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The use of gun salutes for military occasions is traced to early warriors who demonstrated their peaceful intentions by placing their weapons in a position that rendered them ineffective. Apparently this custom was universal, with the specific act varying with time and place, depending on the weapons being used. A North African tribe, for example, trailed the points of their spears on the ground to indicate that they did not mean to be hostile.

The tradition of rendering a salute by cannon originated in the 14th century as firearms and cannons came into use. Since these early devices contained only one projectile, discharging them once rendered them ineffective. Originally warships fired seven-gun salutes–the number seven probably selected because of its astrological and Biblical significance. Seven planets had been identified and the phases of the moon changed every seven days. The Bible states that God rested on the seventh day after Creation, that every seventh year was sabbatical and that the seven times seventh year ushered in the Jubilee year.

Land batteries, having a greater supply of gunpowder, were able to fire three guns for every shot fired afloat, hence the salute by shore batteries was 21 guns. The multiple of three probably was chosen because of the mystical significance of the number three in many ancient civilizations. Early gunpowder, composed mainly of sodium nitrate, spoiled easily at sea, but could be kept cooler and drier in land magazines. When potassium nitrate improved the quality of gunpowder, ships at sea adopted the salute of 21 guns.

In 1842, the Presidential salute was formally established at 21 guns. In 1890, regulations designated the "national salute" as 21 guns and redesignated the traditional Independence Day salute, the "Salute to the Union," equal to the number of states. Fifty guns are also fired on all military installations equipped to do so at the close of the day of the funeral of a President, ex-President, or President-elect.

Today the national salute of 21 guns is fired 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. It is also fired at noon of the day of the funeral of a President, ex-President, or President-elect.

Gun salutes are also rendered to other military and civilian leaders of this and other nations. The number of guns is based on their protocol rank. These salutes are always in odd numbers.

Source: Headquarters, Military District of Washington, FACT SHEET: GUN SALUTES, May 1969.

Comments

  1. Why did Bush give the Pope a 21 gun salute?
    Isn’t a 21 gun salute reserved for dead people?
    Is there an analogy here regarding the catholic church- either dead or dying?
    Or is Bush posturing- showcasing his militaristic point of view?

  2. Hi great blog A myth common in the United States of America relative to the origin of this tradition is that the year 1776 inspired the 21-gun salute because the sum of the digits in 1776 is 21 (i.e., 1+7+7+6 = 21). This, however is not true. Beginning in the colonial period, the United States fired one shot for each state in the Union as its national salute. This practice was partly a result of usage, because John Paul Jones saluted France with 13 guns at Quiberon Bay in 1778 when the Stars and Stripes received its first salute. The practice 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.

  3. Salute by gunfire is an ancient ceremony. The British for years 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 two shots to each one shot afloat, hence the number 21.

  4. Why did Bush give the Pope a 21 gun salute?
    Isn’t a 21 gun salute reserved for dead people?
    Is there an analogy here regarding the catholic church- either dead or dying?
    Or is Bush posturing- showcasing his militaristic point of view?

  5. Everything matters! That’s a perfect phrase for the reality I tried to get at: “mattering” (alias meaning) somehow winning out even when things seem random. Or when they grow out of mistakes (or out of some small, distant move or misstep). I just want to emphasize the good work on this blog, has excellent views and a clear vision of what you are looking for

  6. In rendering the gun fire and artillery as the origin of the 14th century began to use the traditional salute. Since these early devices, only one bomb, so that they meet their time is invalid. Originally warships fired a 7 – Salyut – figure 7 is probably because of its biblical significance of constellations and choice. Has identified seven planets and the moon change every 7 days. The Bible says God created the seventh day after the rest, leave every seventh year, and 7 times in the seventh year ushered in the Jubilee year.Thank you for your information,i like it.

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