How Have Challenge Coins Changed Over Time

Rick Cundiff

Rick Cundiff

How Have Challenge Coins Changed Over Time

It is common knowledge that challenge coins were first widely used in the military. Challenge coins have a very interesting history. Some historians date back the use of coins to ancient Rome. Roman soldiers would often receive bonus coins as a reward for their exceptional service in addition to their usual pay. The coins had the unit or legion’s insignia and were often used as a way to promote pride. Military campaigns were the most popular reason to issue challenge coins.

Challenge coins offered a physical reminder of an event such as a battle or as a way to acknowledge a unit’s accomplishments. It was often also used as a means of identification. Military units utilized these coins primarily as a portable memento and a uniting force. The materials differ with the most valuable challenge coins made of gold. Silver and bronze are also viable materials to add value.

Challenge Coins and Their WWI Connection

The first noted use of a challenge coin was in WWI. Challenge coins had been issued before then, but it was more to honor a campaign or a military unit than identification purposes. French officers challenged an American pilot who wandered in their camp without any identification except a small pouch containing a service medallion. The squadron's insignia was what saved the pilot from execution by giving him opportunity to prove his identity.

Once he returned to his squadron, a new tradition was formed. This tradition provided members with a sense of security and comradely.

The rules of the challenge coin were:

  • Everyone had to carry their challenge coins at all times.

  • If challenged to produce the coin and no coin produced, the challenged had to buy the challenger his drink of choice.

  • If the challenged produced the coin, the challenger was required to pay for the drink.

This tradition was passed on to members of the squadron but wasn’t really popular then.

Challenge Coins and Their WWII Connection

Additional rules for the challenge coins provided an interesting “wrinkle” in the challenge coin tradition during WWII. Soldiers visiting neighborhood pubs in Germany noted a German tradition that had patrons using pfennigs to purchase booze. The pfennig was the lowest German currency at the time. In the German tradition a patron could call out"pfennig check" and demand to see the currency. If the party couldn’t produce the pfennig, then the party had to buy the next round of drinks.

American soldiers adopted this practice and substituted custom coins for pfennigs. This was a hit with many of the soldiers.

Vietnam War Connection

The coin exchanges died down after WWII. The former uses of the coins however continued. Military squadrons and units did continue to receive coins for combat missions and for their units. It was because of the bullet exchange's dangerous precedent of accidental discharge that the challenge coin exchange was resurrected.

New rules were established with the issue of these custom coins. Each coin was customized with the person’s name and unit. There were only a limited amount of coins produced. Losing a coin was tantamount to being “banished” from the squad.

These new rules did help cement pride because they became prized possessions. They also gave military veterans a good memento to carry on and pass on to others.

Rules of the Challenge Coin Game

The sense of comradely is clearly noted when participating in the Challenge Coin game. It is good to know that challenge coins do carry a special meaning for all those who carry these coins. There is a certain etiquette that has been passed down for players. You may recognize the first few.

  • Rules should be explained to everyone participating in the game.

  • Coins have to be carried at all times.

  • Challenges can be called out anywhere and at anytime.

  • If person challenged fails to produce coin, he/she must complete the challenge. (Traditional challenges are buying a drink or a round of drinks).

  • Never hand the coin over in response to challenge. Place it on table for examination.

  • If you lose your coin, you are responsible for replacing it.

  • No drills or any other punctures should mar the coin.

  • It is important that coin holders respect their coins and maintain control of them. It is a point of honor to receive challenge coins.

It’s not just the Military

In recent years the challenge coin tradition has expanded to different organizations. This is primarily due to the popularity challenge coins have had in the military. It is the sense of comradely and ownership that triggered this interest in collecting Challenge coins.

It is interesting to note that it wasn’t until after the Persian Gulf War of 1991 that Challenge coins started to become popular beyond the military. Government agencies issued Challenge coins for special occasions. Other organization like NASCAR and the NFL got involved when they noticed the collectability of these coins. Many fire and police departments realized that challenge coins were perfect for recognizing outstanding fire and police personnel.

A Perfect Way to Commemorate a Special Occasion

Today challenge coins are utilized by a number of organizations. There are many ways these challenge coins are used from acknowledging a good deed to commemorating a special occasion.

Challenge coins are perfect because they:

• Provide a sense of membership and comradely
• Provide physical evidence of an important event
• Make a perfect memento for any occasion
• Create a sense of honor

Presidents have collected these coins, but challenge coins are available to any organization. Challenge coins can be easily customized to reflect your organization. Challenge coins can be a fun way to get new members involved with your organization.

The portability of challenge coins made them perfect to carry anywhere. Civic organizations especially can utilize challenge coins to drive membership.

Custom coins can be a good source of comradely and as a good way to initiate someone in your secret society.

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