When is it OK to use Three Volleys in a Ceremony?

DrillMaster Ask DrillMaster, Honor Guard, Instructional 3 Comments

The Three Volley salute (reminiscent of the 21-Gun Salute) is meant to show respect for a fallen comrade at a funeral, memorial or remembrance ceremony. It is not the 21-Gun Salute. The only way a 21-Gun Salute can be given is with a gun (cannon) and only the Navy and Army do that. The Three Volleys are fired with rifles, shotguns or handguns.To the left, the US Coast Guard Honor Guard fires a Three Volley Salute at a memorial ceremony.

At right below, the Australian Army fires a 21-Gun Salute for Australia Day. The US Army’s Honor Guard has a Salute Battery which also handles the 21-Gun Salute for the President and visiting dignitaries.

The Three Volley Salute.
This practice originated in the old custom of halting the fighting to remove the dead from the battlefield. Once each army had cleared its dead, it would fire three volleys to indicate that the dead had been cared for and that they were ready to go back to the fight. The fact that the firing party consists of seven riflemen, firing three volleys does not constitute a 21-gun salute.

What is the origin of the 21-gun salute?

The use of gun salutes for military occasions is traced to early warriors who demonstrated their peaceful intentions by placing their weapons in a position that rendered them ineffective. 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.

The 21-gun salute became the highest honor a nation rendered. Varying customs among the maritime powers led to confusion in saluting and return of salutes. Great Britain, the world’s preeminent 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.

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.

In 1842, the Presidential salute was formally established at 21 guns. In 1890, regulations designated the “national salute” as 21 guns and redesignated the traditional Independence Day salute, the “Salute to the Union,” equal to the number of states. Fifty guns are also fired on all military installations equipped to do so at the close of the day of the funeral of a President, ex-President, or President-elect.

Today the national salute of 21 guns is fired in honor of a national flag, the sovereign or chief of state of a foreign nation, a member of a reigning royal family, and the President, ex-President and President-elect of the United States. It is also fired at noon of the day of the funeral of a President, ex-President, or President-elect.

Gun salutes are also rendered to other military and civilian leaders of this and other nations. The number of guns is based on their protocol rank. These salutes are always in odd numbers.

Source: Headquarters, Military District of Washington, FACT SHEET: GUN SALUTES, May 1969.

In this picture, Sailors fire a 21-Gun Salute.

Who Gets How Many?

President of the United States  21
Ex President of the United States 21
Foreign Heads of State  21
Vice President of the United States 19
Prime Minister  19
Secretary of Defense  19
Secretary of the Army/Navy/Air Force 19
Lieutenant General/Vice Admiral 15
General/Admiral 17
Major General/Rear Admiral (Upper) 13
Brigadier General/Rear Admiral (Lower) 11

Comments 3

  1. Pingback: Hut, Toop, Threep, Fourp? | The DrillMaster

  2. I am looking for specific guidance on the use and protocol of three volley salutes. I have only seen them used at military or veteran funerals or at Memorial Day observances in cemeteries where there are graves of veterans or soldiers. Is it ever OK to use a three volley salute to “remember” deceased soldiers or veterans away from funerals or cemeteries? Specifically, my congregation wants to end our worship on the Sunday closest to Memorial Day with a three volley salute and “Taps” being played. There is no cemetery of any kind on or near our property. I don’t see how this observance honors those we say we are remembering. Any information or guidance you can offer is appreciated. Thank you.

    1. Post

      Rev Motter,

      Thank you very much for the question. The answer is yes! There is no more fitting way to honor our deceased military members than the firing of the Three-Volley Salute and the playing of Taps. It is all about honoring and the location is immaterial.

      I suggest that whatever group you coordinate with (veteran, military installation, etc.), that they or your church notify local law enforcement and, if there are homes nearby, even the neighbors as to what is going on and the approximate time that the rifles will be fired.

      It is best for the Firing Party to stand approximately 100 feet from the doors of the church/building and for the team to face and fire over the building. At the end of the service, one or two members of the congregation can open the doors and that can be the signal for the team to fire. The bugler can then stand in the doorway so that only his/her silhouette can be seen while playing.

      Thank you for wanting to honor my fallen brother- and sisters-in-arms and caring enough to find out how to best accomplish it.


Leave a Reply