The 3-volley salute is a ceremonial act performed at military and police funerals as part of the drill and ceremony of the Honor Guard. It consists of a rifle party firing blank cartridges into the air three times. The custom originates from the European dynastic wars, where the fighting ceased for the dead and wounded to be removed, then three shots were fired into the air to signal that the battle could resume. The three-volley salute is not to be confused with the 21-gun salute (or 19-gun or 17-gun, etc) which uses a battery of artillery pieces.
For the United States as other countries may differ:
A myth common in the United States of America 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). This, however 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 number of rounds fired in the 'National Salute' to be equivalent to the number of states -- which, at the time was 17. The tradition continued until 1841 when it was reduced from 26 to 21.
The USS 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.' While the 'National Salute' had been formally established as the 21-gun salute, the current tradition holds the salute on Independence Day to be a 50 rounds -- one round for each state in the union. This 'Salute to the Nation' is fired at noon on July 4, on U.S. military installations, while the U.S. Navy full-dresses ships and fires 21 guns at noon on July 4, as well as on 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 on ships, 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 are immediately followed by Hail to the Chief -- the actual gun salute begins with the first ruffle and flourish, and 'run long' (i.e. the salute 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 State Arrival Ceremony of a foreign 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.
19-gun salutes are reserved for deputy heads of state, chiefs of staff, cabinet members, and 5-star generals. For each flag rank junior to a five-star officer, two guns are subtracted. (e.g., for a four-star admiral, a 17-gun salute is prescribed; a three-star general would rate a 15-gun salute, a two-star, 13-guns and a one-star, 11 guns.)
Former Member of the Old Guard