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  • Writer's pictureHistoric Hollywood Cemetery

What is the history behind the three-rifle volley used for military funerals?

When people think of military funerals there are a number of different honors that may occur. A common honor is the three-rifle volley, often incorrectly called a 21-gun salute.

A 21-gun salute is the highest honor rendered. It comes from a naval tradition when a warship would signal that it wasn’t hostile by firing its cannon out to sea until there was no more ammunition. There have been changes over the years to the 21-gun salute, but today the military fires it 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. The 21-gun salute is also fired on Washington’s birthday, President’s Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, and for the funeral of a president or ex-president.

The three-rifle volley that most people are familiar with is provided by a firing party which, according to the American Legion "consists of no less than three and no more than seven rifles firing three volleys in memory of the fallen.” This comes from the tradition where firing three volleys on the battlefield meant that the dead were cleared and properly cared for.

However, to do the three-rifle volley there must be enough military personnel present. If there are only two military personnel present there are not enough for the three-rifle volley to be completed. Many funerals today may have only two service members present. The service members will, however, perform other honors such as playing "Taps” and folding and presenting of the American flag to the deceased’s family.

There are some instances where three-rifle volleys still occur. For example, Arlington National Cemetery includes a firing party at all of its military funerals. Other national cemeteries may allow organizations such as the American Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars to provide a firing party.

If your loved one is eligible for military honors and you are interested in having a firing party present you should check with your cemetery, your local veterans’ organization, or your local branch of the U.S. Armed Forces to learn more.

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