For those that have never attended an American military funeral, it can be difficult to understand all the different honors and traditions involved.
Funeral honors and traditions differ for each member of the military depending on whether the deceased was active duty, retired, or a veteran; what rank they were; and what branch of the military they served in.
One thing that is common among many of these funerals, however, is that gun salutes are involved. But many don’t understand how they are performed, the difference between the types of salutes, or why the salutes started in the first place.
The gun salute that is performed at most military funerals and some police funerals is called a three-volley salute, which represents duty, honor, and country. The salute is performed by a rifle party from the Honor Guard, usually consisting of three, five, or seven members.
During the salute, the rifle party aims their rifles in a direction over the casket and fires blank cartridges into the air three times in unison. Taps, the bugle call played at military funerals, is typically played directly following the three-volley salute.
This custom originates from the European dynastic wars — battles would cease, and then after the dead and wounded were removed from the battlefield and cared for, three shots were fired into the air to signal that the battle could resume.
The three-volley salute we see at military funerals is sometimes mistaken for a 21-gun salute, especially if there are seven members present in the rifle party. While seven rifles shooting three times does equate to 21 shots, it is not the same salute.
One major difference is that a 21-gun salute is typically performed with cannons rather than rifles, and the cannons are fired 21 times rather than three times.
The other major difference is that 21-gun salutes are reserved only for the President of the United States, former presidents, presidents-elect, chiefs of state, heads of government, and reigning monarchs. They are saluted upon their arrival, and only at funerals in the case of a U.S. presidential death.
Variants of the 21-gun salute are performed for other members of government or military — for example, a 19-gun salute is performed like a 21-gun salute for the Vice President of the United States, Chief Justice of the United States, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, and many others. There also are 17-gun, 15-gun, 13-gun, 11-gun, 7-gun, and 5-gun salutes — to see the full breakdown of the number of guns used and for whom, click here.
The history behind a 21-gun salute also is a bit different than the history behind the three-volley salute. The salute was first used by ships who were coming to shore and wanted to show that they meant no harm by discharging their cannons seven times.
Eventually, once this practice caught on, cannons on land would return the salute by firing three shots for every shot the ship discharged. This is how the 21-gun salute was born.