October 16, 2023
If you grew up military or with a first responder parent, they most likely had a collection of challenge coins, coins given to them for merit, leaving a base, getting a promotion, or meeting a dignitary. You may have heard their stories. For the majority, though, challenge coins are cloaked in a bit of mystery. They’re beautiful souvenirs, but what exactly is the significance of someone gifting you with one?
In coin collecting, a challenge coin is a uniquely designed coin that represents an organization or occasion. Being given a challenge coin represents comrade or unity and proves membership of a certain group, as well as honoring the actions of those who receive them.
Challenge coins have a special way of instilling pride in its recipients. They serve as a more informal token of appreciation, standing in place of medals and ribbons. The practice has a long history among those in the military and first responders as a way to honor service. Some businesses have begun to incorporate them into their organizations to boost morale and motivation, and some use them for branding purposes.
Many will say that the only way to truly get a challenge coin is by earning it. Being the recipient of a challenge coin can be a highly fulfilling experience, and it creates a unique bond with those who have also received the same coin. They serve as a testament of the experiences that one had to go through in order to get it, which is why challenge coins represent a veneration of those who receive them. Earning a challenge coin can take as many forms as there are coins, but those most common ways are:
It is possible to buy challenge coins, but doing so takes away its context, and therefore its significance. A big part of the tradition of challenge coins lies in how they’re given. Challenge coins are an informal award; therefore, it is only proper that their issuance reflects that.
Historically, the preferred way to give someone a challenge coin is by secret handshake. A commanding officer or high-ranking official will typically palm the coin and bestow it, either in public or private, upon the recipient.
This practice is believed to have begun during the Second Boer War. British mercenaries during the war could not receive official medals, and their superiors typically received the medals instead. Those believing this rule to be unfair would steal the medal and secretly give it to its rightful owner via a handshake.
Those who wish to honor a someone’s achievement or a special occasion can choose to create their own custom challenge coins. They can be a great way to commemorate an experience and connect everyone who participated in it.
Although nobody knows for certain when and where challenge coins originated, it is widely accepted that the tradition began amongst soldiers in the military. The earliest known account dates back to Ancient Rome, where special coins were given to soldiers as a token of appreciation for valor in battle. Some historians claim that these coins were uniquely marked with their legion’s insignia, prompting many soldiers to keep them as souvenirs.
Another origin story, though likely a myth, can be traced back to World War I. There, it is alleged that an officer of the Allied Powers stamped bronze medallions with the insignia of his flight squadron and distributed them to his soldiers. One of them was shot down over Germany but managed to escape back to France.
Upon arrival, the soldiers took him for German spy and attempted to execute him. Trying to clear his name, the pilot showed his medallion. One soldier recognized it, and his identity was soon confirmed, hence saving his life.
But how did these coins evolve from simply memorabilia into a challenge? Some say that the challenge was brought back by the America GIs that frequented the bars in occupied Germany after World War II. There, locals often performed “pfennig checks” on each other, and whoever could not produce a pfennig (the German equivalent of the U.S. penny) had to buy a round of drinks for those who could.
But if everyone had a pfennig, the challenger had to buy the drinks. The Americans slightly modified this, using their unit’s specially marked coins in place of a pfennig, and true to the American way, slamming them down instead of merely displaying them.
This practice took off during the Vietnam War. Special Forces soldiers had formed bullet clubs, and members of which always carried an unfired bullet. Officers soon became worried because soldiers would often slam down live ammunition when the challenge was presented, possibly leading to a fatal accident. They banned the bullet clubs, and instead distributed rare Special Forces coins. Soon, each unit had their own unique coin.
A challenge coin is a small metal coin bearing a unique design minted into it. According to the design, coins may have enamel paint used to add a flash of color. They typically take the round shape of a normal currency coin, though challenge coins take a variety of forms; a famous example is Donald Trump’s presidential coin.
As previously stated, challenge coins have a long standing history and association with the military, but in recent years they have been seen popping up in civilian organizations. First responders have adopted the tradition to honor accomplishments serving the community, commonly for facing danger in the line of duty. Some companies give them out to their employees for a job well done, distribute them for advertising purposes, or use them in place of a business card.
The role of a challenge coin extends far beyond merely recognizing an achievement. Those who receive them may find themselves part of an elite community, and they represent unity amongst those who hold them. In the military, it is not uncommon to find veterans who are extremely proud of their challenge coins, and some openly display their large collections. Among service members, challenge coins can help maintain the bonds between those who shared an important experience together.
There are also some coins that bear more weight than others. Those given out through shaking the hand of the President of the United States are highly prized because they are often reserved for military personnel and very special occasions. Many military and government leaders, like the Vice President, have their own challenge coins as well.
The challenge associated with challenge coins varies between groups but is typically associated with drinking. The most common version is as follows:
It is believed that the original purpose of the challenge was to produce a coin for security purposes, as those unable to show their coin were thought to be impostors. In the case of the 10th Special Forces Group in the late 1940s, it was a way to identify members, as many came from different nationalities. As better security systems were put into place, the challenge coin fell out of official use, though it still remains a valued tradition.
Being the recipient of a challenge coin is a high honor; it shows not only that your actions were worth recognizing, but that you are a member of a club with a very high barrier to entry. They are able to connect people who hold them across space and time, maintaining the bonds between those who suffered together. It is therefore no wonder that many veterans display their challenge coins with pride and honor.