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The History and Purpose of Military Challenge Coins

by Uneeb Khan

A challenge coin is something that anyone who has served in the military or worked with the Defense Department knows.

Many veterans and service personnel proudly display their challenge coins at home or work. This displays the number of missions they have completed, the leaders they have met, and the units they have worked for.

Therefore, the question is, when did the tradition come about? And what is the purpose of military coins?

A Link With World War I

One story that has been told is the link between the challenge coin tradition and World War I.

Many men offered to serve as the Army Air Service’s first pilots during this time. One of these men was a wealthy lieutenant who wanted to give every unit member a memento. Thus, he ordered several bronze medallions that were coin-sized.

The lieutenant kept his medallion in a small leather pouch that he carried around his neck. Unfortunately, his plane was soon shot down over Germany a short time later. Although he survived, he was captured by a German troop. They took all his identifiable items to make it impossible for him to identify himself if he escaped. However, they didn’t take the small pouch containing the medallion.

After being taken in custody in a small town near the front lines of the war, he managed to get some civilian clothes and escape into a French outpost. Unfortunately, the French soldiers were wary of anyone in uniform and assumed he was an enemy. Since he was not identifiable, they planned to execute him. 

Thankfully, before it could get to that, the lieutenant remembered the small pouch still around his neck and pulled out the coin to show soldiers his unit’s insignia. He was saved because one of the Frenchmen recognized his insignia.

A Link With Vietnam

Even though the WWI story is interesting, many people don’t actually believe it.

Others believe that the tradition began in Vietnam when an Army infantry bar made it difficult for non-infantry men to get in. They would force individuals to purchase drinks for the entire bar if they could not prove they were in the military. 

After showing proof with enemy bullets, things became more complicated when rockets, grenades, and unexploded ordnance started to be shown. Therefore, a coin-sized object emblazoned on the unit’s emblem became the only accepted proof.

This tradition, now called a coin check, continues today and is referred to as a “challenge” coin.

Another Origin Story

In the 1960s, an 11th Special Forces Group member took some old coins and had them overstamped using a different emblem. Then, they presented them to unit members. After this, a former commander of the 10th SFG was inspired by the idea and became the first to mint a U.S. military unit coin. Following the first military unit coin, everyone started printing them.

Original Purpose of Military Challenge Coins

These coins are meant to encourage unit pride, increase esprit de corps (fellowship and common group loyalty), and reward excellence and hard work. The coins can represent anything from high-ranking leaders to a small unit of officers. 

In the military, Challenge coins prove you are a member or have served on a particular tour of duty. These coins signify that you belong to an elite group.

They were used to provide security in the early days of military history. For example, a service member might have had to show the coin to prove loyalty. Although it may not be required today, being a part of the team is a strong military tradition.

A Lasting Bond and Connection

The tradition of challenge coins allows military personnel to feel connected even after they retire from the service. So many veterans display coins representing units, missions, and leaders they have met. Veterans feel so much pride in seeing their service being honored in such a way. After all, they have selflessly put their lives on the line.

Additionally, first responders are awarded coins for their heroic actions during times of tragedy. Challenge coins are a tribute to the events that members have endured together, creating a bond that will be cherished for a lifetime.

Branding Uses

You can also find coins for special occasions, anniversaries, and even leaders who are not military.

Recently, challenge coins have been used to identify corporate logos or brands. Many businesses have learned that a challenge coin is more memorable than a business card. Corporations distribute these coins at trade shows, sales events, and conferences. 

Furthermore, schools and sports teams have jumped on this bandwagon. Logos and Mascots are engraved on coins to hand out at community events to promote spirit and morale.

Military Challenge Coin Customization

Nowadays, creating your custom batch of military challenge coins is incredibly easy. But, as stated earlier, you don’t need to be in the military. Instead, you can make a coin for whatever purpose you’d like. 

Custom challenge coins are great gifts and wonderful ways to honor important people in your life.

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