The History And Creation Of Challenge Coins

October 16, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Challenge coins may have originated from Ancient Rome.
  • The first official challenge coin was made during the Korean War.
  • Challenge coins are used today by the President, military, and many other organizations.
  • A qualified company like PinProsPlus can do the challenge coin-creating process.

‍The challenge coin tradition has been used since Ancient Rome and has become a symbol of identity and belonging.

Challenge coins may have been used in Ancient Rome, but they were officially used by 17th Korean Infantry Colonel “Buffalo Bill” Quinn during the Korean War. The military and presidents currently use them as a symbol of belonging and give out as thank yous for excellent service and achievement.

The challenge coin has come a long way since Ancient Rome. This article looks at the history and creation of challenge coins, including where they originated, when they were first used, how they are used today, and how they are made.

Table of Contents

‍What are Challenge Coins?

Challenge coins are small, usually round, coins or medallions often used to prove membership in a particular organization or group. They can also be used to commemorate a special event or achievement. Valuable challenge coins have become collector's items among coin enthusiasts.

The origin of challenge coins is somewhat debated. Still, it is commonly believed that the military first used them to identify and show a sense of belonging for the unit members.

Soldiers would always carry their unit's coin with them and use it to challenge others to show their coin. This is commonly referred to as a coin check.  If soldiers could not produce their coin, they would typically be required to buy a round of drinks for the group.

When Were They First Used?

Challenge coin history is somewhat debated. In the United States, challenge coins are believed to have been used during World War I. Some stories suggest that a wealthy lieutenant had bronze medallions specially minted for his unit, which they carried as a symbol of their pride and belonging.

Others say that a pilot who had been shot down behind enemy lines could use his coin to prove his identity and avoid execution.

However, this is not the first time challenge coins have been used. The exact origin of challenge coins is unclear, but some historians believe they date back to the Ancient Roman Empire.

Roman soldiers were rewarded for their achievements with a separate bonus coin, which they would carry with them at all times as a symbol of their accomplishments.

Who Normally Carries Challenge Coins?

Challenge coins are typically carried by members of an organization or group who have been given the coin as a symbol of their membership, achievement, or service.

These organizations can be military units, law enforcement agencies, firefighting departments, emergency responders, social clubs, or other groups.

Service members in the military and armed forces often carry challenge coins to symbolize their unit and commitment to their mission. They may also be used to recognize the achievements of individual soldiers or to commemorate significant events in the unit's history.

Fire and police departments may carry challenge coins to recognize their service and build camaraderie among their colleagues. In these organizations, challenge coins commemorate a special operation or honor officers injured or killed in the line of duty.

In the corporate world, challenge coins can recognize outstanding performance or commemorate a special event, such as the launch of a new product or the achievement of a business milestone.

Ultimately, anyone can carry a challenge coin if given as a symbol of their affiliation with a particular organization or group.

What is the Legend Behind the First Military Challenge Coins?

There are several stories and legends behind the challenge coin history, and it is difficult to determine which one is the true origin. However, one of the most popular legends dates back to World War I and involves an American pilot.

According to the story, a wealthy lieutenant in the US Army Air Service had special bronze medallions struck for the members of his army unit, one of the newly formed flying squadrons made up of wealthy ivy league students, which he presented to them before they were deployed to Europe.

One of the pilot's aircraft was shot down behind enemy lines and captured by German forces. The German patrol took all of the pilot's personal belongings except for a small leather pouch around his neck containing his medallion.

The pilot managed to escape and was caught by the French soldiers, who could not identify him and did not recognize the young pilot’s American accent. He was almost executed as a spy, luckily, his French captors recognized his challenge coin as proof of his identity, and his life was spared.

From that day on, the medallions became known as "challenge coins" and unit members carried them all the time.

The tradition of challenging others to produce their coin was also said to have originated from this incident.

While this legend may not be historically accurate, it has become a popular and enduring story that has helped to cement the tradition of challenge coins in military culture.

Challenge Coins and World War II

Challenge coins were also used during the Second World War by various military units as a way to recognize and build camaraderie among soldiers. Many of the coins produced during this time featured patriotic symbols and images specific to the war effort, such as eagles, bombers, tanks, and naval ships.

One notable use of challenge coins during World War II was by the 10th Special Forces Group, a unit conducting covert operations behind enemy lines in Europe.

Members of the 10th Special Forces Group were given a special "De Oppresso Liber" (To Free the Oppressed) challenge coin, which featured an image of a skull with a dagger through it on one side and the Special Forces crest on the other.

The coin was given to members of the unit as a symbol of their membership and commitment to the unit's mission.

Challenge coins were also used by various military branches during World War II, including the Army Air Corps and the Navy. In some cases, challenge coins were given to soldiers to recognize their outstanding military service or commemorate a special occasion, such as a successful bombing raid or a naval victory.

One famous example of using challenge coins during World War II was by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. According to legend, Roosevelt had special bronze coins that featured his portrait on one side and a quote from his famous "Four Freedoms" speech on the other.

However, this was not the first official presidential challenge coin. This would come along during the Clinton administration.

Korean War and the Oldest Challenge Coin

The oldest official challenge coins were made for the 17th Korean Infantry under Colonel “Buffalo Bill” Quinn. These coins were created during the Korean War and given to members to celebrate the trip together. In a corner, the inscription depicts buffaloes and indicates the year in which the federation was founded.

