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It Is NOT A 21 Gun Salute!

(April 9, 2012) – One of my pet peeves is when someone displays an overwhelming ignorance of military traditions. This morning, as I was reading obituary notices from the Coast Guard community, I again saw an incorrect reference to the rifle salute given near the end of the burial ceremony. “He was honored with a 21 gun salute,” is the phrase that grinds my teeth every time I read it. Yes, it fits the full definition of peeve.

A proper usage of the term describing the honor rendered does not make the old shipmates any less dead. Nor does it give one bit of comfort to the mourning family. Often, I am the only one bothered by the error in terminology, and that in itself is truly irritating.


The customs and procedures of a military funeral are an essential element of any interment for a veteran or fallen warrior. For those of us that served, each step of the honor guard; every individual fold of the flag, every minute detail sets a cadence for us as we offer the final salute to our comrade. It sets us apart from the civilian community in a special way, just as our uniforms did from the first day we raised our hands and made a personal oath to protect and defend the Republic, and our Constitution, from all enemies.

The proper term for the rifle salute is ‘A Volley of Three’ or just ‘Rifle Salute.’ The salute can trace its’ origins back at least to the Peloponnesian Wars. In that time swords, spears and slings were the weapons of infantrymen, and the most sophisticated armor known were a few strips of leather and a metal breastplate. If a few hundred, or maybe a few thousand men met, on a battlefield it did not take long before the bodies of the dead and wounded were not only an emotional distraction, but also they were a physical hindrance to movement.

If the battle lasted any length of time, the opposing armies would indicate their acceptance of a quick halt to battle in order to clear the field of the dead and wounded. After each side completed the grisly task and taken a moment to express their grief for the fallen, a group of archers would let loose three volleys of flaming arrows. That signified to the opposing army that the foes were again ready to engage in the slaughter. The modern practice of the rifle salute evolved from this battlefield action.

Honoring an individual with a salute from a gun battery comes from a practical military procedure established in the days of sailing ships and heavily armed frigates, sloops, and schooners. When a Man of War entered a foreign port, it would fire a charge from each cannon to assure the Captain of The Port, and all military officials that the ship was entering without malice. During the 18tyh century the British Empire adopted the 21-Gun salute as the proper number shots to honor a head of state. Twenty one guns was the average number of cannon counted in a full broadside.

Both terms, volley of three and 21 gun salute, are rooted deep in military history. Why do so many people confuse the two terms? This isn’t rocket science, just history and ceremonial tradition. I’ll try to explain it in words any ordinary citizens can grasp. An honor guard carries rifles, not guns. Guns are cannons. We military types learned that in boot camp. I remember the lessons vividly. Some idiot would ask the Drill Instructor, “Sir, the Recruit would like to know something about his gun, Sir!” Then the crap hit the fan.

Seconds later the DI would scream at the hapless recruit, explaining the difference between rifles and cannons. As the ignorant recruit did one or two hundred push-ups, The DI would then have the rest of the company squat, holding the rifle high in the right hand and the left hand firmly grasping a utility device found between the legs. From that position, 55 men would duck walk in a circle, all chanting, “This is my rifle, this is my gun! This is for shooting, this is for fun!” It did not take long before every recruit understood the difference between rifles and cannons. No veteran that has experienced this humiliation can ever forget the lesson.

So, let us be perfectly clear. When you talk about Uncle Elmer’s funeral . . . the fellas from the American Legion walked over behind the grave and fired their rifles three times. That is a Rifle Salute. If you count carefully, you will probably notice only three or four of the squad actually had rifles to fire. Does that mean Elmer got a 9 or 12-gun salute? NO! It means there were only three or four riflemen in the squad. A military rifle salute is a volley of three. The number of rifles shooting bears NO substantial significance.

When the battery of The Old Guard honors a President of the United States while being interred, upon inauguration, or even just showing up to say hello to the troops, they fire 21 cannon shots. Thus, that is a 21-gun salute. In the British Empire this ceremonial honor is called a ‘Royal Salute.’

If you have further questions, consult the Army Ceremonial Procedures Manual, or just go to the web site of Militay District of Washington and read the great article they have about the Rifle Salute and the 21-Gun salute. I think they get peeved too!


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