What Are Challenge Coins? Everything You Need To Know

October 16, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • A challenge coin is a special coin distributed to members of a particular group or attendees of a certain event and features unique designs like logos, mottos, and crests.
  • Challenge coins are traditionally and most commonly used in the military and date back to the Roman Empire.
  • Challenge coins can be used to show membership in a group, commemorate a special event, recognize great achievements, or increase branding.

If you’re in the military or are close to someone who is, you may have been exposed to challenge coins before, but if not, you may be wondering what they are.

So, what is a challenge coin? A challenge coin is a uniquely designed coin, usually given to members of some sort of organization like the military, to prove membership in the group, enhance morale and create a common bond and shared tradition between a group's members.

If you’ve never heard of challenge coins before this point there’s no need to feel bad. Unless you are enlisted in the military or working as a first responder, chances are you wouldn’t have many opportunities to be exposed to these coins. However nowadays, challenge coins are becoming increasingly popular outside of the military too, with local groups and clubs issuing their own coins to show membership or commemorate events. So what exactly are challenge coins in the first place, where did they come from and what are they used for?

Table of Contents

‍What Are Challenge Coins?

A challenge coin is just like a normal coin except that it is specially designed and usually features some sort of organization's insignia or crest. These coins are issued to show membership in a group or often to commemorate a special event.

The majority of people who own challenge coins are service members in the Armed Forces or first responders. Military challenge coins are issued to show membership and pride in a particular branch or specific military unit, squadron, or any other group within the military as well as to honor service members who have completed their duties.

Why Are They Called Challenge Coins?

The challenge part of these coins comes from the tradition of challenging. Challenging is essentially a way to ensure that every member of a group is in fact carrying their coin.

One of these coin check challenges can happen at any time, and they are initiated when someone takes out their coin and slams or places it on the table or bar. This would initiate a challenge to an individual or small group of people however, a dropped coin is understood to be a challenge to all those present who own the right challenge coin.

If one of the people who has been challenged is unable to present their coin, they must buy a round of drinks for everyone who was able to present the coin. On the other hand, if everyone is able to present their coin, the person who initiated the challenge has to buy a round of drinks for everyone who was challenged.

Challenge coins are mostly kept in the pocket of the owner and traditionally, coins are not allowed to be defaced or modified so as to be more easily attached to belt buckles or key chains. However, coins worn around the neck are generally accepted.

The History Of Challenge Coins

The challenge coin tradition has been around in one form or another for thousands of years, however, the purpose and traditions that surround them have evolved over time.

The Roman Empire

Challenge coins originated all the way back in Ancient Rome. Basically, when soldiers did well in battle, they would be awarded with a special bonus coin along with their normal day’s pay. These coins were oftentimes especially minted and included symbols that showed the legion that the soldier was a part of.

While these coins were specially designed with military symbols and only given to soldiers that were a part of a particular legion, unlike modern challenge coins, these coins were meant to be spent like any other normal money.

However, because the coins were so unique, many soldiers began opting not to spend them, instead keeping them as souvenirs to remember their military accomplishments.

The Renaissance

By the time the Renaissance came around, challenge coins had become increasingly popular among royalty, nobility, and otherwise generally wealthy individuals. These coins, often called portrait medals, would usually have a picture of the person issuing the coin on one side and their family crest on the other.

These challenge coins were usually given out as awards or to commemorate special events and would often be shown off and traded between coin owners.

The First Challenge Coin

Possibly the first instance of an actual challenge with these coins was in France in the late 1600s. Essentially, after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, protestantism became illegal in France, forcing French Protestants to either flee the country or practice their religion in secret.

In an attempt to avoid being infiltrated by state spies, one of the Protestant groups that stayed in France, known as the Huguenots, began asking members to present a méreau or coin-sized item that signified membership in the protestant church.

When challenged, church members needed to be able to present this méreau challenge coin, or they would be denied entry into the religious service.

World War I

Some historians claim that the modern military challenge coin tradition started during World War I.

Before the United States entered World War I, there were still tons of volunteers, many of whom were wealthy scions attending colleges, that signed up to join the newly formed flying squadrons of the Air Force.

It is said that the lieutenant of one of these squadrons ordered special solid bronze coins for everyone in his unit. One of the pilots in this squadron who was captured behind enemy lines kept his coin in a small leather pouch.

Though the German patrol that captured him took all other forms of identification from the young pilot, he was able to hold on to the leather pouch.

Eventually, the pilot escaped, crossed no man’s land while avoiding german patrols and was able to get to a French outpost. However, without proper identification, the French soldiers were suspicious and captured the young pilot.

While the French soldiers were unable to recognize the young pilot’s American accent, one of the pilot’s French Captors recognized the insignia on the coin he carried, proving that he was an American pilot.

Once the pilot was finally reunited with his squadron, it quickly became a tradition that all unit members must carry their unit coin at all times.

World War II

Others claim that the modern challenge coin started during World War II in Nazi-held France. Again, these special coins were used as personal identification between members of the allied powers.

This prevented meetings from being infiltrated as not only would a german spy need to know the time and location of a meeting but also possess advance knowledge of the coin that needs to be presented to gain entry.

The Vietnam War

Others still argue that the challenge coin tradition started with service members during the Vietnam War at an army infantry-run bar. Basically, infantrymen attempted to keep outsiders out of the bar by forcing anyone who entered to show proof that they saw combat.

While proof often meant presenting enemy bullets, grenades, and even unexploded rockets and other ordinance which is incredibly dangerous, a small coin-sized item emblazoned with a unit’s insignia became the preferred and most accepted form of proving that you are not an outsider.

What Do Challenge Coins Do?

Now that we know more about what challenge coins are and where they came from, what are they used for? Challenge coins can be used for a variety of different purposes including showing group membership, commemorating events, being offered as awards, and being used for marketing and branding.

Challenge Coins Show Membership In A Group

The most common use for challenge coins is to show that you are a member of a specific group. While these coins are most commonly given out to members of the military or first responders, other organizations like sports teams, companies, government agencies, and clubs can make their own challenge coins to represent unity within their group.

Challenge Coins Commemorate Events

A challenge coin may also be used to commemorate some special event. These events could be anything including celebrations, anniversaries, sales events, or any other sort of special occasion.

In fact, issuing a challenge coin with unique features to commemorate an event is a great way to give everyone a fun souvenir to remember the event with, and gives everyone who went a common coin to bond over.

It is not uncommon for challenge coins to be issued to members involved in the production of a specific movie or TV series. For example, Jon Favreau gave special Iron Man 2 challenge coins to all of the US Air Force members that cooperated with the production.

Challenge Coins Are Offered As Awards And Recognition Of Achievements

Challenge coins are also commonly used as awards or for the recognition of some special achievement.  Giving a coin as an award can help boost morale, increase motivation, and act as a physical representation of one's achievements.

Presidents also usually have their own challenge coin to give out. Most of these coins go to service members who deserve special recognition. Barack Obama was also known to leave challenge coins on the graves of deceased service members as well.

Challenge Coins Are Used For Branding

More recently, challenge coins have been used by companies, both small and large, to increase branding. A unique challenge coin with a company’s or organization’s motto and logo is much more fun and memorable than a plain old business card after all.

Schools, Universities, and sports teams also use these to get their brand out there, with coins that show off mascots and team colors being distributed to fans all throughout the world of sports.

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