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The custom stems from naval tradition, where a warship would fire its cannons harmlessly out to sea, until all ammunition was spent, to show that it was disarmed, signifying the lack of hostile intent. As naval customs evolved, 21 guns came to be fired for heads of state, with the number decreasing with the rank of the recipient of the honor.
While the 21-gun salute is the most commonly recognized, the number of rounds fired in any given salute will vary depending on the conditions. Circumstances affecting these variations include the particular occasion and, in the case of military and state funerals, the branch of service, and rank (or office) of the person to whom honors are being rendered.
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The tradition of saluting can be traced to the Middle Ages practice of placing oneself in an unarmed position and, therefore, in the power of those being honored. This may be noted in the dropping of the point of the sword, presenting arms, discharging cannon and small arms by firing them, lowering sails, manning the yards, removing the headdress or laying on oars.
The gun salute might have originated in the 17th century with the maritime practice of demanding that a defeated enemy expend its ammunition and render itself helpless until reloaded, a time-consuming operation. The gun salute had been established as a naval tradition by the late sixteenth century. A man-of-war which visited a foreign port would discharge all its guns to show that its guns were empty. Since the ship would not have enough time to reload before it was within range of the shore batteries, it was clearly demonstrating its friendly intentions by going in with empty guns.
Salute by gunfire is an ancient ceremony. For years, the British compelled weaker nations to render the first salute; but in time, international practice compelled "gun for gun" on the principle of equality of nations. In the earliest days, seven guns was the recognized British national salute because seven was the standard number of weapons on a vessel. In that day, gunpowder made from sodium nitrate was easier to keep on dry land than at sea. Thus those early regulations stated that although a ship would fire only seven guns, the forts ashore would fire two shots to each one shot afloat, hence the number 21[clarification needed].
The system of firing an odd number of rounds is said to have been originated by Samuel Pepys, Secretary to the Navy in the Restoration, as a way of economizing on the use of powder, the rule until that time having been that all guns had to be fired. Odd numbers were chosen, as even numbers indicated a death. With the increase in quality of naval gunpowder by the use of potassium nitrate, honours rendered at sea were increased to the shore salute. 21 guns became the highest national honour,
There was much confusion because of the varying customs of maritime states, but finally the British government proposed to the United States a regulation that provided for "salutes to be returned gun for gun". The British at that time officially considered the international salute to sovereign states to be 21 guns, and the United States adopted the 21 guns and "gun for gun" return on 18 August 1875.
In Bangladesh the salute consists of 21 cannon fires where it is assumed that the number '21' mostly hails the legacy of the 21 February Martyr's Day (presently known as International Mother Language Day). In fact the number '21' gets a special honor in the culture and heritage of Bengali speaking population as their language got honor to be the state language of Pakistan through a popular campus procession on 21 February 1952. The procession saw an armed police barricading where demonstrators including five students were martyred at indiscriminate police firing to crowd. Since then along with the trend of 21-gun salute, many cultural customs in Bangladesh and West Bengal consist of contents largely related to the mentioned event as well as the number '21'.
21-gun salute in Bangladesh is generally used for:
21-gun salutes are used for these people and holidays:
A 17-gun salute is given to the Canadian Minister of National Defence when visiting a saluting station (limited to once a year), as well as foreign ministers of defence.
A 15-gun salute is given on certain occasions for the lieutenant governors of the provinces, such as the Speech from the Throne in a provincial legislature, or for special occasions such as state funerals of important persons.
The 21-gun salute is used in the Republic of China in honor of the President during National Day celebrations. After three trumpets blow, the audience is asked to stand up as the President enters. After he stands in the podium, the gun salute starts while the gun salute music is played. In some celebrations, it is done while the National Anthem is played.
Gun salutes are used for a variety of occasions, mostly in honor of the Danish Royal Family. There are permanent salutory guns in place at Kronborg Castle in Elsinore, the Sixtus battery at Holmen naval base in Copenhagen, as well as at the naval base at Kangilinnguit in Greenland.
Gun salutes occur on:
Gun salutes also occur during naval visits and when a foreign head of state arrives on a state visit. Also, when HM the Queen heads out on her annual summer cruise on the Royal Yacht Dannebrog, she is saluted when passing Kronborg.
