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Firing Three Volleys at a Military Funeral

Funeral services of great importance evolved as customs (from what is known about early Christian mourning) in the 6th century. Certain traditions and rites associated with funerals can be traced to the Greek and Romans. To this day, no religious ceremonies are conducted with more pomp than those intended to commemorate the departed. The funerals of military members, more than any other ceremony, have followed an old tradition as the living honor the brave dead.

The first general mourning proclaimed in America was on the death of Benjamin Franklin in 1791 and the next on the death of President George Washington in 1799. The deep and widespread grief occasioned by the death of the first president assembled a great number of local people for the purpose of paying him a last tribute of respect. On Wednesday, 18 Dec. 1799, attended by military honors and the simplest but grandest ceremonies of religion, his body was placed in the family vault at Mount Vernon, Virginia. Due to slow communications and travel of the time period, community services across the country commemorating his life continued several weeks after his passing as word of his death spread.

Here is a description of Washington’s funeral as reported by Tobais Lear, Washington’s secretary:

About 11 o’clk numbers of persons began to assemble to attend the funeral, which was intended to have been at twelve o’clk; but as a great part of the Troops expected could not get down in time it did not take place till 3. Eleven pieces of Artillery were brought down [from Alexandria].-And a Schooner belonging to Mr. R. Hamilton came down and layoff Mt. Vernon to fire minute guns.-The Pall holders were as follows-Colonels Little, (Charles) Simms, Payne, Gilpin, Ramsay, & Marsteller and Colo. Blackburne walked before the Corps. [Col. Deneal marched with the military.]

[About three o’clock the procession began to move.] Col. Little, Simms & Deneal and Dr. Dick formed the arrangements of the Procession-[The procession moved out through the gate at the left wing of the house, and proceeded round in front of the lawn, and down to the vault on the right wing of the house.] which was as follows-The Troops-Horse & foot-Music playing a Solemn dirge with muffled Drums.-The Clergy-viz The Revd. Mr. Davis-Mr. (James) Muir, Mr. Moffatt, & Mr. Addison-[The General’s horse, with his saddle, holsters, and pistols, led by two grooms, Cyrus and Wilson, in black.] The Body borne by officers & masons who insisted upon carrying it to the grave.-The Principal Mourners-viz. Mrs. Stuart & Mrs. Law-Misses Nancy & Sally Stuart-Miss Fairfax & Miss Dennison-Mr. Law & Mr. Peter-Doctor Craik & T. Lear-Lord Fairfax & Ferdinando Fairfax-Lodge No. 23.-Corporation of Alexandria.-All other persons, preceded by Mr. Anderson, Mr. Rawlins, the Overseers, &c., &c.-

The Rev. Mr. Davis read the service & made a short extemporary speech-The Masons performed their ceremonies-and the Body was deposited in the VaultAll then returned to the House & partook of some refreshment-and dispersed with the greatest good order & regularity.

Funeral procession for George Washington

Another national observance early in the country’s history commemorated the deaths of Presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson on July 4, 1826. Although known as old rivals, both men were heroes and respected leaders in these early years.

The national funeral marking the first time the nation mourned as one occurred April 19, 1865, in observance of President Abraham Lincoln’s death. Due to increased communications technology, word spread across the country by telegraph and train allowing the country to mourn the loss of its president together.

Funeral procession for President Abraham Lincoln

Military funerals have their own rites and traditions that have evolved through the ages. The returning of the dead, preparation of of the body, funeral service with orations, procession to place of interment (with escorts and music), graveside rites, etc…, all have their roots from antiquity.

Several military traditions employed today have been brought forward from the past:

(1) Today’s customary three volleys fired over a grave probably originated as far back as the Roman Empire. This custom is incorrectly referred to as a “21-gun-salute”

(2) The custom of using a caisson to carry a casket most likely had its origins in the 1800s when horse-drawn caissons that pulled artillery pieces also doubled as a conveyance to clear fallen soldiers from the battlefield.

(3) In the mid to late 1800s a funeral procession of a mounted officer or enlisted man was accompanied by a riderless horse in mourning caparison followed by a hearse. It was also a custom to have the boots of the deceased thrown over the saddle with heels to the front signifying that his march was ended.

Three Volleys and Taps

Firing of Three Volleys- Not a “21 Gun Salute”

The firing of three volleys over the grave of a soldier can be traced back to the Roman Empire.  The multiple of three probably was chosen because of the mystical significance of the number three in many ancient civilizations. After the burial rites, the Romans would shout the name of the deceased three times followed by the word “vale”(farewell) to insure that it would never be forgotten.  There is also a practice of throwing three spadeful of dirt onto a coffin.

The practice of firing three volleys was passed to the English and then to the American colonies.  More often than not, during wartime the deceased would be buried quickly with only the three volleys being fired. 

