The famous 21-gun salute: You’ve likely seen it in a movie or TV show. Or, perhaps you've actually experienced it in-person at an event. It's the firing of cannon, artillery, or naval guns as part of a ceremony. The guns — typically three or seven of them — fire enough times to total 21 shots.
But what's the meaning of this salute?
What Is the 21-Gun Salute?
The 21-gun salute is a formal rendering of honors performed by military personnel on behalf of the government. It can be used as a solemn show of respect and dignity, as a celebration of national achievement, as recognition of treaties, and even as a form of apology. It's a strong tradition that has a high value placed on it and, in at least one case, the failure to provide the salute at the appropriate time actually led to an act of war.
In 1914, during the Mexican Revolution, there was an incident involving some American military personnel being arrested in Mexico. After the event, the U.S. Naval commander demanded an apology and a 21-gun salute from the Mexican government. The apology came rather quickly, but the salute never did. This was considered a major insult, which subsequently prompted then-president Woodrow Wilson to order the occupation of the port of Veracruz. Clearly, the tradition behind the 21-gun salute is a strong one!
Where Did the 21-Gun Salute Tradition Come From?
The custom itself is a tradition that dates back to the 14th century. It began roughly the same time that guns and cannons became fully integrated into warfare. At the time, firing a gun or cannon rendered them inert, as they would have to be reloaded through a complex process. The tradition came into being as a way of attempting to instill trust by showing that you weren't planning to attack the other party by firing off your guns in a safe direction to show they were now unloaded.
Actions such as these are present throughout the history of warfare. For example, tribes dragging spears behind them with the point down or samurai laying their swords on the ground in front of them during formal meetings are both demonstrations that attacks were not planned. The purpose of these displays was to visually illustrate a clear lack of hostile intent. It's not surprising, then, that the custom made its way to firearms upon their widespread adoption.
Naval vessels were the first to adopt this tradition in a symbolic manner; the tradition then spread to cannons and artillery. It's thanks to the naval vessels that we get the number of guns used. As most ships had seven guns, this eventually became standard operating procedure regardless of whether the guns were on sea or land.
Originally, the guns were only fired off once to empty them and signify a lack of hostility. At that time, it was then a seven-gun (or seven-shot) salute. Over time though, there were various changes made based on the size and disposition of the nation being saluted, whether it was recognized as an independent republic or, in some cases, the number of states within the country. Eventually, the number was internationally set to 21 shots.
Why Is a 21-Gun Salute Done?
Today, the tradition is used to recognize the sovereignty of a foreign nation, their chief of state, or a visiting member of a reigning royal family. It's also used to honor national flags as well as the President, a former President, or the President-elect of the United States. The salute is also given on the day of the funeral of a President, President-elect, or former President and is always done at noon in those cases.
A 21-gun salute might also be given to military and civilian leaders both of the United States and other nations, but the number may be changed from 21. The number given to these leaders varies based on their rank or title, but it's always an odd number.
Is the 21-Gun Salute Given at Military Funerals?
The 21-gun salute is not performed at funerals. The salute performed at a military funeral is called a three-volley salute or three-rifle volley. This is a show of respect and remembrance that you might see at locations such as Arlington National Cemetery or military funerals.
The three-volley salute is performed by an odd numbered honor guard of three to seven members in full dress uniform. They raise their rifles to their shoulders and fire off three successive shots each. The weapons are loaded with blanks and fired in a manner so that the muzzles are over the casket. However, if mourners are present, the honor guard stands a safe distance away and fires in a safe direction away from the onlookers.
What Is the Purpose of the Modern 21-Gun Salute?
It's meant to be a sign of respect and acknowledgement of dignity. The 21-gun salute honors the recipient because, after having expended your rounds, you are symbolically unarmed and entrusting the recipient with your life. While modern firearms are much more quickly and easily reloaded than earlier weapons, the honor comes from upholding the tradition and treating the dignitary with a sign of respect that traces back hundreds of years.
Given that times have changed and you're not placing yourself at the mercy of the other party in the same manner you once would have been, the gesture is now largely symbolic. However, that symbolism could arguably have more meaning as a result. By taking the steps of symbolically doing something in the manner it once was done — despite the fact that you're in a more advantageous position today — you're acknowledging a desire to at least symbolically subject yourself to the same standards of the past and extending a genuine hand of friendship. Placing oneself in supplication, even symbolically, is a major sign of respect.
Today, the tradition is still carried out when the President leaves or returns home, as well as on major American holidays such as Independence Day, Memorial Day, President's Day, and even George Washington's birthday. While some traditions — especially military customs — have fallen out of favor as time has progressed, the 21-gun salute endures.