King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery performing gun salute for the Queen in Green Park
History

Why Do We Have 21 Gun Salutes For The Queen?

Everything you need to know about the military honour of firing guns to show respect

King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery performing gun salute for the Queen in Green Park

Gun salutes can be heard across the country four times a year in honour of the Queen. The first one being Accession Day on February 6, followed by the Queen’s birthday in April, Coronation Day in June and finally the Queen’s official birthday in the summer.

The Queen turns 95 today, less than two weeks after the death of her husband Prince Philip, on April 9.

April 21 is the date of the Queen’s real birthday which she traditionally spends in private with her family.  

Traditionally, the only public acknowledgement of the Queen’s birthday in April has been gun salutes at midday: a 21-gun salute in Windsor Great Park, a 41-gun salute in Hyde Park, and a 62-gun salute at the Tower of London.

This year the Queen has decided that gun salutes for her birthday would not be appropriate due to her birthday falling within the official period of grief which will continue until April 23rd.

In a statement, the Queen said: "While as a family we are in a period of great sadness, it has been a comfort to us all to see and to hear the tributes paid to my husband, from those within the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth and around the world.”

Gun salutes for the Queen's birthday have not been heard for two consecutive years, due to Coronavirus restrictions, they also cancelled last year.

Trooping the Colour ceremony marks the Queen's birthday. Picture: PA

Where Does The Tradition Originate From?

The firing of gun salutes is a custom dating to the early days of sail.

Ships, when on goodwill visits to foreign ports, discharged all their guns to seaward on arrival thus indicating to the authorities ashore that they came in peace with empty guns

In ancient times, even numbers were associated with mourning, therefore the number of these gun salutes was always odd.

This tradition has been carried on until this day. 

In London, the honour falls on the King's Troop Royal Horse Artillery in the Royal Parks and the Honourable Artillery Company at the Tower of London.

Why Is 21 The Most Common Number Of Gun Salutes? 

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.

This was more of a symbolic gesture because ships carried enough gunpowder and ammunition to reload if they needed to.

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.

cannon shot willem van de velde
The Cannon Shot by Willem van de Velde

Apart From The Queen – Who Else Gets Saluted?

As times moved on and technology developed, ships grew bigger and better, and it became more common for the ships to fire 21 salutes themselves. 

In 1808, the 21-gun salute officially became the standard salute to honour British Royalty.

Although traditionally the honour is reserved for the head of state, heads of government also get the 21-gun salute, and in the case of the United States so does the country’s flag.

In 2018, President Trump’s visit to the UK was marked by a 41-gun salute the moment he arrived in Buckingham palace in April.

This brings us to the next question. Why 41?

King's Troop Royal Horse Artillery fire a 41 gun salute in June 2015 Credit Forces News

21, 41, 62 or 124?! Who Decides How Many Times To Fire?

The standard Royal salute is 21-guns and is reserved for heads of state and on occasion heads of government. 

When the salute is given from a Royal Park or a Royal Fortress, an extra 20 guns is added.

Trump was saluted at Green Park which is a Royal Park and the Tower of London, which is a Royal Fortress, hence the 41-gun salute.

The highest number of gun salutes in the UK is 124.

This happens when the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh’s birthdays occur on the same weekend and is given from the Tower of London.

It’s 21-guns, plus 20 for being from a Royal Fortress, plus 21 for it being the city of London multiplied by 2 (62-guns each).

The birth of a Royal baby is marked by 62-gun salutes from the Tower of London - 21 to mark the Royal occasion, a further 20 are fired because it’s a Royal Fortress and an additional 21 rounds will be fired for the City of London. 

Who Fires The Guns?

The honour of firing the salutes falls on the King's Troop Royal Horse Artillery. 

Today, the role of the King’s Troop is purely ceremonial.

Its important history dates back to 1793 with the formation of the Royal Horse Artillery.

The unit in its current form was created after the Second World War in 1946 by Royal Decree to have ‘A Mounted Battery to fire salutes on state occasions, dressed in the traditional style.' 

Initially, the Royal Horse Artillery was known as The Riding Troop. King George VI renamed it in his own honour by scratching out the word ‘Riding’ in the visitor’s book and replacing it with ‘King’s’.

When To See Gun Salutes?

 

Under normal circumstances when the country is not in a period of official grieving or a pandemic, Royal gun salutes can be heard on the following days.

  • The Prince of Wales's birthday - 14 November 
  • Accession Day – 6 February
  • The Queen's birthday – 21 April
  • Coronation Day - 2 June 
  • The Queen's official birthday - a Saturday in June
  • The State Opening of Parliament - usually November or December
  • Prorogation of Parliament
  • A Royal birth
  • Meeting of a visiting Head of State and the Sovereign in London, Windsor or Edinburgh

A single gun salute can also be heard on November 5th to mark Guy Fawkes day. On the morning of Bonfire Night, in the market town of Lewes, a mortar is fired from the battlements to mark when Guy Fawkes was found. Unfortunately for the residents of Lewes, the gunpowder treason plotter was said to be found at 6am.  

Which Guns Are Used?

If you are lucky enough to witness gun salutes in the Royal Parks, you will see puffs of white smoke emanating from six First World War-era 13-pounder field guns that will fire 41 times, having been pulled there by seventy-one horses from the King's Troop, Royal Horse Artillery.