One of the main aspects of military courtesy is the salute. It is a gesture of respect and a sign of comradeship among service personnel.
Accordingly, it is a uniform gesture; meaning that the highest man in rank in the Marine Corps returns the salute in the same form in which it is rendered to him.
By saluting first, no officer or man implies that he is in any sense inferior of the senior whom he salutes.
The words of General John J. Pershing, commanding general of the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I indicates the importance of saluting in the minds of fighting men. "Send me who can shoot and salute," he demanded.
The salute probably originated in the days of chivalry when knights in mail raised their visors to friends for the purpose of identification. Because of strict adherence to rank, the junior was required to make the first gesture.
Still, another probability as to the originating of a salute comes from the time when assassinations by dagger were not uncommon. It became the custom to approach each other with raised hand, palm to the front, showing that there was no concealed weapon.
It seems reasonable to assume that the hand salute as now rendered stems to some degrees, from the British Navy. There is general agreement that the hand salute is actually the first part of uncovering. That was the start, uncovering in front of a senior.
Gradually, that was changed into merely touching the cap, and now the present salute.
There are many types of salutes; the hand salute; the rifle salute at order arms; the rifle salute at right shoulder; the rifle salute at present arms. Another type of salute in eyes right, given by men in ranks when passing in review.
The noisiest salute rendered is a gun salute which has quite a history. Actually, perhaps in a sadistical sense, there is also a bit of humor attached to the gun salutes as rendered years ago by not so accurate gunners.
During the days of Columbus, after firing a salute, it would take as much as a half an hour to reload the guns. Therefore, the first ship firing the salute showed that he came in peace, and after firing the gun, was helpless.
It is said that firing blanks is the safest way of firing a gun salute; at least safest for the individual being honored. History records that at least one man so being honored was killed by unskilled gunners who blasted him with a cannon ball!
The origin of a 21-gun salute, an international salute, took years to come into being. Originally warships fired salutes of seven guns, probably because the number had some mystical or symbolical significance stemming from the Bible.
Although regulations stated that the salute at sea was seven guns, shore batteries were authorized to fire three guns to the ship's one, the difference being due to the storage of powder. Lack of facilities for maintaining low and even temperatures aboard ship was a serious problem for powder spoiled easily.
In shore batteries, the powder was easily stored near the guns.
With the powder as we now know it, (one that preserves at sea longer) the number of guns for the naval international salute was raised to 21.
Another type of salute is rendered over a grave. Originally three volleys were fired into the air, to "scare away evil spirits escaping from the dead." It was thought that their hearts were ajar at such time, allowing the devil to enter.
Today, the gun salutes, as rifle salutes and hand salutes, are all administered by the individual, the group or the ship as a sign of respect.
Dating from the time of Columbus and Roman emperors, the salute has become an important part of a proud tradition. The salute means something...something important. Learn how to use it, and use it well.
Reference Section, History and Museums Division, February 1996