The Origin Of Challenge Coins

October 16, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Ancient Romans used challenge coins, but the modern versions go back to WWI.
  • The name “challenge” refers to the game played by the military in bars.
  • Soldiers used challenge coins in WWI, WWII, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.
  • The military and other organizations like police and fire still use challenge coins.

Challenge coins are fun to collect and have made for special events and organizations. But do you know the history behind these coins?

The origin of challenge coins is traced back to Ancient Rome, but the modern ones are traced back to World War I when the Germans captured an American pilot. They took all his belongings before he escaped. The French found him, and he used the challenge coin to prove that he was not a spy.

No matter where the coins originated, challenge coins have become a symbol of fellowship and solidarity among military personnel and other groups. Keep reading as we look more into the challenge coins' history, what they are for, and why they are called challenge coins.

Table of Contents

What is a Challenge Coin?

Challenge coins are unique, specially crafted tokens. They are generally larger than regular coins and come in various shapes and sizes, ranging from circles and pentagons to arrowheads and dog tag shapes.

Made from materials such as pewter, nickel, or copper, most challenge coins measure between 1.5 to 2 inches in diameter but can be larger. These coins feature unique engravings and a range of finishes, from paint to gold plating, making each one truly one-of-a-kind.

What are Challenge Coins for?

Challenge coins primarily symbolize membership, recognition, and achievement within military units, law enforcement agencies, sports teams, and other organizations. They are often given to members to commemorate special events, milestones, or achievements and remind them of their affiliation with the group.

Challenge coins can also be used for "challenges," where a member of an organization will initiate a challenge by slapping their coin on a table or bar and calling out to others to show their coin. If someone cannot produce a challenge coin, they may be required to buy a round of drinks or perform some other form of forfeit. Again, this is meant to be a fun way to foster camaraderie and reinforce the sense of belonging among group members.

In recent years, challenge coins have become popular collectibles, with people seeking out unique and rare designs to add to their collections. Regardless of their intended purpose, challenge coins represent a rich history and traditions within the various groups they represent.

When Were Challenge Coins First Used?

The origin and purpose of challenge coins are shrouded in mystery. Nevertheless, the connection between military service and coins dates back to ancient times, potentially to Ancient Rome.

According to historical accounts, Roman soldiers who distinguished themselves in battle were given regular wages and a separate bonus coin. These bonus coins were said to be specially minted and displayed the emblem of the soldier's legion, which some soldiers chose to keep as keepsakes rather than spend them.

The tradition of handing out reward challenge coins continues today, particularly in the military, where they are awarded for outstanding performance. Some individuals treat these coins as collectibles, akin to autographs or business cards, while others use them as a form of identification to prove their military service in specific units.

Some challenge coins are also distributed to the general public for promotional purposes or sold as a means of fundraising.

Origin of Military Challenge Coins

The tradition of challenge coins dates back to World War I when American volunteers from across the country joined the new flying squadrons in Europe. This diverse group included wealthy college students who had dropped out mid-term to join the war effort.

One such wealthy lieutenant commissioned solid bronze medallions to commemorate the loyalty of his unit to the war effort.

The significance of challenge coins in the military was solidified when a World War I pilot's plane was severely damaged, leading to his capture by German forces.

He managed to escape but was later stopped by French soldiers and taken to be executed, as he had no way of proving his identity as an American soldier. He had, however, kept a challenge coin medallion given to him by a member of his original crew.

When he showed the medallion to his would-be executioners, one of the captors recognized the squadron emblem on the coin. As a result, the French paused his execution to confirm his identity.

Challenge Coins in World War II

Challenge coins were important for identifying allies during the Second World War. For example, the Office of Strategic Services members deployed in Nazi-occupied France were equipped with special coins called "Bona Fides."

Soldiers used these coins to verify a person's identity during meetings to prevent any infiltration by Nazi spies.

An American Army officer contacted a Philippine guerrilla group in the Pacific campaign. He was given a special silver coin stamped with their unit insignia to ensure proper identification.

After the guerrilla group verified his identity through the coin, they were able to carry out a successful raid on a Japanese supply depot. This is an example of how challenge coins have been used to verify identity and foster trust in challenging situations.

The Oldest Known Challenge Coin

The earliest known challenge coin is that of the 17th Infantry of Korea, commanded by Colonel "Buffalo Bill" Quinn. These challenge coins were issued during the Korean War, from 1950 to 1951, symbolizing the unit's tour of duty together.

One side of the challenge coin features a buffalo and the date 1812, representing the year the unit was established. The other side displays the 17th Infantry patch with the dates 1950-1951 and the word "Korea," signifying their tour. The cross and fort symbol reflects the unit's history. This challenge coin is one of the rarest and most valuable.

Challenge Coins and the Vietnam War

The Vietnam War saw the rise of "Bullet Groups" formed by highly trained soldiers who fought at the front lines. Soldiers would carry bullets in their front hip pockets to prove their affiliation with the U.S. military.

These bullets also served as a last resort in the event of capture, as soldiers were trained not to divulge information that could risk the lives of their comrades.

Over time, these bullets were used in challenge games among soldiers. However, as the caliber of the bullets increased, they became problematic to use in challenges.

As a result, challenge bullets were replaced with challenge coins, which were customized with the unit's name, symbol, and sometimes even the soldier's name.

Challenge Coins in the Military Today

The history of challenge coins shows why they are still widely used in the military today as a symbol of unity and recognition. They serve as a way to commemorate achievements, mark important events, and recognize the service of military personnel.

Modern challenge coins are often designed with the unit's emblem, mission statement, and other special symbols to reflect the unit's history, values, and traditions.

Challenge coins are also used as a tradition within military units. For example, service members may participate in "challenge coin ceremonies," where they show their unit coin to prove their membership in a team or acknowledge another member's service.

Additionally, challenge coins are often used as a way for military members to show appreciation for their comrades by exchanging coins with one another or presenting them as gifts.

Overall, challenge coins remain important in the military culture and are a cherished symbol of service and sacrifice.

Non-Military Uses for Challenge Coins

Challenge coins are not just limited to military use; they have also been adapted for various non-military organizations and events.

Law enforcement agencies, such as police departments and border patrol, often use challenge coins to commemorate special achievements, commemorate retirements, or recognize exceptional performance.

Firefighters and emergency responders also use challenge coins to honor their colleagues for their bravery and sacrifices.

Fraternal organizations, such as fraternities and sororities, have a challenge coin tradition to symbolize membership and unity.

Companies and corporations have also adopted challenge coins as a way to reward and recognize employees for their contributions, as well as to build camaraderie among employees.

Sports teams, schools, and universities often use challenge coins to commemorate championships, milestones, and special events.

Political campaigns and advocacy groups also use challenge coins to raise funds, promote their cause, and engage their supporters.

Custom challenge coins can be made for any occasion. Submit a request for a quote today to begin working on your own challenge coin project.

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