The day after the birth of Princess Benedikte in 1944 which took place during Nazi Germany's Occupation of Denmark, members of the Danish resistance group Holger Danske performed a salute of 21 bombs in the Ørstedsparken public park in central Copenhagen as a reference to the traditional 21-gun salute performed at the occasion of royal births.
The 21-gun salute is accorded to the President of India on several occasions. As soon as a new President is sworn-in, a 21-gun salute is given. On Republic Day of India, every year, a 21-gun salute is given to the National Flag and the President, during the Flag Hoisting Ceremony. When a foreign head of State visits India, a formal reception is held at the Rashtrapati Bhavan; and the Head of the State is given a Gun Salute.
During the British Raj, India developed a formal hierarchical system of gun salutes. Apart from the 101 gun Imperial salute reserved for the British monarch, the more important of the hundreds of vassal rulers of princely states involved in indirect rule were classified by the number of guns used when paying honours to them, signifying their prestige in the eyes of the British. The highest of these so-called "salute states" (also in some other parts of the British Empire) enjoyed 21 guns (Hyderabad & Berar, Mysore, Jammu and Kashmir, Baroda, and Gwalior). For years, a few rulers not formally under the control of the British were granted 21 guns (Nepal, Muscat & Oman, Mosquito Coast and Zanzibar) or even 31 guns (Afghanistan and Siam).
Salute for President of India consists of 21 cannon fires.
During colonial British rule in India the following head of states had 21 gun salutes based on prosperity rather than military capability:
And the following heads of states had 19 gun salutes, (21 locally)
Following heads of states had 17 gun salutes,
In Israel the practice of gun salute has been eliminated since Israel has suffered many terror attacks and thus the firing of arms has a negative connotation. The 3-volley salute is still used in military funerals.
In Poland the 21-gun salute is used in military funerals and funerals of fallen leaders and heroes. Known as the Salwa Honorowa (National Salute), it is also used in national holidays.
In Pakistan a 21-gun salute is used on occasions such as on Pakistan Day (23 March), on which a 21-gun salute is given in provincial capitals and 31 in Islamabad, the federal capital. It is also given on Independence Day (14 August) and Defence Day (6 September). A 31-gun salute in Islamabad and a 21-gun salute in provincial capitals is also given on 12 Rabi-ul-Awwal the birth date of Prophet Muhammad. It is also given when a foreign president or prime minister visits Pakistan.
21-gun salutes mark special royal occasions throughout Sweden, referred to as a Kunglig Salut (Royal Salute). The number of rounds fired in a salute depends on the place and occasion. The basic salute is 21 rounds. However, when a birth takes place within the Royal House of Sweden, and the child is the firstborn to either the reigning monarch or to the heir to the throne, an extra 21 rounds (for a total of 42) are added to the normal salute. In all other births 21 rounds are fired.
Gun salutes occur on:
Military saluting stations are Skeppsholmen and Kastellholmen in Stockholm, Fortress of Kungshall in Karlskrona, Battery of Fårösund on the island of Gotland, Boden Fortress in Boden, Battery of Kusthöjden in Härnösand, Vaxholm Castle in Vaxholm, Skansen Lejonet Fortress and Älvsborg Castle in Gothenburg.
19-gun salutes are used for heads of government, cabinet ministers and ambassadors.
The Swedish Armed Forces also use a gun salute consisting of two rapid gun shots. This salute, called Svensk Lösen (Swedish signal), was fired when ever a Swedish ship would enter a harbour in order to identify the ship as Swedish, or on the field of battle to identify the Swedish troops. Sometimes a double signal was fired, i.e. four gun shots fired two and two, hence the Swedish tradition of a fourfold cheer instead of a threefold. This signal is today fired on special occasions, usually within the military.
21-gun salutes mark special royal occasions throughout the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, referred to as a "Royal Salute" (in the British Empire it was reserved, mainly among colonial princely states, for the most prestigious category of native rulers of so-called salute states), unless rendered to the president or flag of a republic; nonetheless salutes rendered to all heads of state regardless of title are casually referred to as "royal" salutes.
