If you’ve ever served in any branch of the armed forces, then you’ve probably seen a military challenge coin. But, do you know the history behind them and how that tradition began? We do, and you can too when you read this!
The military is an institution of bravery and camaraderie. There are so many examples of how the military represents these beliefs. But there aren’t many that are well respected as carrying a challenge coin.
A challenge coin is a small medallion or token that proves that a person is a part of an organization.
Military challenge coins have now shifted into the civilian population, but many people still don’t know exactly what they are or what their history in the armed forces is.
If you’re interested in learning more about what a military challenge coin is, read on.
What Are They?
Challenge coins are a symbol of hard work in the military. They are a physical representation of an outstanding performance that a soldier has done. Every single coin has a story behind it that includes what that soldier did and how they had to earn it.
A high commander in the US military has a supply of challenge coins on them always. When a soldier does something outstanding while performing his or her duty, their commander rewards them on the spot.
They aren’t necessarily an official medal, as many commanders purchase these coins out of their own pockets.
Receiving a challenge coin ties a soldier to their excellence for the rest of their lives.
What Does a Military Challenge Coin Look Like?
The coins are usually about 1.5 to 2 inches in diameter and about 1/10th of an inch thick. But that’s pretty much where the similarities between different coins end.
They come in many different sizes and styles. Some of them can even come in different shapes. They could look like shields, pentagons, arrowheads, or dog tags.
Military challenge coins are usually made from copper, pewter, or nickel. And some of the more limited editions can even be gold plated.
Designs on a challenge coin have a wide range as well. Some of them are simple, but some can have highlights, cutouts, and multi-dimensional designs on them.
The Origins of the Challenge Coin
The origins of military challenge coins go back much farther than we are even able to measure.
It’s impossible to know for certain exactly how and why this tradition began.
One of the earliest known challenge coin exchanges is a story of an enlisted soldier in Rome.
Soldiers received money as a reward for valor, as most of the soldiers were back then.
When a soldier performed particularly well, they were also rewarded with a separate coin as a bonus. These coins were minted with a mark of the place where it came from, and men usually held onto these coins as mementos.
WWI Flying Aces
No one knows exactly how challenge coins became a tradition. But there is one story dating back to WWI that is worth noting.
A wealthy officer had his squadron insignia imprinted on bronze medallions that he gave to all his men. Shortly after giving the medallions out, German soldiers shot down one of his men.
The man was captured, and the Germans took everything he had except for the leather pouch around his neck. In that pouch was his bronze medallion with his squadron insignia.
The pilot escaped and soon headed for France. The French thought he was a spy and soon he was sentenced to be executed.
To prove he was a member of the squadron he claimed to be, he showed them his coin. When a French soldier saw the insignia, he recognized it, and the French decided to wait to execute.
When the officer confirmed his identity, the French sent him back to his unit.
One of the earliest challenge coins ever made is the coin minted by Colonel “Buffalo Bill” Quinn.
He was in the 17th Infantry Regiment.
Colonel Quinn had these coins made for his soldiers during the Korean War. There’s a picture of a buffalo on one side and the insignia of the Regiment on the other.
The Colonel had a hole drilled in the top of each coin so that they could be worn around the neck rather than in a leather pouch.
There’s another interesting story about challenge coins in the military. After WWII, Americans would conduct what they called “pfennig checks.”
A pfennig was the smallest denomination of German coin available at the time.
If you couldn’t present a pfennig at the time of the pfennig check, you were the one stuck buying the beer for everyone else.
This eventually evolved to using a unit’s medallion. If you didn’t have your medallion, you bought drinks for the people who had their coins.
Secret handshakes aren’t the only way to pass a military challenge coin. But, this handshake has become something of a tradition that many people choose to uphold.
It might have origins in the Second Boer War that the British and South African colonists waged during the beginning of the 20th century.
The British hired a lot of mercenaries to fight in the Second Boer War. Because of their status, they couldn’t earn medals of valor. Instead, their commanding officers would receive the awards, even if they didn’t deserve it.
There are stories of non-commissioned officers sneaking into the tent belonging to the officer who perhaps didn’t deserve the medal. They would cut the ribbon and call the mercenary who did deserve it and shake his hand.
During this handshake, the palmed-medal would pass from soldier to soldier.
The act of passing a challenge coin to a soldier who earned it was a lot safer than the alternative. Before the coins were popular, there were bullet clubs.
Soldiers formed bullet clubs. Members would carry one unused bullet with them at all time.
These bullets were given to soldiers as a reward for making it through a mission.
It was considered a ‘last resort’ bullet. You used the last resort bullet on yourself rather than surrendering.
Carrying a bullet was a show of machismo, of course. It started off as small-handgun or M16 rounds but quickly escalated to .50 caliber, anti-aircraft rounds, and artillery shells.
Now, when they were challenged, they slammed live ammunition onto the table.
This practice was banned and replaced with Special Forces coins instead.
During the Vietnam War, challenge coins really caught on. The Army’s 10th or 11th Special Forces group minted the first of these coins of this time.
At the time, they were just currency with a special insignia stamped on one side, but everyone who earned on carried it with pride.
Soon, every unit had their own coin. Some commanders even had special coins made for hard battles for those who survived.
Presidential Challenge Coins
Since Bill Clinton was in office, every president has had his own challenge coin. And starting with Dick Cheney, so have the VPs.
Usually, a president is presented with a few different coins. There’s an inauguration challenge coil, an administration challenge coin, and one that the public can buy as well.
The rarest and most highly desired challenge coins, though, is the coin you can only get by shaking the president’s hand.
Usually reserved for special occasions, the President gives these to whoever he wants.
George W. Bush gave his coins to the soldiers injured in the Middle East. President Obama handed them out to the soldiers who stood guard on Air Force One.
Today in Military Challenge Coins
Many different places now use challenge coins. Different facets of the federal government all have their own challenge coins.
However, everyone is getting into this tradition now. It’s common for police and fire departments to have their own coins. Everyone from the Boy Scouts to the 501st Cosplayers has them as well.
Challenge coins are a tradition in America. They’re considered family heirlooms and highly-collectible.
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