The tradition of carrying challenge coins is well-respected in the military. A challenge coin is a small token or medallion that demonstrates that a person is a club or organization member. Challenge coins have become an object of interest to people outside the military, but most non-military people are not aware of them or their history.
Challenge coins are usually about 1.5 to 2 inches wide and a tenth of an inch thick. This is about the same dimensions as an old Morgan silver dollar. Challenge coins are usually made of copper, nickel or pewter. Some of them are round, but they also come in a wide variety of shapes such as shields, arrowheads or pentagons.
The very first use of challenge coins is not certain. The use of coins in the military goes back far into history. One of the earliest examples dates back to the ancient Roman Empire. Soldiers were often rewarded with coins as extra payment for exemplary performance in battle. Coins that were marked with a special insignia of their legion were often kept as mementos rather than being spent on wine and women.
2. World War I
One of the first actual challenge coins that were known to be used in the U.S. military dates back to World War I. Some wealthy officers had special coins made with a squadron insignia that would be given to men of valor. A challenge coin during this period helped save an American pilot’s life when he escaped capture in Germany and fled to France. By presenting the coin to French officials, he avoided execution for being a German spy.
3. Korean War
Colonel Quinn of the 17th Infantry, nicknamed “Buffalo Bill,” had challenge coins made for his men during the war. The coin is set with a buffalo on the front and the insignia of the regiment on the back. A hole on the top of the coin allowed the men to wear it around their necks. Another common way to carry a challenge coin was to carry it in a small leather pouch.
4. The challenge
It is said that the tradition of challenging in the military began in World War II by Americans stationed in Germany. At this time, soldiers conducted a “pfennig check,” which is a low-denomination German coin. The soldier who wasn’t carrying one had to buy drinks for the other men. Eventually, this changed to a requirement for having a unit medallion. Soldiers at a bar would take out their medallions, and the one who failed to produce one had to buy drinks for the men who showed theirs.
The traditions that surround challenge coins in the military continue to today. They’re used in “secret handshakes” in covert operations, and they are a mark of pride among elite Special Forces units. Challenge coins are viewed today as a highly collectible way to show your affiliation or interest in various groups.