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Why 21 Guns?


There are few events as recognizable, or that elicit more emotion, than a 21-gun salute. But ask the proud American with a tear in his eye how the custom originated, and chances are he has no idea. The practice has been traced back to ancient times when early warriors demonstrated their peaceful intentions by placing their weapons in a position that rendered them ineffective. A North African tribe, for example, trailed the points of their spears on the ground to indicate that they meant no harm. The act of firing weapons for the same purpose started, logically enough, with the advent of firearms and cannons in the 14th century. It became customary for a ship entering a friendly port to discharge its cannon to demonstrate that they were unloaded (since these early devices contained only one projectile, discharging them once rendered them ineffective). Originally, warships fired seven-gun salutes -- the number seven was probably selected because of its astrological and Biblical significance. Forts ashore, which could store gunpowder more readily and in greater quantity than on ships, would customarily fire three shots back for each shot fired afloat. The multiple of three was probably chosen because of its mystical significance in many ancient civilizations; hence, the salute by shore batteries was 21 guns.

For many years, the number of guns fired for various purposes differed from country to country. By 1730, the Royal Navy was prescribing 21 guns for certain anniversary dates. The gun salute system of the United States 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 -- 17. This salute was fired by all US military installations at 1pm (later at noon) on Independence Day. The US Navy regulations for 1818 were the first to prescribe a specific manner for rendering gun salutes. They stated that "When the President shall visit a ship of the United States' Navy, he is to be saluted with 21 guns." (There were 21 states in the Union at that time). In 1842, the Presidential salute was formally established at 21 guns.

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, on Washington's Birthday, Presidents Day, and the Fourth of July. On Memorial Day, a salute of 21-minute guns is fired at noon while the flag is flown at half-mast. *

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