Military funeral honors may include the firing of three rifle volleys over the grave during interment.
The firing of three volleys over the grave of a fallen warrior has its origin in the old custom of halting the fighting to remove the dead from the battlefield.
Once the dead were removed, three-musket volleys were fired as a signal that the battle could resume. A firing party of seven service members traditionally fires the volleys. The fact that a firing party might consist of seven service members firing three volleys does not constitute a 21-gun salute.
It has also been suggested that the custom may have deeper roots. In Roman customs, mourners would cast dirt on the coffin three times and this constituted a burial. They would also call the deceased by name three times and upon departure say farewell three times.
At military funerals, you often see three volleys of shots fired in honor of the deceased veteran. This tradition is performed by honor guard teams, based on family desires and available resources.
The rifle volley is often mistaken by nonmilitary folks as a 21-gun salute, although it’s entirely different. In the military, a gun is a large-caliber weapon. The three volleys are fired from rifles, not guns. Therefore, the three volleys aren’t any kind of gun salute at all.
The firing team can consist of any number, but it’s usually made up of seven or eight members. Whether the team consists of three, eight, or ten, each member fires three times (three volleys).
The three volleys come from an old battlefield custom. The warring sides would cease hostilities to clear their dead from the battlefield, and the firing of three volleys meant that the dead had been properly cared for and the side was ready to resume the battle.