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Origin and Development

Probably the raising of the open hand was a demonstration of that mutual trust and respect exercised by the nobility in the days of chivalry. In token of these sentiments knights on meeting one another placed themselves in an attitude of defencelessness by uncovering their heads or raising their visors. But headdresses, whether iron casque, shako, bearskin or cloth helmet, have not always been easy to remove quickly, and so the preliminary movement of raising the hand to the head became accepted as the earnest intention of completing the whole movement.

Three hundred years ago when Britain's first standing army was formed, saluting was by removal of the headdress, and according to John Locke who witnessed a review of the Gards du Corps in Paris in 1678, a similar custom prevailed in the French Army also, for he recorded that 'The King passed at the end of the line as they stood drawn up, the Officers at the end of their companies and regiments in armour, with pikes in their hands, saluting him with their pikes, then with their hats. He very courteously put off his hat to them; so he did when taking his stand they marched before him.'

At some during the first part of the 18th century, however, the Coldstream Guards departed from this practice, for a Regimental Order of 1745 reads: 'The men ordered not to pull off their hats when they pass an Officer, or speak to them, but only to clap up their hands to their hats, and bow as they pass by.'

This may have started a practice or confirmed an existing one which spread to other regiments. In fact Dean Swift (1667-1745) had written:
      'His beaver is cocked; pray, Madam, mark that,
      No Captain of Horse ever takes off his hat.'
By the beginning of the 19th century saluting with the hand, palm to the front, was well-established.

Saluting by firing

Have you ever observed that fired salutes, from the three vollies fired over a soldier's grave up to the Royal Salute of 21 guns, all comprise an odd number of rounds? Why is this so? The origin of the custom is lost in antiquity. One authority gives the reason that even numbers may have been considered unlucky.

WL Ruffell
September 1988

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