There are many a customary salute in various militaries around the world. A 21-gun salute is easily the most famous among them, tracing its origin to the 17th century. Since very early ages, there had been tradition of saluting to honor someone, such as royal members. In the medieval Europe, which witnessed various wars, it was customary for the defeated naval forces to empty the stock of their ammunition. It was also a tradition for a ship that visited a friendly port to discharge all its cannons to show their intentions. The British in particular, were practitioners of the custom although they compelled other nations to fire first, to assert their superiority.
Since the standard number of weapons in a vessel was 7 that time, the ships used to fire all the cannons once, rendering them all ineffective. There is also a theory that the number 7 attributes to the importance of the number 7 in Bible.
However, the early gun powder, made mainly of sodium nitrate was easier to keep at land rather than on ships. So the land weapons had a greater supply of ammunition, and it was decided that the forts on the land would fire 3 shots for each of the shots from the ships. Thus, the number became 21. With the invention of potassium nitrate and the subsequent improvement in the gun powder quality, the ships also adopted the salute of 21 guns. The salute became the greatest national honor at that point.
The salutes varied according to nations. In a period of time, monarchies received more gun salutes than republics. By 1730, the 21-gun salute had become a part of British Navy. They also rendered the salute on significant anniversaries and to honor royal members.
The British Navy officially adopted the 21-gun salute as a standard custom in 1808. Later they proposed to the United States to adopt the system. The US had been following the salute system according to the number of states till then. On 18 August 1875, the US adopted 21-gun salute. The 21-gun salute is still a significant honor in many countries. They use it in esteemed occasions, notably to honor heads of states or royal members.
Despite its fame, the 21-gun salute often gets mistaken with the 3 Volleys salute that takes place during the funeral of soldiers. The 3 Volleys salute stems from a battlefield tradition where both sides give a break to the fight to remove the dead and injured from the field. The three volleys of shots indicate that the battle could resume.
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