The 21-gun salute is a type of military honor performed to honor military and state guests as well as at presidential funerals and in military celebrations.
Military gun salutes began as a way for warriors to show that they were unarmed and and had no violent intent. Before firearms, warriors would raise their right hand to show they were unarmed; this later became the military honor of the salute.
The 21-gun salute evolved from the naval custom of clearing guns after a battle. The ship would fire the shots harmlessly into the water after a battle. As this custom evolved, gun salutes were generally done in odd numbers because of the perception of odd numbers being lucky. It became tradition for vessels to salute with seven shots; because forts could store more ammunition, they would fire three shots for each vessel shot--for a total of 21.
History in the United States
In the United States, the first gun salute rendered to a foreign nation was given in 1778 by Capt. John Paul Jones to honor the French fleet. In 1818, the U.S. Navy published regulations that detailed the proper manner of gun salutes.
According to the Naval Historical Center website, in the United States a 21-gun salute is rendered to honor the "the national flag, the sovereign or chief of state of a foreign nation, a member of a reigning royal family, the President, ex-president, and president-elect of the United States. It is also fired at noon of the day of a funeral of a president, ex-president, or president-elect, on Washington's Birthday, Presidents Day, and the Fourth of July. On Memorial Day, a salute of 21 minute guns is fired at noon while the flag is flown at half mast."
Many confuse the firing of three volleys by seven riflemen at military funerals with a 21-gun salute. This is not a 21-gun salute, however. In battle, opposing sides would cease fighting to clear the field of the dead. Upon safely clearing the dead, each side would fire three volleys to signal the successful removal of the dead and the resumption of battle. All members of the military are entitled three volleys of rifle fire by seven riflemen.
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