Challenge Coins: How They Started

There are lots of things that symbolize camaraderie in the military, but only a few are as well-recognized as the tradition of having a challenge coin – a small token or medallion that represents a person’s membership of a group. Although challenge coins have been used by private organizations, they are still somewhat of a mystery for people who are not in the armed forces.

Aside from the usual size of 1 ½ to 2 inches in diameter, these coins also come in odd shapes such as pentagons, dog tags, shields, and arrowheads. In general, they are made of nickel, copper, or pewter with different kinds of finishes. Most coins have carvings of the emblem or motto of the organization and some are designed with cut outs, enamel highlights, etc.


Challenge CoinsIt is almost impossible to know exactly where the practice of challenge coins started. One of the first known cases of a soldier who was monetarily rewarded for valor was in Ancient Rome. At that time, a soldier’s noteworthy performance in battle meant his usual payment and a coin as a bonus. According to some stories, the coin has a special imprint of the unit’s symbol that is why some of them keep it as a souvenir.

These days, the tradition of these coins in the military is far more distinct. Although a lot of coins are still given out as tokens for a job well done, there are officials who give them almost like an autograph or a business card. Moreover, some coins are used by soldiers like an ID badge as a proof that they are members of a particular unit. Other coins are also given out to private citizens and some are sold at fundraising events.

The First Official Challenge Coin

While nobody is certain how these coins started, one account goes back to the First World War, when a wealthy American officer gave out bronze medallions with the flying squadron’s emblem. Soon after, one of the pilots in the same unit was shot and imprisoned by the German army. The Germans took his belongings except for the small leather pouch worn around his neck that held his medallion. He was able to escape and come across a French outpost, but the French thought he was a spy and sentenced him to death by firing squad. He showed the medallion as a proof of his identity as an American combat pilot. A French soldier recognized the emblem and the execution was stopped. He was sent back to his unit after his identity was confirmed.

Col. William “Buffalo Bill” Quinn of the 17th Infantry Regiment issued one of the first challenge coins. The coins were distributed to his men during the Korean War. One side of the coin has a buffalo and the tegiment’s emblem on the other. There was a hole on top so it can be worn around the soldiers’ necks.

The Challenge

According to some accounts, the challenge started in Germany after the Second World War. The Americans posted there were engaged in the local custom of doing “pfennig checks.” The pfennig had the least value of coin in Germany, and if someone did not have one when a check was called, they had to buy beers. It evolved into a unit’s medallion that soldiers used to “challenge” one another. If the other soldier was not able to show his medallion, he had to buy drinks for everyone who had their coin.

Outside the Military

Currently, different organizations use challenge coins for varied reasons. It is now also common for fire departments and police to have these coins. A lot of private businesses use corporate coins to recognize their employees and celebrate their company’s success.

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