A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What's the origin of the 21-gun salute?

December 21, 1998

Dear Straight Dope:

I have always wondered what the origin of the 21 gun salute is. Why not 15 or 37? Can you please enlighten me as well as "the teeming masses" with your wisdom?

SDStaff Ian replies:

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 guns.

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. Me, I'd just like a little peace and quiet.

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