Origins of the 21 Gun Salute

From the earliest days, noise has been used to express joy, or to do honour. Even today, crowds and audiences still show their approval by shouting, cheering, and applauding. Military bodies, however, express it differently with fanfares and gun salutes.

The gun salute appears to have originated in the early 14th century and there seem to have been two reasons for it. The first would be for the making of noise to do honour to the guest. The second was the emptying of guns by firing.

This was considered as a friendly and trusting gesture, as once fired, the guns could not be easily and quickly reloaded, hence an honour was bestowed upon the visitor. It was a sign that he was trusted and considered an ally. One would assume that all pieces were fired on such occasions and hence the term ‘gun’ salute rather than ’round’ salute.

The origin of the salute is one thing, but as to why 21 guns were selected no one knows. The reason has been lost with time and the custom was not regulated by formal instruction until the early 19th century.

It is interesting to note that all salutes are fired with an odd number of guns and it seems that there may have been a suggestion with regards to odd numbers being lucky.

Shakespeare wrote: “They say there is divinity in odd numbers hope good luck lies in odd numbers”. In the early days of gun salutes, the Royal Navy fired even numbers for funerals, while odd numbers were fired for the living.

One theory for the origin of the odd numbers comes from the navy. The decks carried even amounts of guns but from there the approaching personage could not be seen, so a poop-deck gun was fired first as a signal for the commencement of the salute. The argument for the odd numbers on land was that the first gun was a station time gun which was fired at midday, the same time as salutes generally commenced.

The first formal regulations were laid down for the navy in 1688 but these only dealt with naval officers. The regulations laid down 11 guns for captains and finished with 19 guns for an admiral. No mention was made of royalty but the mathematical progression would lead one to assume that the next rank would be a salute of 21.

In 1827, a circular was issued by the Board of Ordnance. This ordered 21 chambers to be fired for royal salutes from Saint James Park and 21 guns and 41 chambers from the Tower of London (a chamber was a small piece of ordnance, without a carriage, used for firing salutes).

It appears that the royal salutes for the accession to the throne by George IV, William IV, and Victoria were 41 guns, “fired at all stations at home and abroad”.

The 41 gun salute still remains in force today as the royal salute fired from London’s Hyde Park and the 21 guns and 41 chambers of the Tower salutes have resulted in the unique 62 gun salute, which is the current royal salute fired from the Tower of London.