Why are there 21 guns in a 21 gun salute?
#12148. Asked by zz. (May 27 01 5:53 PM)
from http://www.straightdope.com/mailbag/m21gun.html |
The origin of gun salutes is usually attributed to soldiers or other armed types demonstrated peaceful intentions by placing their weapons (even back
to the days of swords and spears) in a position that rendered them ineffective.
As cannons and small arms came into use, a good way to 'render them ineffective,' thereby demonstrating peaceful intentions, was to fire them, as
reloading was a real pain. At sea, seven shots became the norm, probably because of superstition and mysticism about the number seven. On land,
with a less limited supply of gunpowder, they could fire three guns for every one shot from a ship, so a salute from a ship of seven guns would be
answered by a salute from the shore batteries of 21 guns. When gunpowder technology and storage improved, ships at sea adopted the salute of 21
There was some confusion on proper protocol of the whole salute thing. The US War Department, in 1810, set the 'National Salute' at 17 guns, just
to be contrary. The President received a salute of one gun per state of the Union whenever he visited a military installation, until 1842, when the
'Presidential Salute' was set at 21. The national one, however, remained at 17 until 1890, although we did adopt an international salute of 21 guns in
1875. The 'Salute to the Union,' fired on Independence day, is still one gun per state.
There is a complex protocol for salutes. Despite the common cliche, 21 guns are only used to salute a national flag, the sovereign or chief of state of
a foreign nation, a member of a reigning royal family, and anyone who's ever been elected President of the US. There are personal salutes (along
with ruffles, flourishes, and appropriate music) for people of all kinds of ranks. A vice-president, speaker of the house, American or foreign
ambassador, a premier or prime minister (unless they are the sovereign), chief justice, cabinet member, state governor, secretary or ranking general
of a branch of the armed forces, and president pro tem of the senate all receive 19 gun salutes on entering. (The rules differ for exiting.) Generals,
admirals, the assistant secretary of defense, and chairpersons of House committees receive 17. There are 15, 13, and 11 gun salutes for people of
descending rank, both military and civilian.
For a full-honor funeral at Arlington, a President gets 21 guns. A secretary of defense, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or other military officer
given command over multiple branches of the service receives 19. Seventeen guns are fired for a four-star general, 15 for a three-star, 13 for a
two-star, 11 for a one-star.