6 Facts about the 21-Gun Salute

Although you won't see a 21-Gun Salute you will definitely be able to hear it!

  1. The firing of gun salutes is a very old custom which appears to have originated in the early days of sail. Ships, when on good will visits to foreign ports, discharged all their guns to seaward on arrival thus indicating to the authorities ashore that their guns were empty and their visit peaceful.
     
  2. Gun Salutes always consist of an odd number of rounds; the firing of an even number of rounds in olden days was always reserved for occasions of mourning. A salute is referred to as, for example, 'a salute of 21 guns' or a '21 gun salute' though nowadays only 2 or 3 guns actually fire the 21 charges.
     
  3. The interval between successive guns in a salute is 5 seconds. Before a stop watch was used, the interval was timed by the deliberately spoken repetition of the couplet, "If I wasn't a gunner I wouldn't be here, number one (two, three, etc) gun fire!" How this was done before the turn of the century when the standard interval was 10 seconds is left to conjecture.
     
  4. It used to be the custom to fire salutes with the gun “shotted”, i.e. using powder and shot. When the news of the restoration of Charles II reached the fleet, which was then anchored in the Downs, Samuel Pepys recounted: "The General began to fire his guns, which he did, all that he had in the ship, and so did the rest of the commanders, which was very gallant, and to hear the bullets go hissing over our heads as we were in the boat." The Admiralty prohibition against firing salutes above Gravesend, Kent, is said to date from an occasion when a shot fired during a salute went uncomfortably close to Greenwich Palace where Queen Elizabeth I was then residing.
     
  5. It was also the custom when at sea for the saluting ship to turn and head towards the ship being saluted. This originated in the days when ships were armed with broadside guns only and by heading towards the other ship the salute could not be mistaken for an act of aggression.
     
  6. Royal and National salutes are of 21 guns. The number of guns for other salutes varies from 19 to 7 and is laid down in Queen's/King’s Regulations for the Royal Navy. A salute to a National flag or to the flag of a foreign Flag Officer is returned gun for gun. A salute by one of HM's Ships to the flag of a British Flag Officer is returned by the number of guns to which the officer initiating the salute is entitled. Although officers of the rank of Captain and Commander are not entitled to a gun salute on these occasions they receive a return salute of 7 guns. No other salutes are returned.

HMS Hermes returning from the Falklands