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Firing Party: The Three Volley Salute

Three-volley Salute ARNGLet us get this out of the way first: a firing party does not fire the 21-gun Salute.  It is fired on land or at sea, and only by canons, which are called guns. I know we call a rifle a gun, but it’s a rifle. (See also, Fire Team, Firing Party and Firing Squad. What’s the Difference?)

The 21-gun Salute on land:

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The 21-gun Salute at Sea:

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The Origin of the 21-gun Salute (Source: Headquarters, Military District of Washington, FACT SHEET: GUN SALUTES, May 1969.)

gunsaluteThe use of gun salutes for military occasions is traced to early warriors who demonstrated their peaceful intentions by placing their weapons in a position that rendered them ineffective. Apparently this custom was universal, with the specific act varying with time and place, depending on the weapons being used. A North African tribe, for example, trailed the points of their spears on the ground to indicate that they did not mean to be hostile.

The tradition of rendering a salute by cannon originated in the 14th century as firearms and cannons came into use. Since these early devices contained only one projectile, discharging them once rendered them ineffective. Originally warships fired seven-gun salutes–the number seven probably selected because of its astrological and Biblical significance. Seven planets had been identified and the phases of the moon changed every seven days. The Bible states that God rested on the seventh day after Creation, that every seventh year was sabbatical and that the seven times seventh year ushered in the Jubilee year.

Land batteries, having a greater supply of gunpowder, were able to fire three guns for every shot fired afloat, hence the salute by shore batteries was 21 guns. The multiple of three probably was chosen because of the mystical significance of the number three in many ancient civilizations. Early gunpowder, composed mainly of sodium nitrate, spoiled easily at sea, but could be kept cooler and drier in land magazines. When potassium nitrate improved the quality of gunpowder, ships at sea adopted the salute of 21 guns.

The 21-gun salute became the highest honor a nation rendered. Varying customs among the maritime powers led to confusion in saluting and return of salutes. Great Britain, the world’s preeminent seapower in the 18th and 19th centuries, compelled weaker nations to salute first, and for a time monarchies received more guns than did republics. Eventually, by agreement, the international salute was established at 21 guns, although the United States did not agree on this procedure until August 1875.

The gun salute system of the United States has changed considerably over the years. In 1810, the “national salute” was defined by the War Department as equal to the number of states in the Union–at that time 17. This salute was fired by all U.S. military installations at 1:00 p.m. (later at noon) on Independence Day. The President also received a salute equal to the number of states whenever he visited a military installation.

In 1842, the Presidential salute was formally established at 21 guns. In 1890, regulations designated the “national salute” as 21 guns and redesignated the traditional Independence Day salute, the “Salute to the Union,” equal to the number of states. Fifty guns are also fired on all military installations equipped to do so at the close of the day of the funeral of a President, ex-President, or President-elect.

Today the national salute of 21 guns is fired in honor of a national flag, the sovereign or chief of state of a foreign nation, a member of a reigning royal family, and the President, ex-President and President-elect of the United States. It is also fired at noon of the day of the funeral of a President, ex-President, or President-elect.

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.

“But…”, I hear you say, “there are seven members of the firing party and they fire three times; 7 X 3 = 21.” True! However, not all firing party’s are made up of seven members (plus a commander). The minimum number of members who fire on a firing party is three (plus the commander). The three members still fire three times, not seven times.

A firing party fires a Three-volley Salute.

This practice 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 the dead had been cared for and that they were ready to go back to the fight. The fact that the firing party consists of seven riflemen, firing three volleys does not constitute a 21-gun salute. (See also, When is it OK to use Three Volleys in a Ceremony?)

Which Rifles can be used for a firing party?

USAF Firing Party EditThere are three ceremonial-type rifles, the M1 Garand, M1903 and M14 (shown in the picture at left) that are used for ceremonial duties. Both the M1 and the M14 have a charging handle/operating rod which enables the firing party members to add a little flare to firing the sequence of three. The M1903 presents a bit of a challenge since it has a manual bolt. Using an M1903 on a firing party can be accomplished, you just need to practice firing, pulling the bolt up, rearward, pushing it forward and down and then firing again.

Police Link Firing PartyThe M16-type rifle does not present a ceremonial image, in my opinion. However, a unit must use what is readily available. (Read also the Army’s Donations Program for a Firing Party.).

Shotguns are a unique weapon for law enforcement that present that ceremonial image.

The Sterling Heights Police Honor Guard provided a 21-gun salute in honor of those who have served their country during the city's Veterans Day ceremony Nov. 11. Source photo/Sean Delaney
The Sterling Heights Police Honor Guard provided a 21-gun salute in honor of those who have served their country during the city’s Veterans Day ceremony Nov. 11. Source photo/Sean Delaney

Taking “Aim”

When on a firing party it is not necessary to bring the rifle up and seat the rifle butt into the shoulder as if you are going to shoot something. Notice the position of the M14 in the picture above, that is the Air Force standard or the picture of the shotguns used in a law enforcement firing party. This picture below shows the Marine Corps standard. The other services are similar.

