challenge coin is a small coin or medallion (usually
military), bearing an organization’s insignia or
emblem and carried by the organization’s members.
Traditionally, they are given to prove membership
when challenged and to enhance morale. In addition,
they are also collected by service members. In
practice, challenge coins are normally presented by
unit commanders in recognition of special
achievement by a member of the unit. They are also
exchanged in recognition of visits to an
There are several stories detailing the origins of
the challenge coin.
The Roman Empire rewarded soldiers by presenting
them with coins to recognize their achievements.
According to the most common story, challenge coins
originated during World War I. American volunteers
from all parts of the country filled the newly
formed flying squadrons. Some were wealthy scions
attending colleges such as Yale and Harvard who quit
in mid-term to join the war.
one squadron, a wealthy lieutenant ordered
medallions struck in solid bronze and presented them
to his unit. One young pilot placed the medallion in
a small leather pouch that he wore about his neck.
Shortly after acquiring the medallion, the pilots'
aircraft was severely damaged by ground fire. He was
forced to land behind enemy lines and was
immediately captured by a German patrol. In order to
discourage his escape, the Germans took all of his
personal identification except for the small leather
pouch around his neck. In the meantime, he was taken
to a small French town near the front. Taking
advantage of a bombardment that night, he escaped.
However, he was without personal identification. He
succeeded in avoiding German patrols by donning
civilian attire and reached the front lines. With
great difficulty, he crossed no-man's
land.Eventually, he stumbled onto a French outpost.
Unfortunately, saboteurs had plagued the French in
the sector. They sometimes masqueraded as civilians
and wore civilian clothes. Not recognizing the young
pilot's American accent, the French thought him to
be a saboteur and made ready to execute him. He had
no identification to prove his allegiance, but he
did have his leather pouch containing the medallion.
He showed the medallion to his would-be executioners
and one of his French captors recognized the
squadron insignia on the medallion. They delayed his
execution long enough for him to confirm his
identity. Instead of shooting him they gave him a
bottle of wine.
Back at his squadron, it became tradition to ensure
that all members carried their medallion or coin at
This was accomplished through challenge in the
following manner - a challenger would ask to see the
medallion. If the challenged could not produce a
medallion, they were required to buy a drink of
choice for the member who challenged them. If the
challenged member produced a medallion, then the
challenging member was required to pay for the
drink. This tradition continued on throughout the
war and for many years after the war while surviving
members of the squadron were still alive.
to another story, challenge coins date back to World
War II and were first used by Office of Strategic
Service personnel who were deployed in Nazi held
France. Similarly, Jim Harrington proposed a Jolly
sixpence club amongst the junior officers of the
107th Infantry. The coins were simply a local coin
used as a "Bona Fides" during a personal meeting to
help verify a person's identity. There would be
specific aspects such as type of coin, date of the
coin, etc. that were examined by each party. This
helped prevent infiltration into the meeting by a
spy who would have to have advance knowledge of the
meeting time and place as well as what coin was to
be presented, amongst other signals, as bona fides.
While a number of legends place the advent of
challenge coins in the post-Korean Conflict era
(some as late as the Vietnam War), or even later,
Colonel William "Buffalo Bill" Quinn had coins made
for those who served in his 17th Infantry Regiment
during 1950 and 1951.
Colonel Verne Green, commander of the 10th Special
Forces Group-A, embraced the idea. He had a special
coin struck with the unit's crest and motto in 1969.
Until the 1980s, his unit was the only unit with an
active challenge coin tradition.
There is another story about an American soldier
scheduled to rendezvous with Philippine guerrillas
during WWII. As the story goes, he carried a
Philippine solid silver coin that was stamped on one
side with the unit insignia. The coin was used to
verify, to the guerrillas, that the soldier was
their valid contact for the mission against the
challenge coin tradition has spread to other
military units, in all branches of service, and even
to non-military organizations as well as the United
States Congress, which produces challenge coins for
members of Congress to give to constituents. Today,
challenge coins are given to members upon joining an
organization, as an award to improve morale, and
sold to commemorate special occasions or as
fundraisers. In the Air Force, military training
instructors award an Airman's coin to new enlisted
personnel upon completion of their United States Air
Force Basic Military Training and to new officers
upon completion of their Air Force Officer Training
In 2008, Leatherneck Magazine gave a 90th
anniversary Leatherneck challenge coin to a select
few readers who sent in letters to their Sound Off
section which the editors particularly liked.