On the other side, there were 17th Infantry patches with the date 1950-51 and the words Korea to represent the tour. The cross symbol represents the heritage of units beginning during Cuba's civil war. These coins are widely considered the oldest challenge coins of their kind.

Vietnam War and Challenge Coins

Challenge coins were used during the Vietnam War by various military units. Many coins during this time featured images and slogans specific to the war, such as helicopters, the Vietnam map, and patriotic symbols.

In addition to military units, challenge coins were also used by some Special Operations units during the war, such as the Studies and Observations Group (SOG). SOG was a highly classified unit that conducted covert operations behind enemy lines in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.

Members of the unit were given a special SOG coin as a symbol of their membership and their commitment to the unit's mission.

Non-Military Coins

Challenge coins were also used by some non-military organizations that supported the troops during the war. For example, the United Service Organizations (USO) produced a special challenge coin given to soldiers as a token of appreciation for their service.

Other organizations, such as the American Red Cross and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, also

produced challenge coins that were given to troops during the war.

Modern-Day Challenge Coins

Modern challenge coins continue to be used in military culture and have spread to other organizations and industries. For example, challenge coins are often given to recognize outstanding service or achievements, commemorate important events, or build camaraderie among group members.

In the military, challenge coins are often given to unit members as a symbol of their membership and commitment to the unit's mission. They may also be given as a reward for exemplary service or for completing a difficult training program.

Many military units have unique challenge coins, which often feature the unit's emblem or symbol on one side and an image or slogan representing the unit's mission or values on the other.

Outside of the military, challenge coins are also used by law enforcement agencies, fire departments, and other first responder organizations.

In recent years, challenge coins have become popular among businesses and organizations. For example, many companies use challenge coins to recognize outstanding employee performance or commemorate an important milestone or achievement.

How Were Challenge Coins Created During World War I?

Challenge coins during World War I were typically made by private companies or mints, often using a die-cast or stamping process. These coins were usually made of bronze, copper, or nickel and were often about the size of a silver dollar.

The design of the coins would typically feature the emblem or symbol of a particular military unit, along with an inscription that identified the unit and the individual's rank.

One of the earliest coins from World War I is believed to be the "Bull Dog" coin, which was created for members of the 11th Infantry Regiment of the United States Army. The coin featured a bulldog on one side and the regiment's emblem on the other.

Challenge Coins Today

Today, challenge coins are produced by a company like PinProsPlus. The production of challenge coins typically involves several steps, including design, die creation, casting, and finishing. Here is a quick overview of the process:

  • Design: The first step is to create the design using graphic design software. It should include the emblem or symbol of the organization, along with any other text or images relevant to the coin's purpose.
  • Die creation: Once the design is finalized, a die is created. The die is a metal stamp used to create the raised or recessed portions of the coin.
  • Casting: The next step is to create a mold of the coin. The mold is typically made of silicone or another flexible material. The mold is then used to create a wax or clay coin model.
  • Engraving: The wax or clay model is engraved with the coin's design. This process involves creating the raised and recessed areas of the coin.
  • Casting: Once the wax or clay model is complete, it creates a mold for casting the coin. The mold is typically made of metal and is used to create the final coin using a casting process.
  • Finishing: Once the coin is cast, it is finished with various techniques. This can include polishing, coloring, or adding other finishing touches.
  • Inspection and packaging: Finally, the coins are inspected for quality and packaged for distribution.

How Has The Challenge Coin Production Process Changed Over The Years?

The challenge coin production process has evolved over the years as new technologies and materials have become available. Here are some of the ways the process has changed:

  • Design: With digital design tools, creating a design for a challenge coin has become easier and more precise. Designers can create detailed graphics and 3D models to create a more realistic representation of the final product.
  • Die creation: In the past, creating a die for a challenge coin was time-consuming and labor-intensive. Today, computer-aided design and manufacturing (CAD/CAM) technologies have made die creation quick and accurate.
  • Casting: Traditional techniques, such as sand casting or lost wax casting, are still used to create challenge coins. However, new casting techniques, such as spin casting or injection molding, are now available to produce coins more quickly and precisely.
  • Finishing: Finishing techniques have also improved over time. While traditional methods like polishing, plating, and coloring are still used, new techniques such as laser etching and digital printing can create more intricate designs and colors.
  • Materials: The materials used to create challenge coins have expanded beyond traditional metals like brass and nickel. Challenge coins can be made from various materials, including plastic, wood, and ceramic.

Overall, the challenge coin production process has become more streamlined and efficient, allowing for greater precision and a wider variety of design and material options.

How Can I Make Custom Challenge Coins?

There are a few different ways you can make your own challenge coins. Here are some options to consider:

  • Work with a custom coin manufacturer: PinProsPlus specializes in creating custom challenge coins. We can work with you to create a design, choose materials, and produce the coins according to your specifications.
  • Create a DIY version: If you're looking for a more low-cost option, you can create your DIY challenge coins using materials like clay, polymer clay, or even cardboard. You can use a coin design template to create a circular shape, then add your designs and text using markers or paint.

PinProsPlus can help you create your own coin every step of the way. Fill out our challenge coin form for a free quote and to begin working with one of our expert designers.

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