A challenge coin is a small metal medallion or “coin” with the insignia or image of a given organization. They are two sided, with one side generally reserved for the group’s insignia, and the other to recognize an achievement or challenge. They can be made from anything from pewter to 24 karat gold. Many of those who receive challenge coins carry them with them at all times, usually in their wallets.
History and Origin of Challenge Coins
Challenge coins have a long and fascinating history. In fact, their history is so complex that historians can’t agree on their first use or exact origin, and there are a number of popular and interesting theories.
The Roman Empire (27 BC to 476 AD)
During the Roman Empire, soldiers were rewarded with coins for various important achievements. These coins were both commemorative, as well as a functioning currency. For example, if a soldier were to endure and excel in a hard fought battle, they would be presented with an extra, specially minted coin, along with their regular wages. The coin featured the mark of their legion. While some spent their challenge coins, many other chose to keep them as mementos of their service time.
The Renaissance (1400-1600 AD)
During the Renaissance, special coins known as “portrait coins” were minted to commemorate various special events, generally those involving royalty or nobility. The coins often featured an image of the individual being given the coin on one side, and their family crest or insignia on the other.
17th Century French Religious Wars
The first instance of using a coin as a response to an actual challenge appears to have come from the 17th century religious wars in France, after Protestantism became illegal. In order to prove their allegiance to the Protestant church, Huguenots began carrying special coins as identification so that they could be allowed admittance to secret Protestant religious services.
In order to prove their allegiance to the Protestant church, Huguenots began carrying special coins as identification so that they could be allowed admittance to secret Protestant religious services.
World War I
Legend has it that a wealthy lieutenant ordered unique challenge coins struck for his squadron with their insignia. One young pilot began wearing his in a leather pouch around his neck. At one point, his plane crashed behind enemy lines, where he became a prisoner of war. All of his personal identification was taken from him to discourage escape -- all except the leather pouch. During a bombardment, he managed to escape to a French outpost, where they assumed he was a spy, whom they would need to execute. However, he was able to show his unit’s medallion to his French captors, who recognized the insignia, and were able to confirm his identity as an American service member. His challenge coin saved his life.
World War II
Yet another story places the origins of challenge coins during World War II, by the Office of Strategic Service in Nazi-occupied France, where they were used during important meetings in order to verify servicemens’ identity. The coins were imprinted with specific insignias and dates, and their presentation helped prevent the infiltration of spies into these secret gatherings.
The “coin check” became a tradition during the Vietnam War which continues to this day. Army infantry-run bars would try to keep other American soldiers out who couldn’t prove that they had been in combat. As a result, many began carrying small medallions engraved with their unit’s insignia as proof of their time in action.
While no one knows for certain who can claim the first challenge coin, there are certainly some compelling stories about their origins and the people who may have used them.
Modern Challenge Coins: Who Gives and Receives Them Today?
In modern times, challenge coins are very popular with members of the military, police, correctional officers, firemen, EMS and other first responders.
What are Challenge Coins’ Meaning and What Are They For?
Challenge coins have historically been given to individual members of an organization, such as a police or military unit, in order to boost morale during difficult times. Challenge coins are also given in recognition of a specific service or special achievement, such as moving up a rank or overcoming adversity. Most often, challenge coins are bestowed on individuals by unit captains or other high-level service members.
What Types of Modern Challenge Coins Are There?
Challenge coins are available in a wide range of designs to recognize almost any achievement or special event for members of the military, police or first responder communities. Some organizations even request custom challenge coins for their members who have provided exceptional service to their organization. The most popular challenge coins design themes include themes such as:
- 9/11 and September 11th Commemoration
- K-9 Paw & Prayer
- Protect and Serve
- St. Michael’s Prayer
- Service Oaths
- Heroes Live Forever
- Thin Blue Line / American Flag
- Family Support
- Gone But Not Forgotten
- Valor, Service & Duty
- Some Gave All / Freedom Isn’t Free
The Modern “Challenges” Behind Challenge Coins
In military or police units, there is a challenge that is commonly used to ensure that members are carrying their coins and is another version of the “coin check.” Not every form of this type of challenge is the same, and the rules often varies between organizations.
Coin checks tend to take place in bars, and can be made at any time by anyone by announcing the check (usually loudly) and then placing their challenge coin on the table. Depending on the environment and situation, challengers often continue to bang their coin on the table until everyone who should be able to produce their coin has done so. Traditionally, anyone found to be without their coin has to buy a round of drinks for everyone who has produced theirs. However, if everyone challenged can produce their coin, then the challenger is the one who has to buy the drinks.
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