Acquiring Challenge Coins: A Step By Step Guide

October 16, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Challenge coins can be acquired through military service or group membership.
  • Always treat your challenge coin with care and respect.
  • Challenge coins can be collected to honor others, or for treasured keepsakes.
  • Respect a challenge if it is issued, and don’t forget to follow the rules!

‍Challenge coins are a cherished keepsake for those that carry them, rich with significance and a sign of social standing. Earning one is a true achievement.

We’ll look at the main ways you can acquire your own challenge coins. The most common way is to perform military service and receive a challenge coin from your unit or company, but you can also receive one through group membership or through unique personal achievements.

We’ll look at both the “how” and the “why” for acquiring and preserving your challenge coins as mementos of special milestones in your life.

Table of Contents

‍Step by Step Guide in Acquiring Challenge Coins

Always remember that the idea behind a challenge coin is that it is never given lightly, so treat both the challenge coin and the one who gave it to you with respect. No matter how you acquire it, each challenge coin design has a story and a valuable meaning; any disrespect or careless actions with the coin will diminish what the coin stands for.

Furthermore, issuing a challenge coin should not be done as a public spectacle. A “secret” handshake with others is the perfect way to pass the challenge coin in the palm of your hand. This becomes a special bond that you share with the recipient.

Military Service

The original and most common way to receive a challenge coin is through service in the military or another frontline service organization such as civil law enforcement.

Challenge coins may be issued to all members of a unit or company, but custom challenge coins may be awarded for a demonstration of specialized skill or honorable action. Custom challenge coins may also be given by a departing or arriving commanding officer, at retirement for key personnel, or in memoriam for a fallen soldier.

Shared Experience

Shared experiences can be commemorated with a custom challenge coin outside of the military. Since challenge coins are not currency and can be produced with relative ease and low expense, you can make a custom challenge coin design to commemorate nearly any special event.

Milestones like a championship game, the anniversary of the founding of a business, or any other group experience can be worthwhile opportunities to create and distribute custom challenge coins.

They may also be given to individuals who embody the values of an organization, awarded as special tokens of appreciation.

Group Membership

Similar to a shared experience, many groups will hand out challenge coins to their members. This can apply to any membership organization, whether social or community in nature.

Groups like Alcoholics Anonymous hand out challenge coins to mark milestones of sobriety. Tight-knit organizations with a high threshold for welcoming new members may award challenge coins once the initiation is complete.

Meeting a Government Official or Other Senior Leader

High-ranking government officials or other senior leaders may produce their own custom challenge coin design to hand out at their discretion. The rules for receiving such a challenge coin are likely known only to the individual distributing them: it may be for meritorious service, or it may be a symbol of your meeting with them.

Examples of leaders who may decide to distribute their own custom challenge coins include the President, Vice-President, Speaker of the House, Cabinet secretaries, or senior military officers. Company CEOs or other leaders of major corporations may create a custom challenge coin design as well.

Family Keepsakes

One other meaningful way to receive a challenge coin is to have it passed down from an elder member of your family. They will likely pass on the challenge coin with some portion of the story about how they acquired it.

When a family member or close friend gives you a challenge coin in this way, it’s important to honor their story and treat the challenge coin with the utmost respect. It is a way to remember their achievements or sacrifices after they are gone.

Purchase Online or at Auction

Challenge coins are a unique collectors’ market as well. While those who accumulate challenge coins in this way do not have the same experiences as those who originally earned them, building a challenge coin collection is one way to honor those experiences in a meaningful way.

Public auctions (either live or online) are common ways to acquire challenge coins. You can also visit an estate sale after the original holder has passed, assuming that they have not already passed the challenge coin to their family members or friends.

How to Keep Your Challenge Coins

Whether you keep a challenge coin on your person at all times, or find some other way to keep or display it, here are some useful tips on how to properly keep your challenge coin.

