- Challenge coins have been used as identifying markers for military units for decades.
- The origin of the coin may remain a mystery, but they are still a beloved tradition.
- The use of coins has grown to include nearly every company or group possible.
- The coin challenge remains a fun tradition - keep your coin on you at all times!
- There are many ways to store and display challenge coins to honor your personal legacy.
The military has originated a number of official honors and designations to recognize membership in a unit, or special achievements during a tour of duty.
The challenge coin has become a popular symbol of camaraderie, belonging, and pride. From its origins in the military as a covert identifier to modern uses by numerous membership groups, challenge coins are collectible and a testament to one’s achievements.
We’ll look at how the challenge coin was first used, what traditions are associated with them, and how the tradition of the challenge coin lives on today.
The Challenge Coin Legacy
Since the challenge coin is not officially sanctioned awards or decorations, not much is known from the written record of the United States Armed Forces. However, oral tradition dates the practice back to World War I.
The Legend of World War I
The most commonly held legend is that of an American pilot who was part of one of the new Army Air Service divisions during World War I. The wealthy lieutenant who led his company minted specialized medallions that were distributed to the men.
This Army Air Service soldier was forced down behind enemy lines, and was stripped of all identification by the German patrol that captured him - except for the challenge coin, which remained hidden in a small leather pouch. The soldier eventually escaped, but was captured by the French soldiers of the resistance who assumed he was a German spy.
Under threat of execution, the American pilot produced his challenge coin from the leather pouch he had held onto, which bore his unit’s insignia. The French soldiers recognized the symbol, stayed his execution, and set him free from the French outpost.
This soldier eventually returned to his unit, and the tradition started to keep one’s coin on their person at all times.
Other American Origin Stories
Other similar origin stories for the challenge coin trace the genesis of the tradition to World War II or the Vietnam War.
World War II
Officers of the Strategic Service and some airborne infantry units were given challenge coins as identifying markers once behind the front lines (since they would wear civilian clothing to remain undercover). If they met up with other Allied forces, they were to produce their coin to prove their identity.
These coins had special dates or other markings that would serve as “bona fides” to prove their identity.
Additionally, some say that the tradition originated with service members in Vietnam. Soldiers were challenged to prove that they had been in combat when visiting an army infantry-run bar; civilians who could not produce such proof were turned away.
Soldiers began to carry enemy bullets with them, but began carrying other, more unsafe ordinance like unexploded ordnance; so the unit coin was produced as an accepted form of proof of identity.
Other Possible Ancient Origins
Beyond the American army and other branches of the military, ancient historical sources are often cited as the beginning of the use of a challenge coin.
In the Roman Empire, soldiers who were particularly valiant were given a special coin in addition to the wages they were paid each day. Eventually, soldiers kept their coins as mementos and badges of honor instead of spending them as currency.
During the reign of King Louis XIV in the 17th-century, Protestants who fled France and conducted their religious services in secret created challenge coins to prevent spies from infiltrating their company. This guaranteed that no agents of the state would disrupt or arrest the members of the congregation.
Initiating a Coin Challenge
Beyond an identifying marker for a given unit or division, the “coin check” became an informal game among soldiers, and the tradition carries on today.
If you wanted to issue a “challenge,” you would raise your coin in the air or slam it firmly onto the bar. All service members present would then have to produce their challenge coin in response.
If you could not produce your challenge coin, you had to buy drinks for every soldier in the whole bar. If all could produce their coin, the one who issued the challenge would pay for the round of drinks.
There were no officially binding rules for this tradition beyond social convention. The loser of the challenge could refuse to buy a round of drinks, although they would lose the respect of their peers. In some cases, peer pressure or corporate pride might force them to surrender their coin as a sign of disgrace.
Who Uses Challenge Coins Today?
The challenge coin has grown beyond their original use as potentially life-saving markers into a tradition that continues today, even among non-infantrymen.
In most cases, challenge coins are used to promote friendships and membership in some form of community. This carries on with many army divisions passing out coins with the company logo or the unit insignia.
Other areas of the military or government have adopted the practice of passing out challenge coins as well. Several presidents have handed out coins as markers of distinction. Some divisions like the Department of Agriculture or the Department of Transportation have coins as well.
Many private companies and groups design and issue coins too. This includes private businesses and corporations, sporting associations, school groups, Greek organizations, fraternal orders, and more.
First responders like police and fire brigades have their own coins, as well as scout groups. Even membership organizations based in the entertainment industry have coin markers to signify that they were unit members.
How Are Challenge Coins Distributed?
Challenge coins may be given to every member of a group as proof that you belong to that organization. This applies to military units as well as other private companies or institutions.
Outside of this universal distribution, a challenge coin might be given as a sign of some special achievement, or by demonstrating the core values of the group in some deserving way. A coin can go beyond a simple sign of membership and can be given as an award.
This may be done at the discretion of a single leader, or by committee decision. It could be part of a larger ceremony, or given more intimately and discreetly as a more meaningful gesture.
Depending on the organization, a coin might be handed out using a secret handshake or some other covert gesture, although this is not the most common or well-known practice.
How Are Challenge Coins Used
Challenge coins still retain their use as identifying markers for military units. They may also be handed out as recognition for hard work or significant achievements.
A challenge coin is also a great way to show your membership in or support of a particular group. Carrying a coin is a sign to the world who you belong to, or what groups are meaningful to you.
Challenge coins are also a way to communicate your values. Bearing or keeping a coin from an organization or group is a way to show that you believe in and pledge to live out the mission of a given group. What’s more, if other members of that group believe that you have betrayed those values in some way, you may be compelled to return your coin as a sign of expulsion.
It can also become a point of personal pride to accumulate challenge coins. They serve as mementos of where you have been in life, and may signify your participation in a particular event or movement.
They may also be kept simply as memorabilia. Challenge coins that commemorate a sports championship, a corporate anniversary, or some other milestone event can carry just as much significance as other mementos.
Collectors may also buy and sell coin cases and collections at auction, or to add to their own collections.
At its core, the challenge coin is meant to signify a shared experience, and create a bond of brotherhood among those who share them. Those that bear the same challenge coin instantly have something in common, and will likely have shared stories to tell.
Displaying Challenge Coins
Those who have a collection of coins will sometimes create display cases for them. Some may choose to have them easily accessible for groups they are actively a part of, or they may be closed cases to protect them as treasured souvenirs.
Challenge coin display cases can be purchased as a mass-produced item, or avid collectors may seek out specialized makers to craft a unique or personal version. For example, military members may have display cases fashioned after the American flag; most other collectors may opt for a simple glass case with shelves for each group of coins.
Who Can Create Challenge Coins?
No matter the origin of the challenge coin tradition, they were initially more difficult to mint. The raw materials for such coins, as well as the equipment to mint them, were much harder to come by until the last few decades. In the early 20th century, only rich unit commanders could afford to create such tokens for their personnel.
However, with the rise of coins as corporate collectors items or as giveaways, they can now be mass produced much more easily by using less specialized materials and equipment. Many companies who sell marketing or collectible items can create challenge coins with custom designs.