The History of Challenge Coins

The military has many traditions designed to develop camaraderie among its members. One of the more popular traditions is carrying a token or small medallion identifying a person as a member of a military organization. They are known as challenge coins. Many civilian organizations also have challenge coins. They remain a favorite among those who have been involved with the armed forces.

In Ancient Rome, if a soldier did well in battle, he would be given a day’s worth of pay as well as a separate coin. It is said these coins were made special. They would have the mark of the specific legion where a soldier served. These coins became very special to the soldiers. They would often hold onto these coins rather than spend them.

First Challenge Coin 
Many people speculate the first challenge coins was provided during World War I. Bronze medallions were created with the insignia of a flying squadron by a wealthy officer. It appears a young pilot from the squadron was shot down and captured in Germany. The Germans took everything from the pilot except a leather pouch he wore around his neck that contained the medallion. After escaping, the pilot did make it to France. The French thought the American pilot was a spy. He was going to be executed until he showed his medallion. A French soldier recognized the insignia on the medallion and the execution was delayed. The identity of the pilot was confirmed by the French and he was able to reunite with his unit.

Drinking Challenge 
During World War II, American soldiers would challenge members of a unit by placing the unit’s medallion on a bar when out drinking. Should anyone from the unit not have their medallion, they would be required to buy a drink for the challenger and anyone who had their medallion with them.

Special Forces 
During the Vietnam War, challenge coins started to become very popular. The first challenge coins during this time were created by a Special Forces Group from the U.S. Army. Most of them were nothing more than common currency. One side had the Army unit’s insignia stamped on it. They were a source of great pride for those who had them.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates toured military bases in Afghanistan during 2011. During this time, he shook the hands of many different men and women. It may have seemed as if he was just shaking their hands. In reality, he was giving these members of the military a special coin designed by the Secretary of Defense.

Presidential Challenge Coins 
Bill Clinton started a tradition of an American presidents having their own challenge coin minted. Some honor their inauguration others the administration. The president can give these coins to individuals at their discretion. They are often provided to foreign dignitaries as well as military personnel, high ranking government officials and more.

Many different organizations now provide challenge coins. Everyone from White House Military Aides to White House staff, Secret Service agents and more have challenge coins. There are also many different organizations who provide challenge coins such as Boy Scouts, Lions Club, Linux users and more.