Challenge Coins: Traditional Insights

October 16, 2023

As a corporation, institution, school, church, or event organizer, you might be thinking about getting challenge coins, but do you understand their history? Besides being fun, they also work as a memento – helping someone carry a powerful mental image of the events that led to receiving the challenge coin for the rest of their lives.

This is an overview of the challenge coin history that will enable you to think of and offer more impactful and more meaningful challenge coins.

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Though there is no concrete proof of exactly when challenge coins were first used, many experts (historians and archeaologists) believe that it was sometime before the modern. The first proven military use was in Ancient Rome, where a soldier was rewarded with war pay and a separate bonus coin for his bravery.

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Challenge Coins for Valor in Battle

There is overwhelming evidence that supports the argument that in Ancient Rome, it was common for enlisted soldiers to receive challenge coins in addition to their pair for their bravery in battle. Some evidence points out that these unique coins would mark the soldier’s battalion minted on them.

Many soldiers who received these bonus coins chose to keep it rather than spend it along with their other payments due to their uniqueness. The coins would also serve as souvenirs for the soldiers and prove their battlefield glory during social encounters. Soldiers with these unique bonus coins were given some extra respect by their peers and society as a whole.

Were challenge coins present during the American civil war?

The American civil war was quite a disorganized affair, mainly because of its massive scale. The two opposing sides had numerous fragments within them and this confusion made true “valor in the battle” challenge coins almost non-existent.

Despite this, as different regions had adopted the practice of minting their own monetary coins to support their economies, many soldiers who went to war carried a coin from their territory. They kept this coin as a token to remind them of their home, family, and friends. After the war, many surviving soldiers kept their coins as a good luck charm as it had been with them through the deadly battles without getting lost.

World War I and the birth of the “first official” challenge coin

Today, it’s typical for soldiers and veterans to recognize each other through their challenge coins. This tradition is said to have emerged in World War I thanks to what many experts regard as the “first official’ challenge coin.

At the height of the war, a wealthy military officer created bronze medallions engraved with his flying squadron’s emblem, which he distributed to the soldiers in his squad. It was not so long after this that one of the flying squadron’s planes was gunned down over Germany, and the pilot captured.

The German soldiers took everything from the pilot except for a small neck pouch carrying the medallion. The pilot later managed to escape into France, where he was captured by French soldiers who assumed that he was a spy. He was sentenced to execution, but before he was executed, he presented his medallion as proof of his identity.

Lucky for him, one of the French soldiers had come across the emblem and supported his case, and the execution was delayed to await the confirmation of identity. Once the Americans confirmed that the soldier was indeed one of their own, the French released him back to his squad.

The medallion had just saved the soldier’s life, and this news spread like wildfire across the military. Similar medallions began to pop-up among different military squads, but the war ended before they could become popular.

The explosion of challenge coins’ popularity during World War II

After World War I, it did not take long before the world found itself in another global war. This time, some veteran soldiers who were now high-ranking military officers had vivid memories of World War I’s medallion story. These soldiers went on to popularize challenge coins during this new war.

For the first time, the challenge coins’ sole purpose was to prove the bearer’s identity. When challenged, a soldier would have to produce the coin, and it was correct, then it would be proof that they were not a spy. Spies had a difficult time replicating coins to precise accuracy in wartime France.

The culture of challenging any officer one came across to prove their identity with their coin is believed to be why the coins got their name – the challenge coin. After World War II, the surviving soldiers also kept their challenge coins as mementos.

The Korean war

Between 1951 and 1951, Lieutenant General William Wilson Quinn, popularly known as “Buffalo Bill,” led the 17th Infantry Division in the Korean War. During this time, he created the first proper challenge coin, which is what you know today.

Quinn created a challenge coin for his squad, which was inscribed with a buffalo on one side and the other side had the insignia of his regiment. The coins had a small hole on one side, which the soldiers attached a string to and wore it around their neck.

Challenge coins in civilian hands

Experts say that over time, military challenge coins became highly valued possession to their owners, and as they were approaching the end of their lives, they passed it on to their kin. As a result of this, some challenge coins have been passed down several generations.

The civilians came to understand the importance of challenge coins and started making their own to mark their own achievements and associations. This is why you are considering getting some challenges coins for your institution, school, event, or business. Check out the PinProsPlus website to place your order or make a call.

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