Cannon or Gun Salute Information

Like the handshake, the gun salute is said to have begun as a sign that the saluter is unarmed and means no harm. In gunnery's early days reloading was a lengthy process, and someone who had just fired all their cannon would not be able to repeat the performance for a quarter hour or more.

Salutes ordinarily consist of an odd number of shots, following a naval tradition dating back at least to the middle 1600s. An even number of shots was considered unlucky, and sometimes used as a signal that the captain or master gunner had died on the voyage.

In the days when Britannia ruled the waves it compelled passing merchant vessels to salute its warships, firing first. Even its own merchants complained of the expense. The British national salute was 7 guns, but those ashore (where powder was more easily come by) could return 3 shots for every 1, in other words, 21 shots.

As relations between nations became more egalitarian, it became customary to reply to a salute with the same number of shots. At the suggestion of the British, the United States adopted the international 21-gun salute and the principle of “gun-for-gun return” on 18 August, 1875.

Some of the present entitlements in U. S. military usage are described below in simplified fashion. For example, the Secretary of Defense is entitled to 19 guns on arrival and departure, but other cabinet members only on arrival. Traditionally, and in the absence of a watch, the master gunner times the interval between shots by saying, “If I weren't a gunner, I wouldn't be here. Fire one” (two, three, etc).

Number of guns

Who is entitled to this salute?

21-gun (royal salute)

U. S. presidents, ex-presidents, and presidents-elect. Chiefs of state, heads of government, members of a reigning royal family.

In the United States, a 21-gun salute is fired on Washington's Birthday and Memorial Day.

U. S. officers abroad may salute any dignitary in his or her own country with the number of guns with which that country salutes that person, up to a 19-gun salute–but not a 21-gun salute, unless the person falls into one of the above categories.


U. S. Vice-President, Speaker of the House, President pro temp of the Senate, Chief Justice, Cabinet officers. Governor of a U. S. state. Deputy Secretary of Defense. Director of Defense Research and Engineering.

Prime minister or premier.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Chief of Staff, U. S. Army. Chief of Staff, U. S. Air Force. Chief of Naval Operations. Commandant of the Marine Corps. Officers above the rank of admiral or general, i. e., Fleet Admiral, General of the Army or General of the Air Force.

Ambassadors, high commissioners, and others whose credentials are at least equivalent to those of an ambassador.

17-gun Governor general or governor of a territory, commonwealth, or possession of the U.S. or an area under U. S. administration. Committee of Congress. Assistant Secretaries of Defense, General Counsel of the Department of Defense, Under Secretaries of the Army, Navy, or Air Force. Admiral, General.
15-gun Envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary. Vice admiral, lieutenant general.
13-gun Minister resident. Rear admiral, major general.
11-gun Charge d'Affaires, Consul general, consul, or vice consul when in charge of a consulate-general. Brigadier general.
7-gun Consuls accredited to the U.S. Vice-consuls when in charge of consulate.
5-gun Vice-consuls and consular agents.

Certain special salutes are traditional in some countries. In the United States, on July 4th a salute is fired consisting of one gun for each state in the Union. (One-gun-per-state was for many years the United States’ national salute, John Paul Jones having returned a 13-gun salute to the French salute to the Ranger at Quiberon Bay in 1778, the first time a United States warship was saluted as that of a sovereign state. The 1-gun-per state salute was officially adopted in 1810, but it become increasingly cumbersome as more states joined the Union, and in 1841 the national salute was reduced to 21 guns.) During the period of British rule in India, the King-Emperor received a salute of 101 guns.

U. S. Army Regulations 600-25. Officers manual.

Mark M. Boatner II.
Military Customs and Traditions.

U. S. Dept. of Defense.
The Armed Forces Officer.

William P. Mack, Royall W. Connell and Leland Pearson Lovette.
Naval Ceremonies, Customs, and Traditions. 5th ed.
U. S. Naval Institute, 1980.

FJA NOTE: This information came form another website and was not created by the author of this website.