History of the Challenge Coin
November 1, 2017 By Dave Young (YoungBuckDave)
Within the military, law enforcement, and first responder communities there is a special token of respect that is given to the individuals who have demonstrated either exemplary performance or an single outstanding act in their line of work. This special award is known by many as a challenge coin. This small minted coin can be engraved with a unit's insignia, a picture showcasing a special event, one's rank, or other symbols within their field. Due to the growing popularity of the challenge coin, many companies and businesses decided to make them with their specific logo to hand out or sell to various workers, customers, or students. Those that have had the honor of receiving a challenge coin know the significance and importance of this coin, but does anyone really know its history and origin?
One of the earliest examples of the challenge coin took place in ancient Rome. If a soldier performed well in battle that day, the soldier would receive his typical day's pay along with a special coin minted with the mark of the legion from which it came. Due to the significance of this special coin, some soldiers chose to keep it as a memento rather than spending it. Flash forward to World War I; a wealthy officer in a flying squadron had bronze medallions made with the squadron's insignia. These were handed out to the men in his unit. Shortly after receiving this medallion, one of the young flying aces took on enemy fire and was forced into a crash landing behind enemy lines in Germany. The pilot was then captured by German forces and was stripped of all his personal identification except for a small leather pouch containing the medallion he had just received, which he wore around his neck. After capture, the pilot was taken to a small French town near the front lines. That same night during an aerial bombardment, the pilot took advantage of the chaos and escaped stumbling onto a French outpost. The soldiers in the outpost took the pilot as a possible saboteur, and, since the pilot had no identification to prove his allegiance, the French soldiers planned to execute the man. As one final effort to prove his allegiance, the pilot showed his potential executioners and captors the leather pouch around his neck that contained the medallion. The men recognized the squadron's insignia and decided to delay the prisoner's execution so that he could prove his identity. After the pilot's identity was verified, he was returned to his squadron. Because the medallion had saved the pilot's life, it was decided that all members of this squadron would carry their medallion or coin with them at all times. To further ensure that all members of this squadron would always carry their medallion or coin with them, they would be issued a challenge that would go something like this:
*The challenger would ask to see the medallion and if the challenged could not produce the medallion they were required to buy a drink of choice for the person that challenged them.
*If the challenged member produced the medallion then the challenging member was required to pay for their drink.
This tradition is still active today within the challenge coin realm but the rules have changed a little bit.
Another challenge coin story originated during the Korean War when Colonel William "Buffalo Bill" Quinn of the 17th Infantry Regiment had challenge coins minted for his men from 1950-1951. This coin had a buffalo on one side and the Regiment's insignia on the other side. A hole was drilled at the top of the coin so the soldiers could wear it around their necks rather than storing it in a pouch.
Challenge coins also caught on during the Vietnam War, with the first coins being created by either the 10th or 11th Special Forces Group. Their coins were little more than common currency with the unit's insignia stamped on one side. During the Vietnam War, the popularity of challenge coins spread, and other units decided to make their own with their own insignia printed on the coin to help spread pride and camaraderie within the specific unit. Despite the fact that heir challenge coins may be considered by some to be "simple", the people that possessed them carried them with pride and even developed a special way of giving them out.
The proper way a challenge coin is given to someone is by a special handshake. The person awarding the coin will place the coin in their hand and extend it out for a handshake. The recipient takes possession of the offered coin when he shakes that person's hand. This simple, yet meaningful, ceremony is a true honor to the person receiving the challenge coin.
The challenge coin has come a long way since its origin in ancient Rome, but one major factor has always stayed the same and remains true today. People that carry these coins carry them with great pride and honor. Challenge coins are available from various websites nowadays and can be made by anyone to commemorate a special occasion or date. Even though the challenge coin is readily available, the military, law enforcement, and first responder communities still hold this token in high regard and present them to individuals as a token of thanks and appreciation for something they have done. A challenge coin is not merely a token or a coin. They are a source of pride and honor to all recipients. So, the next time you see someone with one of these coins, ask them about the circumstances which caused them to possess that coin and you may hear a great story!