MC Firing Party

Notice that none of the party’s members have lowered their head to the rifle, no has “taken aim”.

“Ready! Aim! PULL!”

The word, “fire” ends with a vowel and the word trails off without an abrupt end. Many years ago, the service honor guards (maybe just the Army’s Old Guard) experimented with replacing the word, “pull” for “fire” since it ends with a consonant and can better help the timing of the volleys.

The Air Force Honor Guard developed a seven-count sequence each time “Readup!” is called. The P replaces the Y to give the word a definite end for timing purposes, “Aim” and “Fire” are eliminated in the sequence. The seven-count sequence is repeated twice and the last time “Readup!” is called, the sequence is cut down to six movements.


The family should always be able to see the firing party. Fifty feet from the grave is a good rule of thumb and positioned so that the rifles pointed across the grave.

I remember performing a memorial service in Tucson while on the Davis-Monthan AFB Honor Guard back in the early 90s where we had the firing party across a busy street from the funeral home since there would be no graveside ceremony. They were centered on the doors and when the time came, we opened the doors which signaled the sequence of firing the three volleys. The family was able to see what was going on and so were all of the people at the tire center next door to where the team stood.

Adapt and overcome.

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The Firefighter’s Ceremonial Axe Manual

See also the article, Resistance to Change: Betrayal?, for some insight that may help dealing with this sometimes rather touchy issue.

Why an axe manual in the first place?
Firefighter honor guard units use two of their tools as ceremonial equipment that are normally used to fight fires. When I first began writing my book, The Honor Guard Manual, I wanted it to be as comprehensive as possible and thought that I should include law enforcement and firefighters. Law enforcement units use rifles the same as that military honor guard units. They also use shotguns sometimes. But firefighters- hold the phone!

The conversation I had with myself when something like this: “What in the world? Let me zoom in on that picture of the firefighter color team. Hey, they’re holding shiny axes! And what are those staffs with point and a little hook?” Time to visit a fire station and get some hands-on training. I went to the Spangdahlem Air Base (my wife was stationed there- I had already retired but was an active member of the Base Honor Guard, probably the only retiree to do that) fire station and was given a tour and explanation of the ax and pike pole and the loan of a real fire ax. The Airmen there were great and I so appreciated the time they took with me, from the Senior Master Sgt to the Senior Airman, they could not have been more pleased to have someone take an interest in the tools of their trade.

I took the fire ax home and began creating a manual of arms that I hoped would mirror the honor guard manual of arms for the rifle for a color team. I took pictures of myself with a timer on my camera setting it up on the back porch of our home in Germany. I also asked my wife to sit in the middle of our hallway and take many pictures while I posed in several different positions of the developing manual with the fire ax. In steps difficulty at this point.

The issues that I encountered were 1) Safety, there is a pike on the opposite end of the blade (the blade is dull on ceremonial axes, but the pike still comes to a four-sided point) and, 2) Creating a series of “strong” positions.

Right/Left Shoulder
Safety: Port is the position most teams use when marching and it can make the ax guards wish for interchangeable arms during long parades. To my knowledge at that point (2009) no team had used an ax like a rifle and put it on their shoulder. (I have since found one or two pictures of firefighter color teams with axes on their shoulders- the same way I created, which gave me validation.) I really wanted to use a shoulder position to provide a relatively restful position, especially when using a real fire ax with a heavy head. To do this and to maintain a safe and ceremonial image, I could not put the ax handle on my shoulder with the ax head next to my ear. That position looked “weak” and actually, a little dorky. It also created the problem of moving the pick near my head, about which I was not all that enthused.

Port and Present Arms
Weakness“: My second concern was positions that may look “weak” or “non-ceremonial” even in transition. When you bring a rifle from Order to Port, the movements are straight forward: you bring the rifle across the torso and then move the right hand to the small of the stock. When trying to mimic this movement for the fire ax, keep in mind that the hand is on top of the ax head and as you bring it across the torso, you must bend the right wrist creating a “weak” movement/position. Or, when at Present Arms and both hands are flared to the front with just the thumbs holding the handle- it does not present a “strong” image.

I have seen firefighters perform several of the positions of an ax manual of arms, positions that I eventually flat rejected for the reasons stated above. I didn’t just play around with an ax for a few minutes and settle on whatever came to mind, the ceremonial manual that I created took weeks of hard work of hands-on time with the ax, bouncing ideas off of my wife and then also firefighter Mark Zamora who played an integral part in the revision of the manual that I first developed with which I was not happy. Mark’s expertise as a firefighter and a member of his department’s honor guard was crucial in the manual positions that are in my book and in the video at the bottom of this article.

