Why Challenge Coins Are Important (History)

October 16, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • A challenge coin can mean a lot to the person who receives it.
  • They represent a special achievement, honor service, or celebrate special occasions.
  • Challenge coin traditions are very important, especially in the military.
  • You can design and make your own challenge coin to mean anything you want it to.

Challenge coins have been around in one form or another since ancient times, but what is the significance of these coins and why are they so important?

Challenge coins are important for a lot of reasons including that they often signify that the receiver has achieved something great or served their community or country. These coins can also act as physical proof of membership in an exclusive group or club that the coin holder is proud to be in.

As you can see, challenge coins can really mean a lot to the people that receive them, often acting as a physical representation of a person’s achievements and values. But, it wasn’t always like this. So when and where did challenge coins get their start and how did these coins and the traditions surrounding them develop and become so important?

Table of Contents

The Significance And Importance Of Challenge Coins

Challenge coins have come a long way since their humble beginning in ancient times, but nowadays they have become incredibly important to the people that receive them, often signifying the things that they have achieved, and the groups that they have spent significant time with. However, that's not all that challenge coins can represent.

Challenge Coins As Awards

Challenge coins have a long history of being given out as awards for someone who accomplished some great achievement. A challenge coin like this is often given out to the recipient at some sort of special ceremony to honor the person and their achievement.

One of the most common examples of using a challenge coin as an award is in the Boy Scouts. The highest rank that a Boy Scout can achieve is the rank of Eagle Scout, requiring years of work and planning to achieve. However, when a scout achieves this rank, they are often presented with a special Eagle Scout challenge coin to honor their great achievement.

Presidents can also give out a special presidential challenge coin to anyone that they deem fit for the honor, most of which are soldiers who laid down some great sacrifice for their country and fellow soldiers.

Challenge Coins To Recognition Of Service

Challenge coins are also commonly given out to recognize someone’s service to their country or community. Military challenge coins are the oldest type of challenge coin around and they have been given to members of the US Military for years.

A military challenge coin will often feature the branch and unit’s insignia that a specific person served with and will be held with great pride by the person who receives it. These coins both honor the service of military personnel and prove that a soldier is part of a specific unit.

First responders are also given coins like this. Firefighters, law enforcement personnel, and EMS workers all serve their communities in different ways, and recognizing this service with a challenge coin is a no-brainer. These coins often feature the emblem of the specific police or fire department that the receiver serves in.

Challenge Coins To Commemorate Important Dates

Challenge coins are also used to commemorate important dates, anniversaries, and events. Organizations, clubs, and other groups all have important anniversaries and dates to commemorate whether it's an organization’s 100th anniversary or the start of a new season at a sports club.

No matter what the date means to the people celebrating, making a special challenge coin to commemorate the event is a great way to make it more memorable and give all the attendees something physical to bond over and look back on the event with.

Challenge Coins To Show Membership

One of the biggest reasons that challenge coins are so important is that they prove membership and represent unity within an exclusive group, whether a private club or the armed forces.

A challenge coin like this will mean a lot to everyone who owns it, acting as a physical symbol of a person's pride in being a member of the group, club, or organization and all of the time they've spent there.

Challenge Coin Tradition

As you’ve seen, a challenge coin can mean a lot of different things depending on who it’s given to and why, but there are also a few important traditions that go along with having a challenge coin.

These traditions are by no means mandatory to follow by anyone who has a challenge coin, however, in the military in particular, these traditions are very important. The first tradition is that you must carry your challenge coin with you at all times and the second one is the challenge, which is essentially a coin check to ensure that someone does in fact have their coin with them.

You Should Always Carry Your Challenge Coin

The tradition of always carrying your challenge coin with you is pretty self-explanatory. After all, keeping a coin in your pocket wherever you go doesn’t seem too difficult. There are some general rules to be aware of.

First, while it is acceptable to keep your challenge coin in your pocket or to wear it as a necklace, you generally aren’t allowed to deface the coin in any way that would make it easier to carry around. For instance, you are not allowed to drill holes in the coin so that you can wear it as a belt buckle or put it on a key ring.

