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21 Gun Salute versus 3 Volley Salute

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In honor of Memorial Day, I thought I would clarify a 21 gun salute versus a 4-volley salute.  Many people think that the firing of rifles at a funeral of a loved-one who was in the military who was killed in action or was a Veteran is a 21 Gun Salute.  That is incorrect.

Saluting

Honoring by Saluting

Saluting

The tradition of saluting has been around since the Middle Ages by displaying an unarmed position when those being honored were present.  This was done by dropping the point of swords or spears.  By the 16th century, naval guns or artillery pieces (typically cannon), could only discharge one time before being rendered defenseless until they were re-loaded.  This was done to show that they would not be used in a hostile manner.  For this reason, gun salutes began to be viewed as a great honor.

Artillery Salutes

It is generally believed that gun salutes are set off in odd numbers because of an old naval superstition that even numbers are unlucky. The number of discharges made were initially seven. According to the Army’s military history website, the number 7 was most likely either astrologically, biblical, or superstition driven.  According to the Department of Veterans Affairs website, the firing of three rifle volleys (rounds) over the graves of fallen armed forces members can be traced to the European dynastic wars.  At that time, fighting was halted to remove the dead and wounded. After the area was cleared of casualties, three volleys were sent into the air as a signal to resume fighting.

Ground troops, which had a larger supply of gunpowder than warships, fired three guns for every shot fired by warships. The assumption is that the number of 3 shots fired for every 7 on water came from the mystical significance of the number 3 in many ancient civilizations.  When gunpowder was initially manufactured, its primary component of sodium nitrate spoiled easily at sea than on land.  When the primary component changed to potassium nitrate, it improved the quality of gunpowder at sea, at which time, the salute was increased to 21 cannons being fired.

Difference Between Artillery Salutes

Over the years, the three-volley salute has become the highest honor that can be rendered for any service person and is the final salute that Veterans or military personnel will receive.

Honoring Our Heroes

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.

The 21 gun salute is frequently confused with the symbolic act of firing three volleys at military funerals; however, the two formalities are totally different.

  • Three-volley salutes are held at military funerals and are technically not even salutes but rather are ceremonies.  These rituals may have morphed from the pagan belief that one way to keep evil spirits away from graves was to make loud noises such as shooting guns.  They are usually performed at the burial site and include firing rifles, folding and presenting the American flag to a family member of the Veteran or military personnel, and “taps” being played by a bugle.
  • 21 Gun salutes are an expression of respect or good will.
  • Even when a military funeral detail includes seven members (each of whom fires his rifle a total of three times), this ritualistic act is something distinctly different and separate from the custom of saluting dignitaries by firing 21 guns in their honor.

Fun Fact

On Memorial Day, a salute of 21 guns is fired at noon, while the flag is flown at half-staff (i.e., guns discharged at one-minute intervals).

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  • Memorial Day Remembrance

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Updated: May 6, 2017 — 7:06 am

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