by gunfire became a popular naval tradition, whereby a ship approaching a foreign port discharged all its guns to demonstrate friendly intentions. The sailors were allowed into the territory with empty arms, as it would take time to reload the weapons while onshore in case there was a looming attack. 

With time, land batteries also adopted the practice, whereby salute by gunfire was a sign of reception to an approaching warship. Once the incoming ship performed a gun salute to render its weapons harmless, the soldiers onshore fired a given number of times in response as a sign of welcome. 

Both soldiers onshore and offshore fired an odd number of times, as even numbers symbolized death. The guns onshore fired three times for every single round fired by an approaching ship. Since it was customary for a warship to fire seven times, the number of shots ashore totaled to 21. 

It’s not entirely clear why the ratio of three to one was picked, but it became a military tradition. The ships increased in capacity over time and could now hold more weapons than before. Also, the quality of the naval gunpowder improved to the use of potassium nitrate. And with the captains preferring a one to one salute, the ships started firing 21 shots instead to match the gunfire ashore. 

21 shots became the highest national honor, but owing to varying maritime customs in different states, the number wasn’t constant. Gun salutes also became a grand ceremony in different nations. 

For quite some time, the British demanded weaker nations to render the first gun salute, thus receiving more shots than others. Nevertheless, the “gun for gun” rule was adopted globally to demonstrate equality among the nations, and the international salute was set at 21. 

While the British Navy adopted the 21-gun salute as early as 1808, other nations like the United States only recognized it as the “national gun salute” many years later. Even so, it’s now a common practice worldwide, associated with exceptional circumstances, depending on a country’s constitution.  

When Is the 21-Gun Salute Traditionally Used?

It was only until 1890 that the 21 shots became a national salute in the United States. Initially, the rounds fired were equal to the number of states at that particular time. As more states joined the union, the firing shots increased. However, it became cumbersome to keep changing the national gun salute every year, so the American Navy had to settle on a fixed number, in this case, 21. 

The 21-gun salute first became the United States’ presidential salute before it was accepted as the national salute. After the British suggested the “Gun for Gun salute” to the United States, the implementation came after proposing 21 shots to show honor to dignitaries. The gun salute was performed for the president, head of states, and Washington’s birthday. 

Today, the 21-gun salute is performed in honor of a president, a former president, or head of a foreign state. Sometimes the 21 shots are fired to honor the flag of the United States. It’s also fired at noon during the burial of a president, former president, or president-elect. 

Salutes by gunfire are also performed to honor military leaders. However, the shots vary depending on rank. The rounds of shots are always odd. 

Gun Salutes In Military Funerals

Gun salutes are also performed in military funerals, though this shouldn’t be confused with the 21-gun salute. Usually, three volleys of shots are fired to honor a deceased soldier. It’s also important to note that the firing is done using a rifle and not a gun. 

The team firing the volleys consists of about eight officers and a non-commissioned guard overseeing the group. Each of the members shoots three times, and the number of shots varies depending on the guards present. 

The series of shots (three volleys) is an old tradition of the battlefield, where the soldiers stopped fighting to remove the dead from the battleground. Either of the warring sides would fire a series of three shots to indicate that it had taken care of the fallen warriors and that they were ready to continue with the battle. 

Salute by gunfire is a significant practice in many nations. While the 21-gun salute is standard in the United States and England, other countries also perform gun salutes, depending on the constitution. In most cases, a tribute by gunfire marks essential occasions. In countries like France and India, the 21-gun salute is given during a president’s inauguration ceremony.

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