Today, the Defense Department does not require a rifle salute at the funeral ceremonies for veterans. The only requirement is the playing (sounding) of Taps and the folding and presentation of flag to the next of kin. Click here to read DoD directive 1300.15 military funeral support. Rifle salutes are now (due to manning issues) only for certain status of veterans. However Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs) are stepping in to provide them and the military does rifles salutes with as little as three rifles (only firing three times)

The practice of firing volleys may have originated in the old custom of halting the fighting to remove the dead from the battlefield. Once each army had cleared its dead, it would fire three volleys to indicate that deceased soldiers had been cared for and that the army was ready to resume the fight. Although I must admit I have never found a written reference to this ever happening. And I’ve not seen this in any type of manuals. The closest I’ve seen is the call or signal for a parley.

The tradition of firing the three volleys at funerals was noted in regulations and manuals. There was no original number of rifles called for in a rifle salute. There are photos of funerals at Arlington in the late 19th century were the entire platoon is firing. In modern-day ceremonies, the fact that the firing party consists of seven riflemen firing three volleys does not constitute a twenty-one gun salute; that is only rendered by cannon firing twenty-one times.

The use of seven rifles may have evolved from the number seven having spiritual and mythical meanings. But because of manning issues today, you might see as little as three rifles in a firing party at a military funeral.

Funeral at Arlington National Cemetery. Note the number of Soldiers firing the rifle salute

It is from the ancient Greek and Roman culture we get many of the funeral traditions that exist today.
-The wearing of black as a sign of mourning
-Draping of a flag over the remains
-A funeral procession with solemn music
-Funeral orations
-Graveside rites
-Memorial services

Information on Ancient Romand Funerals can be found here:

After the bones and ashes of the deceased had been placed in the urn, the persons present were thrice sprinkled by a priest with pure water from a branch of olive or laurel for the purpose of purification (Virg. Aen. VI.229Serv. ad loc.); after which they were dismissed by the praefica, or some other person, by the solemn word Ilicet, that is, ire licet (Serv. l.c.). At their departure they were accustomed to bid farewell to the deceased by pronouncing the word Vale (Serv. l.c.)…..If the deceased was an emperor, or an illustrious general, the soldiers marched (decurrebant) three times around the pile (Virg. Aen. XI.188Tacit. Ann. II.7), which custom was observed annually at a monument built by the soldiers in honour of Drusus (Suet. Claud. 1). “*/Funus.html

Air Force Firing Party

The 21-Gun Salute

The firing of three volleys at a funeral is commonly referred to as a “21-Gun Salute.” However, this is incorrect terminology. A 21-gun salute is the most commonly recognized of the customary gun salutes that are performed by the firing of cannons or artillery as a military honor. As naval customs evolved, 21 guns came to be fired for heads of state, or in exceptional circumstances for heads of government, with the number decreasing with the rank of the recipient of the honor. While the 21-gun salute is the most commonly recognized, the number of rounds fired in any given salute will vary depending on the conditions. Circumstances affecting these variations include the particular occasion and, in the case of military and state funerals, the branch of service, and rank (or office) of the person to whom honors are being rendered.  Gun salutes are also rendered to other military and civilian leaders of this and other nations. The number of guns is based on their protocol rank. These salutes are always in odd numbers. For example, 11, 13, 15, 17 and 19 gun salutes are fired depending on rank of the person.

Cannon Salute

So, in other words, please do not call three volleys a “21-Gun Salute”

Myths and misinformation surrounding the “21-Gun Salute”

-Twenty-one guns are fired in military salutes because the digits in 1776 add up to 21. FALSE

-Firing parties consist of seven rifles firing three times 7 times 3 equals 21. FALSE

-Three shell casings are placed in the flag representing the three volleys fired and the three words duty, honor, and country. FALSE Nothing should be placed in a folded flag.

-A group of persons with rifles is called a “Firing Party” not a “Firing Squad” TRUE

-A Firing Party can consist of as little as three persons up to seven members plus a Firing Party commander. TRUE

I actually witnessed a Veteran Service Organization firing party fire their rounds four times because they only had 5 members in their firing party. Their explanation was that they wanted to get as close to 21 as possible.

The official firing party, composed of Company B, Marine Barracks Washington Marines, practice without live rounds before the start of the funeral ceremony for Henry H. Black, seventh sergeant major of the Marine Corps, at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., Aug. 29. Black passed away in his home in Fredericksburg, Va., Aug. 24. He served in Korea and Vietnam and earned a Silver Star, Bronze Star, Purple Heart, and Combat Action Ribbon.

Use today

Over the years the three volley salute has been used at Memorial Day and Veterans Day ceremonies as well as remembrance events. The volleys precede the sounding of Taps.

Here is additional information about the three volleys:

A rifle party usually has an odd number of members, from three to seven. The firearm used is typically a rifle, but at some police funerals, shotguns or handguns are used. The party usually stands so that the muzzles are pointed over the casket. However, if mourners are present near the grave, the party stands some distance away (often recommended at least 50 feet) so as to not deafen the attendees and to minimize the disturbance. If the service is being performed indoors, the firing party stands outside the building, often near the front entrance. On the command of the NCO-in-charge, the party raises their weapons and fires three times in unison.

Modern United States military parties use M1, M14 or M16 rifles. Veteran Service Organizations use the M1. Blank cartridges are used. The M1 and M14 are generally preferred over the current issue M16 because the appearance of these older rifles is more traditional and the charging handles are more easily operated in a dignified, ceremonial manner.

Navy Firing Party
American Legion Firing Party

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