The number of rounds fired in a salute depends on the place and occasion. The basic salute is 21 rounds. In Hyde Park and Green Park an extra 20 rounds are added because they are Royal Parks. At the Tower of London 62 rounds are fired on royal anniversaries (the basic 21, plus a further 20 because the Tower is a Royal Palace and Fortress, plus another 21 'for the City of London') and 41 on other occasions. The Tower of London probably holds the record for the most rounds fired in a single salute — 124 are fired whenever the Duke of Edinburgh's birthday (62 rounds) coincides with the Saturday designated as the Queen's official birthday (also 62 rounds).
Gun salutes occur on:
Gun salutes also occur when Parliament is prorogued by the Sovereign, on Royal births and when a visiting Head of State meets the Sovereign in London, Windsor or Edinburgh.
Military saluting stations are Hyde Park, the Tower of London and Woolwich in London; also York, Colchester, Plymouth and Dover Castle in England, Edinburgh Castle and Stirling Castle in Scotland, Cardiff in Wales and Hillsborough Castle in Northern Ireland. Salutes are also fired in Gibraltar.
In London, salutes are fired from Hyde Park and the Tower of London; on State Visits, at the State Opening of Parliament and for Trooping the Colour, Green Park is used instead of Hyde Park. In Hyde Park, the salute is fired by the King's Troop, Royal Horse Artillery. The first round is fired at noon (11am on The Queen's official birthday). At the Tower of London, the salute is fired by the Honourable Artillery Company at 1pm.
A myth common in the United States of America relative to the origin of this tradition is that the year 1776 inspired the 21-gun salute. Beginning in the colonial period, the United States fired one shot for each state in the Union as its national salute.
On 16 November 1776, the West Indian port of St. Eustatius returned a 9-gun salute for the 13-gun salute given by the American brigantine Andrew Doria. At the time, nine guns was the customary salute to an independent republic. This First Salute was specifically ordered by the Dutch governor of the island, and marks the first formal international recognition of the United States as an independent republic. The flag flown by the Andrew Doria was the Grand Union Flag, 13 alternating red and white stripes with the British Flag in the union. The Stars and Stripes received its first salute when John Paul Jones saluted France with 13 guns at Quiberon Bay in 1778 (the Stars and Stripes was not adopted as the national flag until 14 June 1777).
The practice of firing one gun for each state in the union was not officially authorized until 1810, when the United States Department of War declared the number of rounds fired in the "National Salute" to be equivalent to the number of states—which, at the time was 17. The tradition continued until 1841 when it was reduced from 26 to 21.
In 1842, the United States declared the 21-gun salute as its "Presidential Salute". While the "National Salute" had been formally established as the 21-gun salute, the current tradition holds the salute on Independence Day to be a 50 rounds—one round for each state in the union. This 'Salute to the Nation' is fired at noon on 4 July, on U.S. military installations, while the U.S. Navy full-dresses ships and fires 21 guns at noon on 4 July, as well as on Presidents' Day.
On Memorial Day, batteries on military installations fire a 21-gun salute to the nation's fallen. As well, batteries at Naval stations and on ships, fire a salute of 21-minute guns and display the ensign at half-mast from 8 a.m. until completion of the salute.
Today, a 21-gun salute is rendered on the arrival and departure of the President of the United States; it is fired in concordance with four ruffles and flourishes, which are immediately followed by "Hail to the Chief"—the actual gun salute begins with the first ruffle and flourish, and 'run long' (i.e. the salute concludes after "Hail to the Chief" has ended). A 21-gun salute is also rendered to former U.S. Presidents, foreign Heads of State (or members of a reigning royal family), as well as to Presidents-elect. In such a ceremony, the national anthem of the visiting dignitary's country is played, following the salute.
In accordance with the ceremonial standard operating procedure (SOP) of the 3rd US Infantry (The Old Guard) the various gun salutes are assigned as follows: each round in a given salute is fired one at a time. The number of cannon used in a battery depends upon the intervals between each round fired. This includes, for example, a three-gun battery firing two of its guns with five-second intervals between rounds and one gun remaining at the ready in case of a misfire; such a battery would be used at an Armed Forces Full Honors Funeral, or for State Arrival Ceremony of a foreign dignitary at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery. A four-gun battery has its first three guns firing rounds at three-second intervals, with the fourth gun (again) at the ready in case of misfire.
