Did you know that the United States Armed Forces has millions of active members? About 1.29 million people serve in the military.
For these valiant people, awards and other forms of appreciation are great. Things like this make servicemen and servicewomen feel valued.
One of these things is challenge coins. It’s a long-standing tradition in the military, and in other organizations too.
Are you ready to learn the history of challenge coins? If so, read on and find out more.
What is a Challenge Coin?
Military commanders will often hand out medallions called challenge coins to service members. These are pocket-sized and signify camaraderie. The unique coins carry symbols that denote the unit or office it originated from.
Often, coins have a circular shape, but they can come in other forms like pentagons, spades, and dog tags. Military personnel often use these coins to prove themselves. Especially when their allegiance comes into question.
Retired high-ranking officers often have large coin collections in their offices. It serves as their symbol of pride.
Got a challenge coin and don’t know what it is? Click here to discover more in-depth details to help you identify the coins you have.
Where Did Challenge Coins Come From?
The sad part is that the military never had an official sanction for challenge coins. That’s why its tradition’s origin is often a subject of debate among historians. Here are two of the most common versions:
World War I Narrative
A common narrative says that a rich lieutenant gave matching bronze coins to his unit members. They did this before they got deployed. When one of their fighter pilots got imprisoned by the Germans, this person escaped and found their way to a French outpost.
The French assumed that the pilot was a German spy. After all, a recent influx of refugees also yielded some spies in their midst. They almost got executed.
When they presented the challenge coin around their neck, it cleared them of suspicion. With this, the challenge coin saved the American pilot’s life. It also earned them a nice bottle of French wine as a way of compensating for the mistake.
Vietnam War Narrative
Other military historians believe that the challenge coin tradition started back in Vietnam. This infantry-run bar required its patrons to present bullets owned by the enemy or their challenge coin before entering. Regardless of the narrative, service members still earn alcohol by presenting their challenge coins.
When meeting in a bar, military members will often tap their challenge coins. They’ll shout, “coin check!”. Any member who didn’t bring their coin or is too slow in showing it will have to buy the first round of drinks for everyone.
How Did Challenge Coins Evolve?
The good news is that the challenge coin tradition climbed its way up to the highest military ranks. A good example is when the 2011 defense secretary met up with the United States troops in Afghanistan. He shook hands and passed around his challenge coins as a show of appreciation.
Since Bill Clinton, all presidents also have their unique challenge coins. They present these to foreign dignitaries and other military personnel. For example, President George W. Bush gave returning troops from the Middle East challenge coins.
Non-Military Challenge Coins
Due to the efforts of custom-design coin companies, challenge coins went beyond the military. Nowadays, they’re used by other government offices like the transportation and agricultural sector. Some senators and local fire departments also started using challenge coins to show their acknowledgment and appreciation of achievements.
But the exact period when civilian use of challenge coins started is a mystery. With that, the military has mixed opinions about the tradition outside of its original context. Some see it as a symbol of solidarity while others see it as a contortion of an honored ritual.
The latter think that non-military challenge coins are for bragging rights. Some people see challenge coins as collections, displaying them like autographs in their glass cases.
How Do You Get Challenge Coins?
Receiving challenge coins often involves a secret handshake shared within an organization. It isn’t the only way, but it’s a tradition that lots of groups uphold. That’s why it’s agreed that getting a membership within an organization will earn people their challenge coins.
For example, if you’re a police officer, a fireman, or a member of the Boy Scouts, you’re eligible to get a coin. It’s one of the most sought-after collectibles since it’s an enduring method of rewarding allegiance.
Who Funds the Coins?
On average, challenge coins can cost $5-$10 per piece. Organizations can end up spending thousands of dollars in making these tokens annually. In some government agencies, their leaders often buy the coins using their own money.
Some military units have booster clubs that help in making money to fund challenge coins. Some commanders get government funds to buy “morale boosters”, which include challenge coins. Take note, the Department of Defense didn’t comment on funding challenge coins, making it ambiguous since the government has no official sanctions for the coins.
Get the Right Challenge Coin Today!
Lots of different stories revolve around the origins of the challenge coin. No matter which you choose to believe, most of them involve overcoming an obstacle using ingenuity and valor. With that in mind, if you choose to hand out challenge coins within your organization, make sure to use it to appreciate excellence.
The best part is that a lot of collector coin companies offer lots of customization options. That way, you’ll have challenge coins unique to your organization. If your group makes it big, it might end up as a rare collectible.
If you’re looking for more informative lists, check out our other articles. We cover a wide range of topics and there’s always something new to discover.