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.