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The history of Gun Salutes

Gun salutes have existed for centuries and are the firing of guns or firearms as a sign of respect used to mark special occasions or as a military honour.

The tradition of the gun salute dates from the 15th Century and the early days of sail. Ships, when visiting foreign ports, would discharge all their guns out to sea on arrival to signify that they came in peace with empty guns. According to one theory, British ships at that time carried seven guns so seven shots became the standard to signal that the ship was now unarmed. The guns onshore would welcome the incoming ships by firing three rounds for every shot fired from the ships – putting the total number of shots fired at 21 – hence the 21-gun salute, the most common number of gun salutes used today. 

By 1730 the Royal Navy were firing 21-gun salutes to mark certain anniversaries and in 1808 this became the mandatory standard salute to the Royal Family and Heads of State. In 1827 the Board of Ordnance ordered that 41 guns was the correct Royal Salute when fired from one of the Royal parks or the Tower of London and these instructions were written into an order in 1831. 

On the anniversary of the Birth, Accession or Coronation of the Sovereign 62 guns are fired from the Tower.  This is said to be 41 for the Royal Salute from a London saluting station and 21 from the City of London. 

When the salute is given from a Royal Park an extra 20 guns is added, becoming a 41-gun salute. However, It becomes a 62-gun salute when discharged from a Royal Fortress, like the Tower of London, where the 21-guns fired have an additional 20 volleys added plus a further 20 for it being at the city of London, showing the loyalty of its citizens to the Monarch.  

Guns continue to fire at 10 second intervals sending plumes of smoke into the air until the required number of rounds have been reached. 

In 1946 following the Second World War and the mechanisation of the last batteries of horse-drawn artillery, King George VI expressed that a troop of horse artillery should be retained. A Royal decree was subsequently drawn up which ordered the formation of a mounted battery to fire salutes on state occasions. 

Initially called the Riding Troop with roots dating back to 1793 and the formation of the Royal Horse Artillery (RHA), the Riding Troop was renamed and King George VI enacted his proclamation on 24 October 1947 by striking out the name Riding and replacing it with ‘Kings’ in the visitors book. In 1947 The Kings Troop, Royal Horse Artillery was formed with part of their ceremonial role being to fire gun salutes from Royal Parks.  
On her accession, Queen Elizabeth II declared that the name ‘The King’s Troop’ would remain in honour of her father. 

At the Tower of London the salute is fired from four 25- pounder guns located on Tower Wharf facing the River Thames and are operated by the Honourable Artillery Company (HAC), formerly the Royal Artillery detachment stationed there until it was disbanded in the 1920s.  

In addition, the birth of a Royal baby is also marked by a 62-gun salute from the Tower of London – 21 to mark the Royal occasion, a further 20 are fired because it is a Royal Fortress and an additional 21 will be fired for the City of London. 

Although the 21-gun salute is the most recognised, the number of rounds fired for any given salute varies depending on the occasion and rank of the person to whom honours are being rendered. 
A Field Marshal has 19, a General 17, a Lieutenant General 15 and a Major General 13.  Below these ranks 3 rounds of small arms is the appropriate salute.   

Gun salutes are not confined to London, saluting stations can also be found at other locations around the United Kingdom and overseas including Edinburgh Castle in Scotland, Cardiff and Hillsborough Castle in Northern Ireland. 

The type of gun used to fire a salute varies from the 25-pounder, operated by the Honourable Artillery Company (HAC) introduced in 1940 and were used widely during the Second World War.  
The King’s Troop, Royal Horse Artillery, drive teams of six horses pulling six First World War-era Quick Firing (QF)

13-pounder guns which first entered service in 1904. Other guns used for salutes include the L118 Light Gun, which is a 105mm towed howitzer, first developed for the British Army in the 1970s    

Gun salutes are usually fired at midday, with tradition dictating that when a special day falls on a Sunday, the Royal salute is not fired until the following day. So, in 2022 the Accession Day Platinum Jubilee Anniversary Royal salute will be fired on Monday 7th February. In London, Her Majesty’s Mounted Ceremonial Battery, The King’s Troop, Royal Horse Artillery will fire a 42 Gun salute from Green Park at 12 noon.