The story behind the 21-gun salute
@ CDN / 11Feb2006
HISTORY: Sri Lanka celebrated its 58th Independence Day a few days ago at the Galle Face Green with a bristling display by the Army, Navy, Air Force and Police.
When President Mahinda Rajapakse, as the Head of the country, was accorded a 21-gun salute, someone seated by my side asked a pertinent question. Why 21? What is the relevance of that number: why not 10 or 20?
As a writer interested in etymology, I too have been wondering about this figure. Why 21? It took me quite a time to get hold of the appropriate people and sources to find out what the origin of the gun salute is.
Although we now view weaponry salutes as honours proudly bestowed by fighting men upon those of high rank or great achievement, saluting in days long ago was an act of submission a tangible way of demonstrating that the one performing the action was voluntarily placing himself in the power of the one being saluted.
Guns would be emptied a ritual number of times, or sails would be lowered, or spears would be pointed towards the ground, but it all came to the same thing: those carrying out the act were saying "I yield to your authority, and as proof I've just rendered my weapon incapable of being used against you."
Apparently this custom was universal, with the specific act varying with time and place, depending on the weapons being used. A North African tribe, for example, trailed the points of their spears on the ground to indicate that they did not mean to be hostile.
The tradition of rendering a salute by cannon originated in the 14th century as firearms and cannons came into use. Since these early devices contained only one projectile, discharging them once rendered them ineffective.
Originally warships fired seven-gun salutes-the number seven probably selected because of its astrological and Biblical significance.
Seven planets had been identified and the phases of the moon changed every seven days.
The Bible states that God rested on the seventh day after Creation, that every seventh year was sabbatical and that the seven times seventh year ushered in the Jubilee year.
Land batteries, having a greater supply of gunpowder, were able to fire three guns for every shot fired afloat, hence the salute by shore batteries was 21 guns.
The multiple of three probably was chosen because of the mystical significance of the number three in many ancient civilizations.
Early gunpowder, composed mainly of sodium nitrate, spoiled easily at sea, but could be kept cooler and drier in land magazines. When potassium nitrate improved the quality of gunpowder, ships at sea adopted the salute of 21 guns.
Varying customs among the maritime powers led to confusion in saluting and return of salutes. Great Britain, the world's pre-eminent sea power in the 18th and 19th centuries, compelled weaker nations to salute first, and for a time monarchies received more guns than did republics.
Eventually, by agreement, the international salute was established at 21 guns, although the United States did not agree on this procedure until August 1875.
Gun salutes in Britain
Royal gun salutes mark special royal occasions on certain days of the year in Britain. On these days Royal salutes are fired from locations in London and authorised stations in the United Kingdom and the Union Jack is hoisted on government buildings.
The number of rounds fired in a Royal Salute depends on the place and occasion. The basic Royal Salute is 21 rounds.
In Hyde Park an extra 20 rounds are added because it is a Royal Park. 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 on 10 June when the Queen's official birthday (62 rounds) coincides with The Duke of Edinburgh's birthday (also 62 rounds).
Gun salutes occur on the following Royal anniversaries:
Accession Day (6th February)
The Queen's birthday (21st April)
Coronation Day (the anniversary of The Queen's Coronation, 2nd June)
The birthday of The Duke of Edinburgh (10th June)
The Queen's official birthday (variable each year, but falling on 11th June in 2005)
State Opening of Parliament (usually November or December).
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 London, Edinburgh Castle in Scotland, Cardiff, and Hillsborough Castle in Down, Northern Ireland.
In London, salutes are fired in Hyde Park and The Tower of London. (On State Visits, at the State Opening of Parliament and for the Queen's Birthday Parade, 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 (11 a.m. on the Queen's official birthday).
At the Tower of London, the salute is fired by the Honourable Artillery Company at 1 p.m. Salutes also take place occasionally at Woolwich by the Royal Artillery.
Gun salutes in USA
In the USA there was some confusion on proper protocol of the salute. The gun salute system of the United States has changed considerably over the years. In 1810, the "national salute" was defined by the War Department as equal to the number of states in the Union-at that time 17.
This salute was fired by all U.S. military installations at 1:00 p.m. (later at noon) on Independence Day. The President also received a salute equal to the number of states 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 the country did adopt an international salute of 21 guns fifteen years earlier.
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 defence, and chairpersons of House committees receive 17. There are 15, 13, and 11 gun salutes for a 3- star, 2-star, 1-star military personnel.
The 21-gun salute is often confused with the symbolic act of firing three volleys at military funerals, but these are two completely different rituals. The "21-gun salute" is, as the name states, a salute (i.e., an expression of welcome, goodwill, or respect), and in that context the word "gun" refers to naval guns or artillery pieces (typically cannon), not firearms.
The firing of three (rifle) volleys at military funerals is technically not a salute but rather a funereal custom, perhaps derived from a superstition of discharging firearms to frighten evil spirits away from the grave, or possibly a recreation of the act of firing three volleys to signal the end of a temporary truce (called to allow each side to clear their dead and wounded from the battlefield).
Even when a military funeral detail includes seven members (each of whom fires his rifle a total of three times), this ritualistic act is something distinctly different and separate from the custom of saluting dignitaries by firing 21 guns in their honour.