The History of Challenge Coins

Challenge coins are special commemorative coins awarded to people associated with a certain group of people or a certain event. Traditionally, challenge coins are connected to the military, and the people who receive awards of challenge coins are usually members of military divisions. All the members of the division may receive a coin, or only members that have completed certain tasks may receive one. The events most commonly are rewarded for campaigns, and the coins are usually presented by a commander during a handshake. The coin may be made of gold, copper, nickel, or bronze, and the design will contain elements that represent the military division and/or the event for which the coin is being awarded. The coins imbue the recipients with a sense of camaraderie. The idea is that, if a member of a group has their identity challenged, they can present the coin to prove their identity as a member of the group. Recipients of coins add them to collections along with medals, ribbons, patches, and other commemorative items.

How did the tradition of challenge coins start?

Historically, soldiers in ancient Rome received challenge coins after returning from campaigns. There are variations in the explanations of the recurrence of modern challenge coins. According to The New York Times, during WWI, a lieutenant in the US military gave bronze coins to members of his unit before the members were deployed. The story continues that a US pilot escaped from the Germans during WWI and reached a French outpost. A challenge coin helped him prove to the French that he was an American.

Another version of the recurrence of challenge coins is that, at an infantry-run bar in Vietnam, patrons had to show enemy bullets or a challenge coin to enter. This is related to another challenge connected to challenge coins. If someone taps or slams a challenge coin on the bar and yells, “Coin check!”, anyone who can’t produce a coin or is the last to produce a coin must buy a round of drinks.

What are the more recent military challenge coin traditions?

Presidents, Vice Presidents, and Cabinet members have now been given their own challenge coins to pass out to military members. Different versions of the Presidential challenge coins are created for the public, gift shops, and another special coin is created to be awarded to civilians. In 2011, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates gave his challenge coins to soldiers in Afghanistan. President Clinton was the first among the latest presidents to have challenge coins. Injured soldiers returning from the Middle East received challenge coins from President George W. Bush. Among those receiving coins from President Obama were the military members stationed at the Air Force One steps. Vice Presidents were the most recent government officials to be given challenge coins to award.

How has the challenge coin tradition expanded beyond the military?

Besides the Secretary of Defense, the Secretaries of Agriculture and Transportation as well as Senators have their own challenge coins. Challenge coins have also expanded to fire and police departments. For civilians, challenge coins are awarded to Boy Scouts and to employees of private companies. Private companies use challenge coins as a way to instill team spirit and loyalty in their employees. Other organizations providing challenge coins to members include the Civil Air Patrol, the NFL, NASCAR, the World Series of Poker, and fraternal organizations. Some people feel that this is a way to show respect for the military challenge coin traditions. However, other people feel that the spreading of awarding challenge coins by groups outside the military diminishes the military tradition.

Who supplies the challenge coins in the military?

The least expensive challenge coins cost around $5 to $10, so the cost of distributing them depends on how many are awarded. It can be expensive. In the military, some leaders buy coins out of personal accounts. Other coins come from funds supplied by booster clubs. The military also provides some commanders with funds to buy “morale boosters.”