Challenge coins are those cool and unique looking coins that come in a wide variety of different shapes and sizes. These coins are used to commemorate a person’s service or relationship with a particular unit of the military, branch of government and so much more.
Their use in the military has been noticed and so many different organizations have begun issuing them to copy their tradition. Fire departments and police departments are just some of the more common examples of organizations that have begun issuing coins.
These coins don’t really have any real intrinsic value other than their sentimental worth, which to some can be worth a certain amount of real coin.
Challenge coins have a very rich and long history. The issue with most of these stories however, is that no one is entirely sure which story is actually true. Many of these stories are apocryphal making it very difficult to determine where the tradition really began.
Below are some of the more popular stories as to how this tradition really started.
World War I and Aviation
The story begins with a group of young men who joined the US military as members of a flight squadron. During the war, some rich men who were still attending college decided to enlist and join the war effort.
There was this wealthy lieutenant who decided to have bronze medallions struck for his own squadron, which many claim to be the first real challenge coins. One of the squadron’s members wore his medallion around his neck while he kept it in a leather pouch.
The flight squadron’s plane was tragically shot down and landed in enemy controlled territory. The man who kept the medallion around his neck was captured by the Germans. He was deprived of all his belongings save his coin.
Eventually, the man was able to escape his prison and crossed war torn France into French controlled territory. He was met by the French with suspicion and asked for identification. Unable to show anything he showed them his coin. Luckily, one of the French recognized the medallion, thus the man was spared from execution.
The Vietnam War
The Vietnam War is one of those wars that America will long remember as it was one of its most difficult and grueling campaigns. For some people, this is the true origin story of challenge coins.
During the war, soldiers would form bullet clubs. They would keep a single bullet with them. A soldier would then slam his bullet with them as a challenge to another soldier. The challenged soldier would by the challenger a round of drinks should he fail to present his bullet.
Eventually, the rounds that people started to carry became heavier and bigger as time went on. Eventually, the upper brass noticed this and regulations were put in place to avoid any unwanted mishaps or accidents from carrying live ammunition.
Soldiers then came up with the clever idea of replacing the ammunition with their military coins. Instead of slamming bullets, soldiers began slamming coins to present their challenge.
The coins of today
Today’s coins are usually given out as commemorative items. They aren’t really worth much to most people as collectors are usually the only ones who care enough to pay for them. It is what the coin symbolizes that gives them any real worth.
Also, giving out military coins is no longer a tradition exclusive to the military. Presidents of the United States, beginning with the Clinton administration, have been known to give out coins to visiting dignitaries or servicemen they’ve encountered personally. Even business organizations have begun to see the worth of challenge coins for promoting cohesion and solidarity within the organization.