21-Gun 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 are 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
the 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 a.m. until completion of
the salute.