What Do Challenge Coins Mean?

October 16, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Challenge coins have a variety of uses including recognizing great achievements.
  • The two main challenge coin traditions are challenging and always carrying your coin.
  • Challenge coins can mean different things to the people to different people.
  • Challenge coins also represent unity within a group.
  • By making your own challenge coins, you can instill any meaning you want to.

Challenge coins are common among military personnel and first responders but if you’re a regular civilian you might not know what challenge coins are.

So what are challenge coins and what do they mean? Challenge coins are special coins that are given to members of specific organizations and groups to recognize personal achievements and commemorate special events. These coins are often significant sources of pride and meaning for their recipients.

Challenge coins have a very long history and well-established traditions surrounding them, but if you haven’t heard of challenge coins, you shouldn’t feel bad because most people outside of military and first responder roles aren’t exposed to them. Still, with challenge coins becoming increasingly popular outside of these settings it could be beneficial to learn a bit about these fascinating coins. So, what are challenge coins in the first place, what challenge coin traditions are there, and what do they mean to the people that receive them?

Table of Contents

What Are Challenge Coins?

A challenge coin is a small coin that an organization gives out to its members and usually features the organization’s insignia along with the organization’s motto, special dates, and anything else that might be important to represent the organization or group.

These coins are often given out to group members in order to prove membership in the group, commemorate special occasions, recognize great personal achievements, and enhance morale within a group.

Challenge coins originated as far back as Roman times, and are most popular in the military where service members have multiple important traditions surrounding them.

Challenge Coin Traditions

There are a few big traditions surrounding challenge coins, most of which are military traditions that started developing around World War I, despite the first challenge coin dating to ancient Rome.

By far the two most important traditions associated with challenge coins are that you must carry your challenge coin with you at all times, with the act of challenging others becoming a common way to enforce this.

Carrying Your Challenge Coin At All Times

This is the first military challenge coin tradition that developed around challenge coins and historians claim that it all started back in World War I in the newly formed Air Force.

Near the start of the war, a wealthy lieutenant in the American Air Force gave all of the pilots in his newly formed squadron a specially designed bronze coin-sized item emblazoned with the squadron’s insignia. One young pilot kept his coin in a small leather pouch that he kept around his neck.

The story goes that the young American pilot crashed behind enemy lines where he was immediately captured and brought back to a prisoner-of-war camp by a German patrol. The germans took forms of identification from the pilot but left the coin thinking nothing of it.

Eventually, the pilot was able to escape the camp and flee back across no man’s land where he found a french outpost, but without any identification to prove that he wasn’t a spy, the french soldiers quickly captured him.

However, at the french base, one of the french officers got a good look at the challenge coin that the pilot had with him. He was able to recognize the insignia on the coin, proving that the pilot was indeed an American soldier fighting on their side.

After this, he was finally reunited with his squadron, where he told the story about how he was able to prove his identity with the special bronze medal that was given to him. From then on, then on, other units in the military began distributing their own coins to all unit members.

This special unit coin always features the unit’s insignia and must be carried at all times by everyone in the unit as an extra form of identification.

This use of coins to identify people continued into World War II, where leaders of the allied powers in Nazi-held France would do a coin check with their challenge coins to confirm the identities of those who entered secret meetings.

This ensured that no german spies were able to infiltrate as it would require advance knowledge to figure out what unique features a false coin would need to have. This also further enforced the tradition of keeping your challenge coin close by at all times throughout the second world war.


The challenge part in the name challenge coin comes from the tradition of challenging. Even though the tradition of always carrying your challenge coin with you had already been established, there was really no way to ensure that people were actually carrying their coins without enforcing it somehow. That's where the tradition of challenging comes in.

To initiate a challenge all you need to do is place take out your challenge coin and place it on the bar or table in front of you. This would initiate a challenge to the one or two people closest to you, however, dropping your challenge coin on the ground is commonly understood to be a challenge to everyone in the room.

If anyone who is challenged is unable to present their challenge coin they lose the challenge and must buy everyone who was able to present their coin a round of drinks. On the other hand, if everyone who is challenged is able to show their coin, the challenger has to buy everyone that was challenged a round of drinks.

This tradition most likely started in the Vietnam War, where the workers at an army infantry-run bar would try to keep outsiders out by forcing them to buy everyone in the bar a round of drinks unless they could prove that they had seen combat.

Many people started by bringing enemy bullets and unexploded grenades as proof, but this started to prove quite dangerous as bringing unexploded ordinance into a bar is never a great idea. Eventually, military challenge coins became the easiest and most accepted form or proof.

From then on, the challenge became the normal way of checking to see if people had their military challenge coins with them, with buying a round of drinks for everyone becoming the typical punishment.

What Do Challenge Coins Mean To The People That Receive Them?

Depending on the situation challenge coins can mean a variety of different things to the people who own them.

Military challenge coins given to Service members and veterans of the armed forces to honor service will mean a lot to the person that receives it. It's a physical representation of the hard work and sacrifice laid down and represents the unity between everyone that served with them.

The same can be said for first responders like law enforcement personnel, firefighter, and EMS workers, who sacrifice a lot for their communities and share a significant bond with those they have served with. Again, these challenge coins serve as physical proof of all of that and can be passed down from generation to generation.

In other cases, challenge coins may just be a fun physical representation of a cherished memory or loved piece of memorabilia. For instance, if you are part of a private club that is celebrating an anniversary with a specially designed coin, it might just serve as a reminder of how much fun you have with the other members of a club.

On the other hand, sports teams often produce a special challenge coin that can be bought by fans to commemorate a championship-winning season. Though it may not mean as much a coin meant to honor military service, it will be a treasured piece of sports memorabilia that any true fan would be proud to have.

Corporate and business challenge coins given out at sales events, however, won’t mean as much to someone as some of the others but they are more memorable than a boring business card.

You can even make your own challenge coin, which you can design to represent any meaning that you want it to that you could possibly want.

Explore Custom Products

Ready to Order? Let’s Chat!