Don’t Hand It Over or Lose It

Don’t hand over your challenge coin for any reason other than a quick examination by others. If you surrender your challenge coin instead of simply holding it up or placing it on a table (such  as during a coin check), that is the same as handing the coin over for good.

Also, don’t lose your coin, or you may be obligated to replace it at your own expense. Coins that are lost can also get you in trouble during challenges as well, since those who cannot produce their coins will be honor-bound to buy a round for everyone present.

Keep It in Good Condition

Keep your challenge coin in as good a condition as possible. Keep it clean and free of scuffs; coins that are left in a state of disrepair are a major sign of disrespect toward the ones who gave it to you, as well as others who may carry the same coin.

Don’t Deface or Repurpose It

Using a challenge coin as a piece of jewelry or embellishment is another unacceptable way to use it. Affixing it to another piece of equipment or clothing, especially by drilling a hole to attach to a rope or chain, desecrates the value the challenge coin holds.

An acceptable way that some prefer to carry it on your person is either securely in your pocket (being careful not to let it get scratched) or in a small leather pouch worn around your neck.

Display It with Pride

You can keep your challenge coins in good condition for years to come by buying or constructing a proper display case.

There are an infinite number of custom designs you can find for challenge coin display cases. If you have multiple challenge coins and want to share the stories of your experiences, a challenge coin display case is an excellent idea to honor both your coins and the meaning behind them.

Reasons to Collect and Keep Challenge Coins

Honor an Event or Institution

At the core of any challenge coin is respect. By keeping a challenge coin, you carry a sign to the world of the respect that someone has paid you and return that respect in kind.

This is most appropriate and most common with military service. A challenge coin is a sign of your oath to protect your nation and your family. You honor your unit or company, or the senior officer who gave it to you, by keeping your challenge coin in good condition and by using it properly.

If you did not serve in the military but have received a challenge coin through another organization, you still signify to others that you are proud of the achievements that the coin represents.

Build Connections with Others

Challenge coins are an excellent way to find common ground with others. When you are part of a coin check and see an identical coin, you can instantly recognize that shared experience and build a bond with that individual.

A challenge coin can even be a “password” for entry into a group meeting, or a symbol to the world of some significant achievement that you can use to inspire or connect with others.

Represent Your Membership or Affiliation

The most basic result of bearing and using a challenge coin is to represent your membership in, or affiliation with, some group or organization.

As we’ve seen, this does not have to be related to military members, but could be traced to a place you have worked, a group that you value participating in, or a common event that you have attended with others.


The stories and meaning behind challenge coins make them some of the best souvenirs you can have, especially if they were given due to some distinctive achievement or action.

Even if no other prize or reward is given to you for that achievement, a challenge coin can be the ultimate sign of recognition and respect from the person or group who gave it to you.

How to Create a Challenge Coin Design

If you’re interested in creating challenge coins for your own organization, keep these factors in mind as you think about this custom product.

The Challenge Coin Design Process

There are a number of coin plating options, ranging from a more inexpensive soft enamel to a tougher hard enamel, or even a translucent enamel, on up to gold, silver, or a rich black metal. You may also find a plating option to combine the gold or silver base with another more cost effective material.

The design elements for your custom artwork are also critical to crafting the overall appearance of your custom coin, as well as the right story you want to convey. Custom design details like the organization’s insignia should be an essential part of the idea behind your design.

Finishes like epoxy coating, textured coin edges, or special cut outs can create a unique finishing touch. You can also make the coin double sided, or use a custom shape instead of a circle. Other upgrade options like a custom shape or coin edges can also make your coin highly sought after by both recipients and collectors.

Reasons to Make a Custom Challenge Coin Design

Whatever organization you choose to make a custom challenge coin design for, you need to have clearly established rules for handing them out. Keep in mind that you aren’t required to publicly announce those reasons, as long as they are clear to those who award them and demonstrate the highest levels of excellence or fantastic service.

Historical events for your organization may warrant handing out challenge coins. You could also choose to commemorate a special moment, or honor someone for great service to the organization.

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