The Firing Party
(Information taken from the book, The Honor Guard Manual (Second Edition).) All military services use the firing party for most funerals (not all qualify). Law enforcement agencies also use the firing party to render honors.
“Ah yes, the 21-Gun Salute!” I hear you say. My reply: Stop right there! Only Army and Navy (including the Marine Corps) cannons fire the 21-Gun salute. A firing party does not fire 21 guns, they have rifles and fire the Three Volley Salute. Your reply: “But, seven people fire the rifles three times and 7 x 3 = 21. So, it’s a 21-rifle salute? There is no such thing as a 21-rifle salute.
The math Doesn’t Always Work
Sometimes the math work, as shown above. But there isn’t a requirement that the firing party be only one commander with seven members firing. The minimum for firing in the Army is 5 with the maximum being 8. The minimum for the Air Force is 3 and the maximum 7. At one time, the Marine Corps used 12 to fire.
For more on terminology, click here to read Fire Team, Firing Party and Firing Squad. What’s the Difference?
Techniques Not to Use
Do Not Take Aim
Taking aim is called “shooting”, firing party members “fire”. Firing party members do not raise the rifle or shotgun to the shoulder and angle the head down to sight the weapon. Firing party members keep their head erect and look over the end of the barrel.
Do Not Step Forward
The firing party members face to the right and step out to the side similar to standing at Parade Rest. Stepping forward not only looks awkward, it is awkward. Do not step forward like this:
“Ready! Aim! PULL!”
The word, “fire” ends with a vowel and the word trails off without an abrupt end. Many years ago, the service honor guards (maybe just the Army’s Old Guard) experimented with replacing the word, “pull” for “fire” since it ends with a consonant and can better help the timing of the volleys. You pull the trigger on the “P” of “Pull”.
The Air Force Honor Guard developed a seven-count sequence each time “Readup!” is called. The P replaces the Y to give the word a definite end for timing purposes, “Aim” and “Fire” are eliminated in the sequence. The seven-count sequence is repeated twice and the last time “Readup!” is called, the sequence is down to six movements.
The family should always be able to see each ceremonial element: the firing party, bugler, pallberers, and colors. Fifty paces from the grave is a good rule of thumb and positioned so that the rifles fire over the grave. Below is the suggested setup for a typical full honors funeral. Trees and monuments might play a part in positioning the ceremonial elements.
The firing party is 50-75 paces from the head of the casket in full view of the family. The Three-Volley Salute is fired over the casket and subsequently over the family. At an indoor memorial service, the firing party would be directly outside the doors of the chapel about 20 paces away (if possible) so that if the family were to look out of the open chapel doors they would be able to see some of the members firing the salute.
I remember performing a memorial service in Tucson while on the Davis-Monthan AFB Honor Guard back in the early 90s where we had the firing party across a busy street from the funeral home since there would be no graveside ceremony. They were centered on the doors and when the time came, we opened the doors which signaled the sequence of firing the three volleys. The family was able to see what was going on and so were all of the people at the tire center next door to where the team stood.
The Defense Authorization Act of 2000 mandated the rendering of military honors for all veterans with an honorable discharge. The Full and Standard Honors Funeral has a full complement of eight members – the commander and the seven members who fire. A Modified Funeral also has seven members, however, six of the members perform as pallbearers, present the flag and then move to fire. The Retiree Funeral uses four members to fire the volleys, the commander and this time, three members who fire. Veteran Funeral, does not have an official firing party provided by the military, but many times, a veteran group will take up that responsibility.
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 of blanks into the air to indicate that the dead had been cared for and that they were ready to go back to the fight.
There are three ceremonial-type rifles, the M1 Garand, M1903 and M14 (shown in the picture at left) that are used for ceremonial duties. Both the M1 and the M14 have a charging handle/operating rod which enables the firing party members to add a little flare to firing the sequence of three. The M1903 presents a bit of a challenge since it has a manual bolt. Using an M1903 on a firing party can be accomplished, you just need to practice firing, pulling the bolt up, rearward, pushing it forward and down and then firing again.
The M16 rifle does not present a ceremonial image, in my opinion. However, a unit must use what is readily available. (Read also the Army’s Donations Program for a Firing Party.).
Law enforcement agencies use anyone of the above or they use the shotgun. There are even teams that use a handgun.
I have developed techniques for each weapon that any team can incorporate. The methods I use are practical and logical and easily adopted.
Updated April 5, 2022