The custom stems from naval tradition, where a warship would fire its cannons harmlessly out to sea, until all ammunition was spent, to show that it was disarmed, signifying the lack of hostile intent. As naval customs evolved, 21 guns came to be fired for heads of state, or in exceptional circumstances for head of government, with the number decreasing with the rank of the recipient of the honor.
While the 21-gun salute is the most commonly recognized, the number of rounds fired in any given salute will vary depending on the conditions. Circumstances affecting these variations include the particular occasion and, in the case of military and state funerals, the branch of service, and rank (or office) of the person to whom honors are being rendered.
The tradition of saluting can be traced to the Late Middle Ages practice of placing oneself in an unarmed position and, therefore, in the power of those being honored. This may be noted in the dropping of the point of the sword, presenting arms, discharging cannon and small arms by firing them, lowering sails, manning the yards, removing the headdress or laying on oars.
A Dutch man-of-war firing a salute. The Cannon Shot, painting by Willem van de Velde the Younger.
The gun salute might have originated in the 17th century with the maritime practice of demanding that a defeated enemy expend its ammunition and render itself helpless until reloaded, a time-consuming operation. The gun salute had been established as a naval tradition by the late sixteenth century. A man-of-war which visited a foreign port would discharge all its guns to show that its guns were empty. Since the ship would not have enough time to reload before it was within range of the shore batteries, it was clearly demonstrating its friendly intentions by going in with empty guns.
Salute by gunfire is an ancient ceremony. For years, the British compelled weaker nations to render the first salute; but in time, international practice compelled “gun for gun” on the principle of equality of nations. In the earliest days, seven guns was the recognized British national salute because seven was the standard number of weapons on a vessel. In that day, gunpowder made from sodium nitrate was easier to keep on dry land than at sea. Thus those early regulations stated that although a ship would fire only seven guns, the forts ashore would fire three shots to each one shot afloat, hence the number 21.[
The system of firing an odd number of rounds is said[b to have been originated by Samuel Pepys, Secretary to the Navy in the Restoration, as a way of economizing on the use of powder, the rule until that time having been that all guns had to be fired. Odd numbers were chosen, as even numbers indicated a death. With the increase in quality of naval gunpowder by the use of potassium nitrate, honours rendered at sea were increased to the shore salute. 21 guns became the highest national honor.
There was much confusion because of the varying customs of maritime states, but finally the British government proposed to the United States a regulation that provided for “salutes to be returned gun for gun”. The British at that time officially considered the international salute to sovereign states to be 21 guns, and the United States adopted the 21 guns and “gun for gun” return on 18 August 1875.
On 16 November 1776, the West Indian port of St. Eustatius returned a 9-gun salute for the 13-gun salute given by the U.S. brigantine Andrew Doria. At the time, nine guns was the customary salute to an independent republic. This First Salute was specifically ordered by the Dutch governor of the island, and marks the first formal international recognition of the United States as an independent republic. The flag flown by the Andrew Doria was the Grand Union Flag, 13 alternating red and white stripes with the British Flag in the union. The Stars and Stripes received its first salute when John Paul Jones saluted France with 13 guns at Quiberon Bay in 1778 (the Stars and Stripes was not adopted as the national flag until 14 June 1777).
