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Military Gun Salutes

We see honors bestowed in the military communities, but how well do you know what they mean?


U.S. Military salutes can wrench emotion from one’s soul. Who can hold back a tear when shots echo through the countryside at a funeral, or not be overwhelmed with pride when the big guns on a ship roar across the seas?

These salutes are steeped in military tradition, some dating back hundreds of years. But, there are many misconceptions about military salutes. This is understandable, though, considering the number of salutes for various occasions. Some have even changed over the years, sometimes through acts of Congress. All of them, however, are intended to demonstrate great honor to those for whom they are conducted. This includes fallen members of the military, presidents, heads of state and even the nation.

Three Volley Salute
One misconception is calling the shots fired at a military funeral a 21-gun salute. Even if there are seven soldiers firing three rounds each, this is not a 21-gun salute, because the soldiers aren’t using guns, they’re using rifles. In the military, guns are considered artillery. Instead, the shots fired during a military funeral are called the firing of three volleys in honor of the fallen.

The firing of three volleys dates back to the custom of ceasing hostilities to remove the dead from the battlefield. Once finished, both sides would fire three volleys to signal that they were ready to resume the battle.

During the firing of three volleys, the rifles are fired three times simultaneously by the honor guard. Any service member who died on active duty, as well as honorably discharged veterans and military retirees, can receive a military funeral, which includes the three volleys, the playing of taps and a United States flag presented to the next of kin. Three spent cases are usually inserted into the folded flag, one representing each volley fired.

21-Gun Salute
The 21-Gun Salute hails from naval tradition where a warship would fire its cannons, rendering them unloaded, to signify its lack of hostile intentions. Ships would typically fire seven shots. Whether this is because that was the traditional number of guns on a British warship or because it is of biblical significance is unknown. Forts, having more ammunition, would fire three shots for every shot by a ship. Of course, this wasn’t set in stone, and the number of shots fired differed greatly depending on the country.

Today, the 21-Gun Salute is fired by artillery batteries in honor of the U.S. President, former presidents, the President-elect and heads of foreign states upon their arrival and departure of a military installation. “Hail to the Chief” or the national anthem of the visiting dignitary is also played. The salute is also fired at noon on the day of a funeral of the President, former presidents and the President-elect, as well as Memorial Day in honor of America’s fallen, and on Washington’s Birthday.

In addition, a 19-Gun Salute is fired in honor of other dignitaries such as the Vice President, the Speaker of the House, president pro tempore of the Senate, Chief Justice of the United States, state governors, chiefs of staff and 5-Star Generals. There is a ranking system for salutes to lower-ranking generals and other dignitaries consisting of dropping two guns for each flag rank junior to a 5-Star General.

Salute to the Nation
The practice of firing one shot for each state was officially established in 1810, which at the time was only 17 guns. This tradition continued until 1841 when it was established as 21 guns. Current tradition has the Salute to the Nation as 50 shots by capable military bases, one for each state in the union, fired at noon on Independence Day, with naval vessels firing a 21-gun salute.

Veteran’s Day
While there isn’t a gun salute dedicated to veterans, November 11 is a day when the U.S. and many World War I allied countries commemorate the sacrifices made by the men and women who served in the armed forces. Veteran’s Day is often confused with Memorial Day, which is when we honor those who have fallen in service of our country. Veteran’s Day celebrates all military service members, not just those who died.

Veteran’s Day was first created as Armistice Day by President Woodrow Wilson in 1919 to mark the end of World War I.  In 1938, Congress made November 11 a national holiday. Then, on June 1, 1954, President Eisenhower signed legislation that changed the name to Veteran’s Day to celebrate all military veterans. The exact day of celebration changed a couple more times over the years before being permanently established as November 11 due to popular sentiment.

This November 11, please remember the veterans who have served, and often died, to preserve the freedoms that we cherish. And thank a member of America’s military, past or present.

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11 Responses to Military Gun Salutes

Michelle wrote:
November 27, 2014

When my brother-in-law passes; the volleyball fired and the presentation of the rounds given; what do the rounds signify?

James Erb wrote:
May 30, 2013

I am the Commander of my American Legion Post Honor guard, and was informed by an Active Duty Army Command Sergeant Major that a new directive has been received stating that the 3 rounds will no longer be placed inside the flag but may be placed on top of the folded flag... I disagree with this practice but then who am I to to argue with army policy....

V VERNAU wrote:
November 17, 2012

I am on a firing detail. We give the family ALL of the spent casings from what we just fired. If they cannot be located in the grass, casings that were fired at a previous funeral (we don't always get to present them) are used to supplement the actual ones fired for a total of 9 to the family.

GMCM Stan Summers, USN, Retired wrote:
November 15, 2012

Naval Guns are concidered Rifles and are ordered as such (ie: replacement BBL 5' 38 Cal BBL Naval Rifle or 8' 55 Cal. The majority of ships have a saluting Battery normally ID as a 3 Pounder or 6 pounder. If things have not changed and I was ordering a 40MM replacement BBL it would still be a rifle BBL for a 40MM AA Machine Gun. But then I retired in 1980 sw0 who knows now days.

SSG Kevin Price, US Army, retired wrote:
November 15, 2012

It depends on how the flag is presented to the Next-of-Kin. If the flag is presented with a display case, the rounds are usually mounted in the case. If the flag is presented with no case, the generally they are tucked inside the last fold of the flag. Sometimes there are no shell cases presented due to a lack of knowledge on the part of the providing honor guard. If you have attended enough ceremonies, you will notice that the method of flag folding changes as well, depending on who provided the honor guard.

Kev wrote:
November 14, 2012

At my mother's funeral in April this year (she was a WAC during Korean War), the three casings were handed to my dad directly, not placed inside the flag. Moving ceremony!

Daniel Cameron wrote:
November 14, 2012

Different services have different practices at funerals (I.E. the words spoken to the spouse/family when the flag is presented). My American Legion post fires just before "Taps" is played. The spent casings are given to the family and friends with the flag, but are different than the ones we have just fired (they are cleaned and polished), so it depends on who is doing the ceremony.

Melissa Morgan wrote:
November 13, 2012

Thank you for this very informative article.

Roy wrote:
November 12, 2012

I beg to differ, my grandfather past away last Oct and 3 spent rounds were inserted into the flag on the last flap fold and both were handed over to the oldest son which was my uncle. The tradition still goes on...

Art Brown Sr. wrote:
November 12, 2012

When did this practice stop? My mom was given the flag with the rounds in in in '94 for my stepdad's funeral.

Dan Sullivan wrote:
November 11, 2012

The practice of inserting spent rounds has been stopped. The national emblem is not a carring case. The spent rounds are presented to the family