However, even though the most common way of carrying a challenge coin around is in the pocket or some other easily accessible place on their person, anyone who is challenged is generally allowed to have “a step and a reach” to get and present their coin.

The Challenge

The challenge part of the term challenge coin comes from the tradition of challenging, which is kind of like a challenge coin game. A challenge is essentially a coin check that confirms that the person being challenged has their challenge coin with them.

A challenge is initiated when a challenge coin owner takes out his coin and places or slams it on the table or bar in front of them. This is understood to be a challenge to the one of two people that the challenger is with, however, if the challenger drops the coin on the ground, this is understood to be a challenge to all coin owners in the room.

However, it is important to remember that someone who has not yet been formally presented with a coin cannot be challenged and challenges between different groups, organizations, or units are not recommended.

Once initiated, the person or people who have been challenged must prove that they have their challenge coin with them. If one of the people challenged is unable to present their challenge coin, they lose the challenge and need to buy a round of drinks for the challenger and everyone else who was able to show their coin.

On the other hand, if everyone who has been challenged is able to prove that they have their challenge coin, then the challenger will be forced to buy drinks for everyone that was challenged.

Other than potentially getting a free round of drinks, the act of challenging is meant to enhance morale for all unit members so while successful challenges can be a great source of morale, repeated forcing and failing challenges can end up doing the opposite.

A Quick History Of Challenge Coins

Challenge coins have an impressively long history and though their modern form and the traditions that come with them took a long time to form, understanding where they came from is incredibly important if you want to better understand why challenge coins today are so important.,

The Roman Empire

While not quite the modern idea of challenge coins that we have today, the idea of challenge coins dates all the way back to the times of Ancient Rome. Basically, if a Roman legion performed particularly well in battle they would be rewarded with a separate bonus coin on top of the typical day’s wages that gave the soldiers a bit of extra money to spend.

However, these coins were specially minted often featuring unique designs that differentiated them from normal currency. So, instead of spending these bonus coins, many soldiers apparently decided to keep them as souvenirs to remember the stories of their battles with.

World War I

Fast forward all the way to World War I and we start to see the beginning of the acceptance of challenge coins in the modern armed forces and some of the traditions that come with them.

At the beginning of the war, a wealthy lieutenant in the US Air Force gave special bronze medallions to all the pilots in his newly formed squadron. The medallion was a small coin-sized item emblazoned with the squadron’s insignia, just like a normal unit coin today.

One young pilot in the squadron carried his medallion in a small leather pouch that he wore around his neck, however shortly after receiving his specially designed coin his plane was shot down behind enemy lines where he was quickly captured by a German patrol.

The germans stripped the young pilot of all his identification including his dog tags but he was able to hold onto the leather pouch with the coin inside as the germans thought nothing of it.

He eventually escaped the German camp and fled back across the front lines where he found a French outpost, though his troubles weren’t quite over yet. Because the French soldiers were so used to german saboteurs dressing as civilians and considering that the pilot had no identification, the soldiers assumed he was with the enemy and planned to execute him.

However, one of the French officers noticed and recognized the insignia on his coin, proving that the pilot was an American soldier fighting on their side.

When he was reunited with his American squadron, he told the story of how the special coin saved his life, and from then on the tradition of always needing to carry your challenge coin on your person was born.

This is essentially the first challenge coin, and from then on military challenge coins took off in popularity and became increasingly important to all service members in the military.

World War II

By the second world war, challenge coins were being used as a security measure to ensure that spies could not infiltrate secret meetings between leaders of the allied powers in nazi controlled France.

Just like a secret handshake ensuring that everyone who was supposed to be at the meeting had the same coin at the door made it much harder for a German spy to get inside.

The Vietnam War

The modern tradition of challenging most likely originated at an army infantry run bar during the Vietnam war. In an attempt to keep outsiders out of the bar, anyone who entered was forced to show proof that they had seen combat. If they couldn’t prove it, they were then forced to purchase drinks for the whole bar.

While at first people would often bring enemy bullets of unexploded grenades into the bar as proof, this soon became much too dangerous as bringing unexploded grenades into a bar is never a good idea.

Instead, showing your unit’s challenge coin became the easiest way to prove that you weren’t an outsider, making this the most accepted form of proof by the end of the war.

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