What is the origin and history of the 21-gun salute?

There are many customary salutes developed in various militaries around the world, and one of the most popular was the 21-gun salute.

A 21-gun salute is easily the most recognizable out of all, with its origin tracing back to the 17th century. Since the early ages of human history, there had been traditions of performing salutes to honor someone, although they are primarily performed for members of the royal family. In Medieval Europe, which was the period were multiple wars have occurred, it was customary for the defeated forces of the Navy to empty the stock of their ammunition as a sign of surrender since they don’t have any more firing power to fight back. Furthermore, it was also a tradition for a ship that docked at a friendly port to discharge all the ammunition on its cannons to show their intentions. The British, in particular, were common practitioners of the custom, although they would often compel other nations to fire first, to assert their win in the battle.

Because the standard number of weapons in a ship was seven during that time, the vessel used to fire all their cannons at once, rendering them all ineffective and basically useless. There is also speculation that the number 7 is attributed to the importance of the same number in the Bible.

However, the earliest form of gun powder for weapons, which is made primarily of sodium nitrate, was easier to stock at land rather than on ships. Because of this convenience, the land weapons would have a greater supply of ammunition than ships, and it was eventually decided that the forts or the weapons on the land would fire at least three shots for every shot from the ships. Thus, the total number of ammunition fired became 21. With the invention of potassium nitrate, as well as the subsequent improvement in the quality of the gun powder, the ships began to adopt the 21-gun salute without the help of land weapons. The salute then became the greatest national honor during that period.

The salutes varied among countries around the world. For a long period of time, those who belong to the monarchies received more gun salutes than the ones who are considered part of the republics. By 1730, the 21-gun salute had become the main show of honor for the British Navy. They also performed the salute on important days and anniversaries and to honor members of the royal family.

The British Navy officially registered the 21-gun salute as a standard custom in 1808. Later, the British government proposed that the United States should adopt the system. The US armed forces had been doing the salute system according to the number of states, which were 17 in 1810. On August 18, 1875, the US officially adopted the 21-gun salute. The salute is still a common honor in many countries, and they typically perform it on esteemed occasions, notably to honor the leader of states or royal family members.

Today, there are 21 countries that are practicing the 21-gun salute for various occasions. These countries include:

  • Bangladesh – uses it to celebrate Victory Day (December 16), Independence Day (March 26), achievements by its people in various professions, and martyrs who died serving their country.
  • China – uses the salute for Victory over Japan Day (September 3) and National Day (October 1).
  • Philippines – performs it for various holidays, including Day of Valor (April 9), Independence Day (June 12), and Air Force Day (July 1), and the foundation day of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (December 21).
  • Taiwan – uses it in honor of the current president during National Day (October 10).
  • Russia – for the celebration of Defender of the Fatherland Day (February 23), Victory Day (May 9), and Russia Day (June 12)

Despite its fame, the 21-gun salute often gets mistaken to be the same as the three-volley salute, which is performed during the funeral of soldiers. The three-volley salute originated from an old battlefield tradition where both sides fighting in the battle will be given a break to remove the dead and injured from the field. The three volleys of shots fired indicate that the battle would resume. The tradition was later transformed to honor the dead rather than to continue a fight.