Final Honors - Firing Party

A myth common in the United States relative to the origin of this tradition is that the year 1776 inspired the 21-gun salute because the sum of the digits in 1776 is 21 (i.e., 1+7+7+6 = 21). However, this is not true. Beginning in the colonial period, the United States fired one shot for each state in the Union as its national salute. This practice was partly a result of usage, because 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 the United States Department of War declared the "national salute" to be equal to the number of states, which was 17 at the time. This was continued until 1841 when the "national salute" was reduced from 26 to 21.

Constitution renders a 21-gun salute to Fort Independence during her Independence Day turnaround cruise.In 1842, the United States declared the 21-gun salute as its "Presidential Salute." In 1890, the "national salute" was also formally reestablished as the 21-gun salute, although the traditional modern Independence Day salute is a 50-gun salute -- one round for each state in the union. This "Salute to the Nation" is fired at noon on July 4, (Independence Day) at U.S. military installations. The U.S. Navy full-dresses ships and fires 21 guns at noon on July 4, Independence Day and February 22, Presidents' Day. On Memorial Day, batteries on military installations fire a 21-gun salute to the nation's fallen. As well, batteries at Naval stations and the ships themselves, fire a salute of 21-minute guns and display the ensign at half-mast from 8 a.m. until completion of the salute.

Today, a 21-gun salute is rendered on the arrival and departure of the President of the United States; it is fired in concordance with four ruffles and flourishes, which is immediately followed by Hail to the Chief -- the actual gun salute begins with the first ruffle and flourish, and concludes after Hail to the Chief has ended. A 21-gun salute is also rendered to former U.S. Presidents, foreign Heads of State (or members of a reigning royal family), as well as to Presidents-elect. In such a ceremony, the national anthem of the visiting dignitary's country is played, following the salute.

Each round in a gun salute is fired one at a time. The number of cannon used in a battery depends upon the intervals between each round fired. For example, a 3-gun battery has 2 of its guns firing, each at 5 second intervals between rounds, with 1 gun at the ready in case of a misfire; such a battery would be used at an Armed Forces Full Honors Funeral, or for an arrival ceremony of a dignitary at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery. A 4-gun battery has its first 3 guns firing rounds at 3 second intervals, with the 4th gun (again) at the ready in case of misfire.

The U.S. Army Honor Guard Standard Operating Procedure for Gun salutes provides a 2-man gun crew (one loader, one gunner) for each cannon, as well as a 5-man 'staff' of soldiers to give the fire commands. The staff includes an Officer in Charge, a watchman (who marks the intervals and signals each gun to fire), an assistant watchman (as a backup), a counter (who keeps track of the number of rounds fired and signals the last round to the Officer in Charge), and a Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge (who marches the battery into place as well as signals the backup cannon to fire in case another gun misfires).

Naval vessels now have saluting guns installed which are used solely for such purpose. The traditional timing chant, "If I wasn't a sailor, I wouldn't be here. Fire #1," etc., has been replaced by stopwatch.

A 21-gun salute is also fired at noon on Memorial Day to honor the nation's fallen. A 50-gun salute (one round for each state in the Union) is fired at noon on the 4th of July.

19-gun salutes are reserved for deputy heads of state, chiefs of staff, cabinet members, and 5-star generals.
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