Challenge Coins In A Nutshell

October 16, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Challenge coins are coins that are used for a variety of different purposes.
  • The name challenge coins comes from the tradition of challenging other coin holders.
  • Challenge coins and the traditions that come with them have their origins in the military.
  • Anyone can make a custom challenge coin with custom artwork and a unique design.

Challenge coins have been around forever, but if you aren’t in the military, there’s a good chance that you don’t know much about these unique coins.

So what are challenge coins? In short, challenge coins are small coins that are given out to members of a particular organization or group and often commemorate special events or recognize outstanding achievements. They usually feature the organization’s insignia or symbol at the center.

Challenge coins are often cherished by their owners and passed down through the generations for years to come and they have a surprisingly rich history and tradition surrounding them.. However, if are new to the world of challenge coins, this all might seem a bit strange and confusing. So, what are challenge coins in the first place, where do they come from, and why do people typically receive them?

Table of Contents

Challenge Coins In A Nutshell: What Are They?

A challenge coin is a unique coin that can be given out to members of a group or to someone as an award for some sort of exceptional achievement. They are also often used to commemorate special events like organization anniversaries or championship-winning seasons.

Challenge coins feature unique designs that include the insignia or symbol of the organization or event on them and give those who own them something physical to bond over as well as a memory that can last a lifetime.

Challenge coins are most commonly owned by current and former military members, or first responders like firefighters, police officers, and EMS workers. However, nowadays, challenge coin traditions have been adopted by all sorts of civilian organizations, clubs, sports teams, and businesses.

What’s The Challenge?

At this point, you may be wondering why they are called challenge coins in the first place. After all, commemorating special occasions and recognizing great achievements doesn’t seem like it has much to do with any sort of challenge.

Well, the challenge part of the challenge coin comes from one of the traditions that surround them. This challenge coin tradition, simply called challenging, is a way to ensure that all members of a group are carrying their challenge coins with them.

For instance, it is a common military tradition for different military units to have their own custom military challenge coins that feature the unit’s insignia and must be carried by each unit member at all times. However, there aren’t many ways to enforce this besides challenging.

To initiate a challenge, one of the coin holders must place or slam their special unit coin on the bar or table in front of them. This is understood to initiate a challenge to the one or two people that are close to the challenger however, dropping a coin on the ground will initiate a challenge with everyone in the room.

Once initiated, everyone in the unit that has been challenged must present their challenge coin to prove that they are indeed carrying it. If one of the challenged service members is unable to show their coin with their unit’s insignia, they must buy a round of drinks for everyone at the bar.

However, if every person that is challenged is able to prove that they have their unit challenge coin on them, the challenger must buy a round of drinks for everyone that was challenged.

A Brief History Of Challenge Coins

The history of challenge coins is long with the first possible example of challenge coins dating all the way back to the legions of Ancient Rome. Essentially, anytime a legion did particularly well in battle, they were given a specially minted coin as a bonus that the soldiers could spend however they wanted to.

Though, because these coins were so special, many roman soldiers opted to simply keep them as souvenirs to remember their war stories with instead of buying something with them.

World War I

Despite this early beginning, modern military challenge coin tradition didn’t really begin to take shape until the first World War, when some of the newly formed air force squadron leaders distributed custom coins to their pilots.

The story goes that one of these young American pilots crashed behind enemy lines and was captured by a german patrol. The germans stripped the young pilot of all his identification but left his coin which he kept in a small leather pouch.

Eventually, the young pilot was able to escape and headed towards the front lines, crossing no man’s land all while avoiding being captured by another german patrol.

He was eventually met by french soldiers who, unable to recognize his American accent and could not find any identification on the pilot, quickly captured him and took him back to a French outpost.

Once at the outpost, one of the french soldiers was able to recognize the insignia on the coin that the pilot kept in his leather pouch, proving the pilot was in fact American and not their enemy.

Once reunited with his fellow American service members, he told the story of how the coin saved his life and the tradition of carrying your challenge coin with you at all times took root.

World War II

Later in World War II, allied leaders would use challenge coins to ensure that their meetings weren’t infiltrated by spies. A simple coin check at the door to ensure that a person is carrying the right coin was all that was needed to prove the person was supposed to be at the meeting.

Vietnam War

Later in the Vietnam War, military challenge coins were used to prove that someone had seen combat. Infantry-run bars usually tried to keep outsiders away by forcing those who couldn’t prove that they had seen any action to buy drinks for everyone at the bar.

While enemy bullets, grenades, and other dangerous weapons were initially used as proof, showing your military challenge became the preferred way to prove that you had been in combat.

What Are Challenge Coins Used For?

Challenge coins are used in a variety of ways, the most common of which is to honor those who have served in the military or as first responders like firefighters, police officers, and EMS workers.

However, challenge coins today are used for a lot more than honoring those who have served the country and communities. They also show that you are a proud member of your group and are often given out as awards to recognize outstanding personal achievements.

One of the most famous examples of challenge coins being used as an award is with the Boy Scouts. The rank of Eagle Scout is the highest rank you can achieve in the Boy Scouts and young men who achieve this incredibly difficult rank are presented with an Eagle Scout challenge coin as proof of their fantastic achievement.

Challenge coins are also often given out by colleges to their students as they graduate and both collegiate and professional sports teams often commemorate championship-winning seasons with a special challenge coin.

Even large businesses and corporations have gotten in on challenge coins, using them to boost morale among workers and increase brand awareness among potential customers. After all, a unique challenge coin is definitely more memorable than a boring old business card.

Making Your Own Custom Challenge Coins

If you are interested in challenge coins but haven’t had the opportunity to get one, you can even design and create your own custom challenge coin using custom artwork, text, or anything else you might want to put on your very own coin.

It doesn’t stop there either, as there are tons of different customization options to choose from when designing your own custom coins. You can choose the size, shape, type of metal, plating style, and edge shape ensuring that whatever you come up with is a unique and special addition to your coin collection and that of anyone else you plan to give one to.

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