The History of Custom Challenge Coins

Like many other traditions and customs in the military, challenge coins have a long history. Challenge coins bring with them a sense of comradeship and recognition among soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines alike. From the notorious “coin check” to giving coins for exceptional performance,

Stories, Origins, and Uses

There are a number of stories that attempt to pinpoint the origin of challenge coins. One of the most common stories is that of an American airman who was shot down behind enemy lines during World War I. As the story goes, the airmen was captured by German forces and stripped of all personal belongings and identification minus the small leather pouch he carried around his neck. He was able to escape from captivity and make it to the frontlines, where he encountered French forces. Lucky for the airman, he had a coin in his leather pouch which he was able to identify himself with.

Other stories put the original challenge coin into post-Korean War conflicts, including the origin of “coin checking.” It started with an infantry-run bar in Vietnam requiring “outsiders” to prove that they had been in combat by showing enemy ammunition at the door; if they were not able to prove their worth, they had to buy drinks for the whole bar. As the type and danger of ammunition showing up at the bar increased, a small coin pressed with the unit’s insignia was created to show proof of combat experience.

Today, the tradition of challenge coins has been adapted by military units in all branches, down to the smallest of units. This “boom” in challenge coin usage picked up speed in the 80’s after word of 10th Special Forces Group’s coin spread throughout the Army. Now, you can find coins in a multitude of shapes, sizes, and colors, and they are most often given out for achievement or excellence. Often, a challenge coin will have the unit’s insignia and colors emblazoned on it, and usually a motto or saying as well. The person who gives the coins out on behalf of the unit is usually the commander, or the highest ranking officer in the unit. Even still, the challenge coin tradition has spread beyond the military; the President of the United States has been known to mint and award coins, as well as members of congress, high ranking Department of Defense personnel and offices, and even defense contractors.

Symbols such as insignias, flags, and mottos have maintained a strong standing in our military and government. There is something about the continuity of these ideals outlasting the personnel that represent them that instills pride in those that serve, both in and for the department of defense. Challenge coins are doing the same, and will continue to do so for the future of our armed forces.