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Honor Guard 101: The 21 Gun Salute

Honor Guard 101: The 21 Gun Salute

Fairfax County Police Honor Guard

Lt. Ken Baine / Fairfax County Police Department

The twenty-one gun salute is one of the most ceremonial honors paid to officers that are killed in the line of duty. I want to talk about this honor in some detail to give Honor Guard Commanders an understanding of the protocol involving the use of a firing party at a police funeral.

Firing parties should only be used when an officer is killed in the line of duty. I cannot stress this enough. I have received many inquiries from Honor Guard units around the county asking if they should do a firing party for an officer who is retired, has died of natural causes, killed off-duty or is a friend of the Sheriff or Chief. The answer is no. The only exception for an officer who is not killed in the line of duty is a former military veteran being buried at a national cemetery. In that event, the military branch that the officer served with should conduct the firing party.

To conduct the honors properly, all Honor Guard team members with the Fairfax County Police Department are trained to do the firing party. Your firing party should consist of seven team members and be lined up by height from shortest to tallest. A dress right dress should be called to get your proper spacing. They should be visible to the attendees at the cemetery when possible; normally the high or low ground works best to position your team. Your firing party commander should stand no more than ten feet way, and be viewing the firing party and funeral service.

After the last rights are given at the grave side service your firing party should render the twenty-one gun salute with three volleys. This is the proper order and protocol for an officer killed in the line of duty. All commands for the firing party should be very loud. You want as many people as possible at the funeral to hear the firing party commander. After the third and final volley, the firing party commander will call the team to present arms at which time Taps should be played if the family requests it. After Taps, the firing party commanders should give commands to the team softly so only they can hear them. They can quietly march out of sight of the funeral service if they choose to do so.

There are a variety of weapons your team can use for firing parties. We have seen pistols, shotguns and rifles to include: M-1’s, M-14’s and AR-15’s. I find the AR-15’s work the best. We cycle the charging handles ourselves and they are very easy for our team members to operate. The brass casings also shine well with brass cleaner. This is significant because we collect the shell casings after the service, put them into a white glove and give them to the family.

Remember, the firing party is one of the highest honors at a law enforcement line of duty funeral. It takes a lot of practice to get the timing down correctly. I hope and pray your team never has to use one.

  • Photo_user_blank_big


    about 3 years ago

    I agree with you 100% we just had an officer who retired comment suicide and I am one of the commanders so I was tasked with setting this up. All went well and we did a good job however we have two new members on the team both former military and they got very upset that we are not doing a 21 gun for the former officer I tried to explaine this is just for line of duty only and we will not do this. Long story short I was told I have no honor and the team has no honor for not doing this. The family did ask for this but I would not give in so in the end two new members quit on the first mission they went on. This is he hard part about the 21 gun is it will always get brought up.

  • Photo_user_blank_big


    over 3 years ago


    For clarification, the firing of three volleys at an honors funeral is not a 21 gun salute (National Salute), even though there may be 7 in the firing party and the total rounds fired may equal 21. The volleys or 'vale' are a farewell to a comrade in arms. They are used exclusively as a funeral honor.The 21 gun salute has different origin and meaning and is used for honoring visiting heads of state, royalty, dignitaries, and other ceremonious occasions. The firing party may consist of a minimum of 3 guns (which is what most veterans recieve at a burial outside of a national cemetary), up to 7.

  • Photo_user_blank_big


    almost 4 years ago

    Two thing at an officers funeral that bring tears to my eye are, the 21 gun salute and taps. I have only heard the true version of Taps once. I salute the Officers that carry out this duty. Thank you for the article.

  • 146067783_max50


    about 4 years ago


    Google 21 gun salute history. There's a lot of information there. You might be interested also in the guards of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and why the number 21 is important. The 21 steps, etc I understand came from the numbers in the year 1776. Added they total 21. The tomb has never been without guard, regardless of the weather even. One given the opportunity to stay in shelter for a bad storm the guards refused and stood guard during the storm as they do, 24 hours a day, every day. There are things they swear off of, and if is for the rest of their lives. If they happen not to keep their promis, they lose the pin they are given as Tomb Guards. To lose it is a dishonor. I understand that no guard has ever lost their pin.

  • Mnstc-ipatch_max50


    about 4 years ago


    Uhhh ... last "rights"?? Maybe it should be Miranda Rites.

  • Photo_user_blank_big


    over 4 years ago

    Great Article!

  • Parkside_crest_new_12-15-08_copy_max50


    over 4 years ago


    Good Stuff, Thanks!

  • Ltsh1_max50


    over 4 years ago


    aquill1........If you're killed off-duty while taking police action then it is considered Line Of Duty. You will receive the 21 Gun Salute. Stay Safe.

  • Photo_user_blank_big


    over 4 years ago


    If you're killed off-duty performing tasks that would normally be done on-duty what is the difference? Our duty to protect and serve does not end at the end of our shift. We aren't the kind that can leave work at work.

  • Bronzestarribbon_max50


    over 4 years ago


    Thanks for the information great article and I hope my HG never has to do it either.

  • Photo_user_banned_big


    almost 5 years ago


    Well i'm going to have to disagree with the Lt. For instance.... If a police chief or high ranking officer were killed off duty while tring to take police action, then he should still recieve the same respct as an officer on duty because an officer's job is never done. Like for example if i was a police officer and saw a old lady being mugged, i would obivously not just turn the other direction and pretend i didn't see her... i'd confron the muggers, or wait araound for them to leave but if for some reason i didn't make it home that night while tring to assist an civilian, then i bielve i'd still deserve that recognition. Same thing for retired officers too, in my opinion

  • 14600_10200352713679693_171098802_n_max50


    over 5 years ago


    great article thank you very insightful !

  • Photo_user_blank_big


    over 5 years ago


    Thanx for the Lesson

  • Gas_mask_1_max50


    over 5 years ago


    Thank you! This is a great article. Thanks to headblade as well for the additional clarification.

  • Wind_therapy-_angel_max50


    over 5 years ago


    Thanks for the lesson, Nice to know the difference as well thanks Headblade23

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