Let us get this out of the way first: a firing party does not fire the 21-gun Salute. It is fired on land or at sea, and only by canons, which are called guns. I know we call a rifle a gun, but it’s a rifle. (Click here to read Fire Team, Firing Party and Firing Squad. What’s the Difference?)
The 21-gun Salute on land:
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The 21-gun Salute at Sea:
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The Origin of the 21-gun Salute (Source: Headquarters, Military District of Washington, FACT SHEET: GUN SALUTES, May 1969.)
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.
The 21-gun salute became the highest honor a nation rendered. Varying customs among the maritime powers led to confusion in saluting and return of salutes. Great Britain, the world’s preeminent seapower in the 18th and 19th centuries, compelled weaker nations to salute first, and for a time monarchies received more guns than did republics. Eventually, by agreement, the international salute was established at 21 guns, although the United States did not agree on this procedure until August 1875.
The gun salute system of the United States has changed considerably over the years. In 1810, the “national salute” was defined by the War Department as equal to the number of states in the Union–at that time 17. This salute was fired by all U.S. military installations at 1:00 p.m. (later at noon) on Independence Day. The President also received a salute equal to the number of states whenever he visited a military installation.
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.
“But…”, I hear you say, “there are seven members of the firing party and they fire three times; 7 X 3 = 21.” True! However, not all firing party’s are made up of seven members (plus a commander). The minimum number of members who fire on a firing party is three (plus the commander). The three members still fire three times, not seven times.
A firing party fires a Three-volley Salute.
This practice originated in the old custom of halting the fighting to remove the dead from the battlefield. Once each army had cleared its dead, it would fire three volleys to indicate that the dead had been cared for and that they were ready to go back to the fight. The fact that the firing party consists of seven riflemen, firing three volleys does not constitute a 21-gun salute. (See also, When is it OK to use Three Volleys in a Ceremony?)
Which Rifles can be used for a firing party?
There are three ceremonial-type rifles, the M1 Garand, M1903 and M14 (shown in the picture at left) that are used for ceremonial duties. Both the M1 and the M14 have a charging handle/operating rod which enables the firing party members to add a little flare to firing the sequence of three. The M1903 presents a bit of a challenge since it has a manual bolt. Using an M1903 on a firing party can be accomplished, you just need to practice firing, pulling the bolt up, rearward, pushing it forward and down and then firing again.
The M16-type rifle does not present a ceremonial image, in my opinion. However, a unit must use what is readily available. (Read also the Army’s Donations Program for a Firing Party.).
Shotguns are a unique weapon for law enforcement that present that ceremonial image.
When on a firing party it is not necessary to bring the rifle up and seat the rifle butt into the shoulder as if you are going to shoot something. Notice the position of the M14 in the picture above, that is the Air Force standard or the picture of the shotguns used in a law enforcement firing party. This picture below shows the Marine Corps standard. The other services are similar.
Notice that none of the party’s members have lowered their head to the rifle, no has “taken aim”.
“Ready! Aim! PULL!”
The word, “fire” ends with a vowel and the word trails off without an abrupt end. Many years ago, the service honor guards (maybe just the Army’s Old Guard) experimented with replacing the word, “pull” for “fire” since it ends with a consonant and can better help the timing of the volleys.
The Air Force Honor Guard developed a seven-count sequence each time “Readup!” is called. The P replaces the Y to give the word a definite end for timing purposes, “Aim” and “Fire” are eliminated in the sequence. The seven-count sequence is repeated twice and the last time “Readup!” is called, the sequence is cut down to six movements.
The family should always be able to see the firing party. Fifty feet from the grave is a good rule of thumb and positioned so that the rifles pointed across the grave.
I remember performing a memorial service in Tucson while on the Davis-Monthan AFB Honor Guard back in the early 90s where we had the firing party across a busy street from the funeral home since there would be no graveside ceremony. They were centered on the doors and when the time came, we opened the doors which signaled the sequence of firing the three volleys. The family was able to see what was going on and so were all of the people at the tire center next door to where the team stood.
Adapt and overcome.