The Art of the Cannon Salute

The Cannon Shot  by Willem Van de Velde the Younger

The Cannon Shot by Willem Van de Velde the Younger

In the days when tall ships dominated the seas, these massive vessels commonly greeted a new harbor with a powerful blast of cannon. But why did these ships use the cannon, an expensive tool of war, to herald their arrival and entry into a port?


 A Show of Goodwill

Cannon salutes began as a way for a ship entering a harbor to show they meant no harm, because by unloading their cannons they showed they had no intention of firing on the port. In this way, the practice of a cannon salute can be compared to a handshake; it signifies to both parties that there is no malice planned, and because the powder required to perform such a salute wasn’t cheap, it was an offer that carried real downsides – it couldn’t be faked. Cannon salutes always consisted of odd numbers due to the belief that firing an even amount of shots was a harbinger of death for the ship’s captain. Although cannon salutes were at first intended to simply show peace, they soon became wrapped up in a complex system of tribute paid to other nations. Opposing countries demanded certain methods of cannon salute to show their dominance of the ocean. Chief among these nations was Britain, which ruled the waves during the age of sail. It was in this time that Great Britain popularized the 21-gun salute. This practice arose because it was common British custom for ships to fire a seven gun salute. Forts would respond by “answering” every single shot from the ship with three shots, turning the 7-gun salute into the 21-gun salute. Though this system was at one point reserved for the British as a sign of their mastery of the sea, it eventually spread elsewhere. Britain pressed America to adopt this system, and in the late 19th century the U.S. complied. 


Cannon Salutes in the United States

Since then, the U.S. has adopted its own unique set of cannon salutes. These salutes vary in number of cannons, with the 21-gun salute being reserved for Presidents and those who previously held the office. One notable procedure here in the US is to fire a special salute in recognition of Independence Day. This practice dates back to the earliest days of the republic. In these days, when there were only 13 states, the common salute was to fire a shot for every state. As our nation expanded west, this practice was quickly dropped – not many captains wanted to waste so much powder and time acknowledging all the individual states. Today on the fourth of July, we fire off a 21 gun salute in the British tradition, which is ironic for celebrating the day we separated from the British. Regardless, the practice of cannon salutes is thoroughly ingrained in U.S. and global culture. 


Cannon Salutes and Tall Ships Portland

On July 18th, when tall ships sail into Portland Harbor during the parade of sail, an authentic cannon salute will occur. Firing a response from Portland Harbor will be a cannon from the 3rd New Hampshire regiment. The cannon is one of the few revolutionary war cannons still in existence. If you want to see this historic cannon, and witness the ancient maritime exchange of a cannon salute in action, you can watch the Parade of Sail from Fort Williams park in Cape Elizabeth, or the waterfront in Portland. If you want an incredible up-close look at cannon salute, you can purchase tickets from Portland Schooner Company and be on board a Portland schooner during the Parade of Sail! Visit for more details on this once in a lifetime opportunity. 

Are you interested in maritime history? Do you want to learn more about the Age of Sail and the ships that sailed back then? Come to Tall Ships Portland! Tall Ships will be visiting Portland Harbor from July 18-20th.