What Do the Three Bullets Represent in Military Funerals?

Military funerals are filled with symbolism honoring the deceased veteran

army officers folding flag at military funeral
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At military funerals, one often sees three volleys of shots fired in honor of the deceased veteran, and three spent shell casings presented to the veteran's next of kin.

Anyone who is entitled to a military funeral (generally anyone who dies on active duty, honorably discharged veterans, and military retirees) are entitled to the three rifle volleys, subject to availability of honor guard teams.

The three volleys comes from an old battlefield custom.

The two 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.

The three bullets simply represent the three volleys fired. They also represent these three words: duty, honor, country.

The firing team in this ceremony can consist of any number of service members, but one usually sees a team of eight, with a noncommissioned officer in charge of the firing detail. Whether the team consists of three or eight, or 10 service members, each member fires three times (three volleys).


Three Bullet Casings Slipped Into Folded Flag

The funeral honors also include a ceremony in which the honor guard removes the flag from the casket and carefully folds it, with the blue field of stars facing up. Then, the folded flag is presented to the deceased person's family as a token of gratitude for that person's service.

The flag detail often slips three shell-casings into the folded flag before presenting the flag to the family. Each casing represents one volley. This gesture provides a slightly different meaning for the symbolism of the three bullets in a military funeral.

Some experts on military tradition state that the shell casings should not be slipped into the flag as it's being folded, since doing so would require opening a flap of the flag.

Instead, the shell casings should be retrieved and presented separately to the next of kin.


Not a 21-Gun Salute

This funeral salute often is mistaken by people who aren't involved in the military as a 21-gun salute, although it is entirely different. The three volleys in the funeral salute are fired from rifles, not "guns." Therefore, the three volleys isn't any kind of "gun salute."

In the military, a "gun" is actually a large-calibered weapon, such as a cannon. The 21-gun salute stems from naval tradition, and it is used to mark certain anniversaries, salute heads of state and reigning royalty, and honor national flags.

The number of guns large-calibered guns used for the 21-gun salute varies, depending on the protocol rank of the person being saluted. For example, if a president, former president or president-elect dies, 50 guns will be fired at sunset at all military installations that are equipped for the salute.

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