The tradition of saluting can be traced to the Middle Ages practice of placing oneself in an unarmed position and, therefore, in the power of those being honored. The cannon salute might have originated in the 17th century with the maritime practice of demanding that a defeated enemy expend its ammunition and render itself helpless until reloaded -- a time-consuming operation in that era.
In the Anglo-Saxon Empire, seven guns was a recognized naval salute, seven being the standard number of weapons on a vessel. Because more gunpowder could be stored on dry land, forts could fire three rounds for every one fired from sea, hence the number 21. With the improvement of naval gunpowder, honors rendered at sea were increased to 21 as well.
Beginning in our colonial period, the United States fired one shot for each state in the Union. This was continued until 1841 when it was reduced to 21 from 26. Although it had been in use for more than 30 years, the 21-gun salute was not formally adopted until Aug. 18, 1875. This was at the suggestion of the British, who proposed a 'Gun for Gun Return' to their own 21-gun salute.
Origin of the 21-Gun International Salute
All personal salutes may be traced to the prevailing use in earlier days: to ensure that the saluter placed himself in an unarmed position, and virtually in the power of the saluted. This may be noted in the dropping of the point of the sword, presenting arms, firing cannon and small arms, lowering sails, manning the yards, removing the headdress or laying on oars.
Salute by gunfire is an ancient ceremony. The British for years compelled weaker nations to render the first salute; but in time, international practice compelled 'gun for gun' on the principle of equality of nations. In the earliest days, seven guns was the recognized British national salute.
Here again we see that the number seven had a mystical significance. In the Eastern civilization, seven was a sacred number: astronomy listed the seven planets, the moon changed every seven days, the earth was created in seven days, every seventh year was a sabbatical year, and the seven times seventh year was a jubilee year.
Those early regulations stated that although a ship would fire only seven guns, the forts ashore could fire three shots (again the mystical three) to each one shot afloat. In that day, powder of sodium nitrate was easier to keep on shore than at sea. In time, when the quality of gunpowder improved by the use of potassium nitrate, the sea salute was made equal to the shore salute; 21 guns as the highest national honor. Although for a period of time, monarchies received more guns than republics, eventually republics gained equality. There was much confusion because of the varying customs of maritime states, but finally the British government proposed to the United States a regulation that provided for 'salutes to be returned gun for gun.' The British at that time officially considered the international salute (to sovereign states) to be 21 guns, and the United States adopted the 21 guns and 'gun for gun' return, Aug.18, 1875.
Previous to this time our national salute had been variable; one gun for each state of the Union. This practice was partly a result of usage, for John Paul Jones saluted France with 13 guns at Quiberon Bay in 1778 when the Stars and Stripes received its first salute. The practice was not officially authorized until 1810.
When India was part of the British empire, the king-emperor would receive an Imperial salute of 101 guns. Unless rendered to a president or the flag of a republic, 21 guns is called a Royal Salute in the British Isles, and even then it is called (colloquially) 'royal' in the British Commonwealth. In short, it would be said of the president of the United States, if saluted in Canada, that he received a 'royal salute.'
The United States also has an extra-special ceremony known as the 'Salute to the Nation,' which consists of one gun for each of the 50 states. The mimic war is staged only at noon on the Fourth of July at American military ports, although it has been given on a few other occasions, such as the death of a president.
The Navy full-dresses ships and fires 21 guns at noon on the Fourth of July and Feb. 22. On Memorial Day, all ships and Naval stations fire a salute of 21-minute guns and display the ensign at half-mast from 8:00 a.m. until completion of the salute.
*Retired Navy Vice Adm. Leland P. Lovette, Naval Customs Traditions and Usages, 4th ed., (Banta Co: Menasha, Wisconsin, 1960).
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