The SOP also provides each gun salute a two-man gun crew (one loader, one gunner) for each cannon, as well as a five-man "staff" of soldiers to give the fire commands. The staff includes an Officer in Charge, a watchman (who marks the intervals and signals each gun to fire), an assistant watchman (as a backup), a counter (who keeps track of the number of rounds fired and signals the last round to the Officer in Charge), and a Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge (who marches the battery into place as well as signals the backup cannon to fire in case another gun misfires).
Naval vessels now have saluting guns installed which are used solely for such purpose. The traditional timing chant, "If I wasn't a gunner, I wouldn't be here. Fire #1," etc., has been replaced by stopwatch.
Nineteen-gun salutes are reserved for the Vice President of the United States, foreign deputy heads of state, cabinet members, Speaker of the House of Representatives, President pro tempore of the Senate, Chief Justice of the United States, state Governors, foreign heads of government (such as Prime Ministers), chiefs of staff and general officers in the U.S. military of five-star rank. For each flag rank junior to a five-star officer, two guns are subtracted (e.g., for a four-star admiral, a 17-gun salute is prescribed; a three-star general would rate a 15-gun salute; a two-star, 13 guns, and a one-star, 11 guns).
A gun salute is not to be confused with the three-volley salute often rendered at military funerals.
The gun salutes fired in the United States are as follows:
|Number of guns||Recipients|
|19||Vice President of the United States, Speaker of the House of Representatives, President pro tempore of the Senate, Chief Justice of the United States, Cabinet officers. Governors of a U.S. state, the Deputy Secretary of Defense, the Director of Defense Research and Engineering, a Prime Minister or Premier, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Chief of Staff, U.S. Army, the Chief of Staff, U.S. Air Force, the Chief of Naval Operations, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, a Fleet Admiral, General of the Army or General of the Air Force and Ambassadors, High Commissioners, and others whose credentials are at least equivalent to those of an ambassador.|
|17||Governor General or Governor of a Territory, Commonwealth, or Possession of the United States or an area under U.S. administration, Committee of Congress, Assistant Secretaries of Defense, General Counsel of the Department of Defense, Under Secretaries of the Army, Navy, or Air Force. Admiral, General.|
|15||Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary. Vice Admiral, Lieutenant General.|
|13||Minister Resident; Rear Admiral, Major General|
|11||Chargé d'Affaires, Consul general, Consul, or Vice Consul when in charge of a consulate-general. Brigadier general; Rear Admiral (lower half)|
|7||Consuls accredited to the U.S. Vice-consuls when in charge of consulate.|
|5||Vice-consuls and consular agents.|
A U.S. presidential death also involves 21-gun salutes and other military traditions. On the day after the death of the president, a former president or president-elect—unless this day falls on a Sunday or holiday, in which case the honor will be rendered the following day—the commanders of Army installations with the necessary personnel and material traditionally order that one gun be fired every half-hour, beginning at reveille and ending at retreat.
On the day of burial, a 21-minute gun salute traditionally is fired starting at noon at all military installations with the necessary personnel and material. Guns will be fired at one-minute intervals. Also on the day of burial, those installations will fire a 50-gun salute—one round for each state—at five-second intervals immediately following lowering of the flag.
Six shots from a 21-gun salute on 4 December 2005 celebrating the birth of the new Norwegian Prince, Sverre Magnus, the previous day
In the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, when the Grandfather sings "Posh" whilst dangling from a hot air balloon, there is a line "they 21 gun salute me".
Another mention is in the Clutch song "The Mob Goes Wild".
The 2000 U.S. Open Golf Championship, held at the famed Pebble Beach Golf Links, saw a unique twist on the 21-gun salute. The tournament's defending champion, Payne Stewart, had died in a plane crash the previous October. Before the tournament began, a ceremony was held in Stewart's memory in which 21 golfers lined up on the 18th fairway and hit drives into the Pacific Ocean.