Challenge Coin History: 5 Facts About the History of Challenge Coins

challenge coins

With an origin tied to war and conflict challenge coin history has managed to hold onto tradition while evolving with time and its changes. The uses for challenge coins today are much different than when they were first minted.
That does not mean that they have lost their value. Learn where they came from and what they mean to those that give them and those that receive them.

1. Ancient Origin

There is no one date of origin pinpointed for the origin of these coins. Although history has their use has as far back as the Roman Empire. In that instance, they received their days‘ pay and a separate unique minted coin.

A soldier would receive the normal day as usual and if they performed particularly well a separate special coin. They were created with a unique minting process and each one was marked according to the military group that the soldier was from.

This marking encouraged many to keep the coin as an honor rather than spend it as they would any other.

2. You’ve Been Recruited

Those who Give pass the coin In private. IT is because of this that the coin has an advantage as a recruitment tool as well. It received the nickname “the secret handshake” for that very reason. Proven that a secret isn’t always a bad thing either.

In the case of Robert Gates’ visit to Afghanistan, he surprised Special Forces troops. What seemed like an otherwise standard visit was actually his chance to honor the troops.

He gave out a large amount of special forces coins during the trip.

During the 20th century, the British hired a large number of mercenaries to aid them. While they were often successful those men could not receive commendations.

They were mercenaries. Public ceremony was had and they had thanks given. While it seemed like nothing, the British leaders were able to thank them “privately” with the handshake

3. Products of Conflict

War and conflict are where the coins have found their origin and with the changing of war we find the evolution of what the challenge means and what the coin means to those that give and those that serve.

World War I

Accounts place one of the first challenge coins in more contemporary use during this war. A US soldier got shot down and German troops took all of his belongings to save a small pouch.

That pouch contained a gold medallion, his “challenge coin” of the time.
Eventually, the soldier made his way to France. In France, got captured and the French believed that he was a spy. Soon after he received sentencing, execution. He showed them his medallion and the sentence got delayed.

After speaking with them, French officers were able to confirm who he was and they reconnected him with his unit.

World War II

The “challenge” in the challenge during this time came from a German challenge named for the “pfenning” in their currency

How that challenge went was, when the check came if you couldn’t produce a pfenning you were the one stuck paying for the drinks that night. Soldiers were looking to keep morale high, off to the bar they went.

They adapted it to the challenge coins they carried. While they used them for this challenge they were still used for ID purposes as well. When challenged they had to all produce their coins.

If anyone did not, they paid. If everyone had their coin present then the one who challenged the table was stuck with the bill instead!

Korean War

Another account of early use was during the Korean War in the 17th Regiment. 
The one responsible was Colonel Buffalo Bill Quinn was having them made for the men in his command. The regiment’s marking was on one side and the reverse was a buffalo to mark his command. 

The coins had a drilled hole at the top so that the soldiers were able to wear them as a medallion rather than in a pouch or bag.

Vietnam War

While they were given out during the World Wars and even before the coins became more and more popular during the Vietnam War era. Their purpose during this time changed.
The men carried the coins as a badge of honor nonetheless. During this time the “bullet clubs” emerged and so did their dangerous challenge.

Men received a single bullet after surviving a mission. The last resort bullet. The idea was to never surrender and never betray your comrades. The bullet was a badge of honor.

Men started challenging each other with this live ammunition though. Accounts of slamming ammo in bars in dangerous ways to prove their bravery. The live ammo use stopped away with and the coins replaced them.

Desert Storm

In 1991 the end of the war marked the minting of a collection of coins for the veterans of the Desert Storm conflict. The government has chosen to continue to honor the service of those soldiers by minting coins during anniversaries 

Iraq War

This continuing conflict has marked many lives and as it evolves continuing soldiers have been receiving coins as their roles change still. The veterans that served in the initial combat received a different coin.
The veterans of the initial combat continue to receive coins each year as they continue to serve and their service evolves.

4. No Longer Just the Enlisted

Once exclusive to military events and commendations, challenge coins have made a large scale expansion into civilian activities. With access to the resources to create them and the price drop, anyone can do this.

The commemoration of the birth, of a first home, a promotion, or even a family reunion. Custom Coins can be created for any event of importance. They still hold value but the value is no longer exclusive.

First responders, fire, and police especially, very commonly utilize challenge coins to recognize service commitments and anniversaries. They are often in use at organizations such as the Boy Scouts and Lions Club.

5. Presidential Edition

Starting during the Clinton Administration each of the Presidents has had a special challenge coin of their own. Also, starting with Vice President Cheney the tradition of the Vice President having a coin began as well .

Interestingly, there are multiple versions of the presidential challenge coin. The public does have access to one of them, through the gift shop.

Another of them handed out at the inauguration, one is for the commemoration of his administration, and the version he hands to those he chooses. The president has the power to give his coin out for any reason he sees fit

Challenge Coin History as Varied as Their Uses

With the foundation of war behind it challenge coin history has formed a new, more broad-reaching, chapter. Many traditions still hold and the honor remains for the soldiers that serve but the meaning extends to more people now.

For even more interesting history and facts across the years that you wouldn’t learn otherwise stop by the blog and see the countless content, we have curated!

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