Here is the manual that I created which is explained extensively in my book:

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Honor Guard Training Q and A with The DrillMaster

Do you have an honor guard question?

I am happy to answer it!

Q: We already have 9 people committed to being on the Honor Guard. Is there a minimum/maximum that is desired?

A: For my courses, yes, 20-25 trainees. For an honor guard, no, not really. Most of what you will do will be colors presentations for ceremonies and parades. A color team needs 4 people as the minimum. Actually, you could march a 3-man team, if need be, with just the American flag, but that is not usual. Six or 8 members are required for pall bearers and a firing party is made up of a minimum of 4: one commander and three to fire. Pall bearers can make up the firing party, so if you had a funeral, then you would need at a bare minimum, 4 for the color team and six for the pall bearers/firing party. If you have a LODD, I’m sure you won’t have any problem finding more volunteers that you could train to carry the casket and then post off to the side somewhere while the rest of the trained honor guard perform the ceremonial duties. Part of the course is training in the six-man flag fold and you can record it and use it over and over for your internal training. I’ll also teach your team the 2-man flag fold which is much easier to perform, especially at the last minute.

Q: We were hoping to coordinate with a local pipes and drums band to be present for some of our services, is that something you could provide feedback on during the academy as far as how to go about including that?

A: Pipes and drums are part of the honor guard family, but perform separately. It would be relatively easy to include them in any kind of ceremony as you would just work out a certain signal with the drum major for them to play. I don’t think you would need my help with that, although this is a legitimate question (as are all of your questions) for a team that is just beginning.

Q: We as of yet have no equipment.

A: I suggest purchasing equipment first. Equipment is very necessary, distinct uniforms are not (read below for my explanation).

Q: We will be purchasing uniforms, and I am wondering if they should differ from our Dress “Class A” uniforms? Should the uniforms be purchased and tailored prior to the training?

A: Having completely different uniforms requires quite a bit of money ( is good). I think this should be last on your list, here is what I recommend: 1) obtain equipment; 2) secure training; 3) distinctive honor guard uniforms at some point in time. You could make your Class A uniform distinctive by adding an Honor Guard arc to the left/right shoulder and a shoulder cord or aiguillette to the left for a fraction of the cost of outfitting your team with new uniforms.

Q: Regarding the rifles, should one be purchased for every member?

A: A color team requires two rifle guards. I think it would be a good idea to have four or even six riufles so that more members can train at the same time with the rifles. I also suggest that you obtain the same number of colors, staffs and harnesses.

Q: How much time do you need ahead of time to prepare for the course and scheduling?

A: I can be ready in as little as two weeks and think it would be good for you to order your equipment, setup a tentative training date, advertise it to other state departments to get 20-25 trainees and then get with me when you have the funding to take care of the training- I want to emphasize that, if you want to, you could run two one-week academies and have half of your team trained each week while having the other 10-15 trainees coming from other departments, thereby defraying your costs considerably while having only half of your team off their normal duties. Just food for thought.

Q: I just want to verify for our training that the cost is all inclusive for your fees/travel/room and board?

A: Yes, everything is included in the cost: course fee, travel, room and board.

Q: Would we be conducting the graduation mock funeral at a cemetery?

A: I’ve had a mock funeral at a funeral home and one at the front of a public library. Anywhere you would like, we can probably work it out.

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Ask DrillMaster: State Flag on a Casket?

honor guard training: state flag on casket
The TX State Flag on a Casket from

Question: I have been searching for an answer to a question and cannot find it. I hope you can help me. The question is what is the meaning of a state flag draped over a coffin?

Answer: Hello James, thank you very much for the question.I’ve answered it here to help inform others who may have the same question.

The answer is quite simple. You may have recently seen caskets from the unfortunate event that took place in West Texas with the firefighters who were killed in the line of duty by an explosion. Their caskets were draped with the American Flag and one was draped with the Texas flag, but why? Those in charge of the ceremony were concerned with doing the right thing and draped the casket of the volunteer fire chaplain with the Texas flag. The firefighters were full-time, but the chaplain was a volunteer and the committee did not want to make a faux pas. And yet, all of the caskets could have been covered with the state’s flag because the firefighters serve their community within their state. A state flag on a casket (a four-sided box) or coffin (a six-sided box) is perfectly acceptable.

Firefighters and law enforcement officers serve their communities/state just as those in the military serve their country. Firefighters and law enforcement officers receive the honor of having their city, town or state flag draped over their casket while the military receives the American flag. Can the firefighters and law enforcement officers have the American flag? Yes, of course. Whatever the deceased or family wants. Because when it comes down to the bottom line, everyone serves their city, state and nation in some way, big or small.

Again, thanks for the question!