The practice of firing one gun for each state in the union was not officially authorized until 1810, when the United States Department of War declared the number of rounds fired in the “National Salute” to be equivalent to the number of states—which, at the time was 17. The tradition continued until 1841 when it was reduced from 26 to 21.[c
In 1842, the United States declared the 21-gun salute as its “Presidential Salute”. While the “National Salute” had been formally established as the 21-gun salute, the current tradition holds the salute on Independence Day to be a 50 rounds—one round for each state in the union. This ‘Salute to the Nation’ is fired at noon on 4 July, on U.S. military installations, while the U.S. Navy full-dresses ships and fires 21 guns at noon on 4 July, as well as on Presidents’ Day.[c
In April 1914, during the Mexican Revolution, the Tampico Affair occurred, and escalated as a result of a twenty-one gun salute (or more specifically, the lack of one). Nine unarmed U.S. sailors were arrested in Tampico, Tamaulipas, Mexico, for entering an off-limit area at a fuel loading station. Despite being released, the U.S. Naval commander demanded an apology and a twenty-one gun salute. The apology was provided, but not the salute, giving President Woodrow Wilson reason to order the U.S. occupation of the port of Veracruz.[Due to an arms embargo from the United States, issued to try to lessen the bloodshed of the revolution at its border, Mexico was forced to seek arms from European, and to a lesser extent Asian countries. During the occupation, a large German arms shipment aboard the SS Ypiranga was illegally seized, before being released and turned away by the U.S. occupation force. These events ultimately drove a wedge between Mexican-U.S. and German-U.S. relations, and after the start of World War I on 28 July 1914, would cause Germany to seek to influence Mexico into declaring war on the United States, in order to halt U.S. arms shipments to the Allies, and attempt to prevent the then isolationist United States from joining the Allies.This effort ultimately backfired, after culminating in the sending of the Zimmermann Telegram from Germany to Mexico, which urged Mexico to declare war on the United States, promising support and the return of much of the territory lost during the Mexican–American War, which, after being intercepted, caused the U.S. to enter the war on the side of the Allies on 6 April 1917, and due in large part to the arrival of fresh U.S. troops into the war, largely a stalemate in its first years, would lead to the surrender of Germany on 11 November 1918, after helping to overpower the German Army, already fatigued from a long and costly war.
On Memorial Day, batteries on military installations fire a 21-gun salute to the nation’s fallen. As well, batteries at Naval stations and on ships, fire a salute of 21-minute guns and display the ensign at half-mast from 8 a.m. until completion of the salute.[c
Today, a 21-gun salute is rendered on the arrival and departure of the President of the United States; it is fired in concordance with four ruffles and flourishes, which are immediately followed by “Hail to the Chief“—the actual gun salute begins with the first ruffle and flourish, and ‘run long’ (i.e. the salute concludes after “Hail to the Chief” has ended). A 21-gun salute is also rendered to former U.S. Presidents, foreign Heads of State (or members of a reigning royal family), as well as to Presidents-elect. In such a ceremony, the national anthem of the visiting dignitary’s country is played, following the salute.[c
In accordance with the ceremonial standard operating procedure (SOP) of the 3rd US Infantry (The Old Guard) the various gun salutes are assigned as follows: each round in a given salute is fired one at a time. The number of cannon used in a battery depends upon the intervals between each round fired. This includes, for example, a three-gun battery firing two of its guns with five-second intervals between rounds and one gun remaining at the ready in case of a misfire; such a battery would be used at an Armed Forces Full Honors Funeral, or for State Arrival Ceremony of a foreign dignitary at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery. A four-gun battery has its first three guns firing rounds at three-second intervals, with the fourth gun (again) at the ready in case of misfire.[c
The SOP also provides each gun salute a two-man gun crew (one loader, one gunner) for each cannon, as well as a five-man “staff” of soldiers to give the fire commands. The staff includes an Officer in Charge, a watchman (who marks the intervals and signals each gun to fire), an assistant watchman (as a backup), a counter (who keeps track of the number of rounds fired and signals the last round to the Officer in Charge), and a Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge (who marches the battery into place as well as signals the backup cannon to fire in case another gun misfires).[c
Naval vessels now have saluting guns installed which are used solely for such purpose.
Nineteen-gun salutes are reserved for the Vice President of the United States, foreign deputy heads of state, cabinet members, Speaker of the House of Representatives, President pro tempore of the Senate, Chief Justice of the United States, state Governors, foreign heads of government (such as Prime Ministers), chiefs of staff and general officers in the U.S. military of five-star rank. For each flag rank junior to a five-star officer, two guns are subtracted (e.g., for a four-star admiral, a 17-gun salute is prescribed; a three-star general would rate a 15-gun salute; a two-star, 13 guns, and a one-star, 11 guns).
A gun salute is not to be confused with the three-volley salute often rendered at military funerals.
Deaths of Presidents:
A U.S. presidential death also involves 21-gun salutes and other military traditions. On the day after the death of the president, a former president or president-elect—unless this day falls on a Sunday or holiday, in which case the honor will be rendered the following day—the commanders of Army installations with the necessary personnel and material traditionally order that one gun be fired every half-hour, beginning at reveille and ending at retreat.
On the day of burial, a 21-minute gun salute traditionally is fired starting at noon at all military installations with the necessary personnel and material. Guns will be fired at one-minute intervals. Also on the day of burial, those installations will fire a 50-gun salute—one round for each state—at five-second intervals immediately following lowering of the flag.