King Charles III coronation

King Charles III's coronation: Why do we have gun salutes?

Watch: Military fire Gun Salutes to mark King Charles's first birthday as monarch.

A six-gun salvo will be fired from Horse Guards Parade for the first time in British history for the coronation of King Charles III on 6 May – but why do we have gun salutes and what are the origins of the tradition?

The coronation salvo will see six guns being fired simultaneously by the King's Troop Royal Horse Artillery from Horse Guards Parade. 

The moment the King is crowned inside Westminster Abbey, gun salutes will be heard across the country, including on Royal Navy ships. 

They will feature more than 400 personnel across 13 locations and deployed Royal Navy ships.

Gun salutes will also echo across the Commonwealth, with Canada marking the coronation with a 21-gun salute in Ottowa. 

What is a salvo?

A salvo, a simultaneuos discharge of artillery or other guns, will feature as a special gun salute – fired the moment the crown touches the King's head. 

It is the official signal to the public that the King has been crowned. 

For the late Queen's coronation in 1953, a salvo was fired from Green Park, but this time the guns will fire from Horse Guards Parade so that the gunfire will be audible within Westminster Abbey where the King's coronation will take place. 

The King's coronation will see six guns being fired simultaneously for the first time in British history. 

HM's Tower of London, an 124 round Gun salute fired from the Tower Wharf across the Thames by the Honourable Artillery Company 02062022 CREDIT BFBS.jpeg
A 124-round Gun Salute is fired from the Tower of London to mark Queen Elizabeth II's Platinum Jubilee.

The last time gun salutes were heard in London was to mark the King's 74th birthday in November. 

Prior to that, gun salutes were heard across the capital to pay tribute to Queen Elizabeth after her death in September 2022.

Gun salutes took place in locations including Cardiff Castle, Edinburgh Castle, Hillsborough Castle, York, Portsmouth and Gibraltar.

What are gun salutes?

Customarily fired, both onshore and at sea, gun salutes are a sign of respect or welcome. 

Royal gun salutes follow proud traditions and are fired on special occasions such as anniversaries and birthdays, and in the event of a death, by military personnel from various locations in London and at saluting stations across the UK and abroad as a mark of respect and admiration for the monarch. 

Royal salutes are traditionally fired from locations in London, Portsmouth, Colchester, Plymouth and York in England, Edinburgh Castle in Scotland, Cardiff in Wales, Hillsborough Castle in County Down, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar.

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.

Today gun salutes are a mark of respect and honour for royalty, heads of state and certain military personnel. 

The tradition started in 1730 when the Royal Navy began firing 21 times to mark certain anniversaries. 

In 1808, the practice was cemented when the 21-gun salute became the mandatory standard salute for the Royal Family and heads of state. 

Watch: 16 Regiment Royal Artillery gunners on firing Platinum Jubilee gun salute.

21, 41 or 62 how many salutes and why? 

Twenty-one is the most common number of gun salutes. The theory as to why the number is 21, in particular, dates back to the early days of sail when the tradition began. 

According to one theory, British ships in the 15th Century would have seven guns on board. So, coming into foreign harbours they would fire seven times, signalling that their ship was now unarmed and came in peace. 

To welcome the incoming ship, the guns in the harbour would then fire three shots for every shot fired by the ship – three times seven – making it 21 shots. 

Hence the origins of the standard 21-gun salute. 

The number of gun salutes varies depending on location, with more salutes added to the standard 21, depending on where the saluting is taking place. 

If the salute is fired from a Royal Park or a Royal fortress then 20 rounds are added – making it a 41-gun salute. 

This was ordered by the Board of Ordnance, a governing body in the Tudor period, in 1827. The order with the instructions stating that 41 salutes was correct when fired from a Royal Park or the Tower of London came out in 1831.

If the salutes are fired from the City of London then an extra 21 is added, said to be a sign of loyalty from the citizens of the City. 

For example, if it is a Royal occasion such as a birth, ascension or coronation, marked by gun salutes from the Tower of London, then 62 rounds are fired – 41 because it is a Royal occasion marked from the Tower and 21 extra for the City of London. 

Who fires the guns?

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.

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 Elizabeth II became Queen, she kept 'King's' in the name in honour of her father. 

A 21-gun salute is performed at Edinburgh Castle to mark the then Prince Charles' 73rd birthday.
A 21-gun salute is performed at Edinburgh Castle to mark the then Prince Charles' 73rd birthday.

What kind of guns fire salutes? 

The King's Troop Royal Horse Artillery fire a First World War-era Quick Firing Gun. 

The Troop have a team of six horses pulling six of the 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. 

The L118 Light Gun was developed for the British Army in the 1970s. 

The Honorable Artillery Company fires a 25-pounder gun that was introduced in 1940 for use in the Second World War. 

The guns are fired at 10-second intervals until the desired number of salutes is reached. 

If the salutes are taking place in the Tower of London to mark a Royal occasion the 62-gun salute could take just over 10 minutes. 

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