President Bill Clinton displayed several racks of
challenge coins, which had been given to him by U.S.
service members, on the credenza behind his Oval
Office desk. These coins are currently on display at
the Clinton Library. The challenge coins appear in
the background of his official portrait, now hanging
in the White House.
The tradition of a challenge is the most common way
to ensure that members are carrying their unit's
coin. The rules of a challenge are not always
formalized for a unit, and may vary between
organizations. The challenge only applies to those
members that have been given a coin formally by
their unit. This may lead to some controversy when
challenges are initiated between members of
different organizations and is not recommended. The
tradition of the coin challenge is meant to be a
source of morale in a unit, and forcing the
challenge can cause a reverse effect. The act of
challenging is called a 'Coin Check' and is usually
challenge, which can be made at any time, begins
with the challenger drawing his/her coin, and
slapping or placing the coin on the table or bar. In
noisy environments, continuously rapping the
challenge coin on a surface may initiate the
challenge. (Accidentally dropping a challenge coin
is considered to be a deliberate challenge to all
present.) Everyone being challenged must immediately
produce the coin for their organization and anyone
failing to do so must buy a round of drinks for the
challenger and everyone else who has their challenge
coin. However, should everyone challenged be able to
produce their coin, the challenger must buy a round
of drinks for the group.
While most holders of challenge coins usually carry
them in their pockets or in some other readily
accessible place on their persons, most versions of
the rules permit a challenged person "a step and a
reach" or if an individual has an extra coin to pass
it off to the person closest to him or her. Coins on
belt buckles or key chains are not acceptable for
meeting a challenge. However, a coin worn around the
neck is acceptable for meeting a coin challenge.
Variants of the rules include the following but not
limited to. If someone is able to steal a challenge
coin, everyone in the group must buy a drink for
that person. During a challenge, everyone in the
group must buy a drink for the holder of the
highest-ranking coin. A coin presented to a low
rank, by a high rank, (i.e.: Admiral) trumps all low
rank coins in a challenge. Traditionally, the
presentation of a coin is passed during a handshake.
Some units provide strict time limits to respond to
Traditionally, rules of a challenge include a
prohibition against defacing the coin, especially if
it makes it easier to carry at all times. If the
challenge coin is attached to a belt buckle or key
ring, or has had a hole drilled in it to attach to a
lanyard, it no longer qualifies as a challenge coin.
A safer place to carry a coin is in a pouch worn
around the neck.
There are many finishes available – from a simple
pewter to 24K gold. While there are only a few base
metals, the patina (finish) can range from gold,
silver, nickel, brass, copper. bronze plus the
antiqued variations. Soft or hard enamel or a
printed inset with an epoxy coating may add color
(the epoxies are often more resilient and scratch
resistant than the metal surfaces).
Besides using coins for challenging, they are also
used as rewards or awards for outstanding service or
performance of duty. As such they are used as a tool
to build morale. Military officials occasionally
give them to non-military personnel for outstanding
service or rewards, like the case of student
athletes at Northeastern University
In the context as they are used by the modern U.S.
military, the tradition probably began among special
forces units during the Vietnam War. The tradition
spread through the Airborne community, and by the
early 1980s also into the 75th Ranger Regiment. As
officers were reassigned as their careers
progressed, they carried with them the tradition of
awarding a unit coin for acts that were worthy of
recognition, but yet lacked enough merit to submit
the soldiers act for an official medal. Challenge
coins were not very common until the First Persian
Gulf War of 1990–1991, and have steadily grown in
One widely known challenge coin in the United States
Air Force was the "Bull Dog" challenge coin that was
exclusive to B-52 enlisted tail gunners. Since the
B-52 gunner position was phased out in 1991, this
famous challenge coin has become rarer.
This coin was presented to gunners upon graduation
from their Air Force technical training and their
entry into the "Gunners Association". In the earlier
days of bombers, a bean or a nugget was used. The
coin represents the attributes of strength and
courage as reflected in the Bulldog, the gunner's
official mascot. The coin was also given to certain
"honorary gunners", usually commanders and leaders
who portrayed the spirit of the bulldog.
Some collectors buy them for their numismatic value.
Coins given as awards for accomplishments are
normally given to the recipient during a handshake,
passing from the right hand of the giver to the
right hand of the awardee. It is also normal for the
giver to offer a brief explanation of the reason for
awarding the coin.
"Perhaps the largest collection of Army Engineer
related coins exists in a large cabinet in the Army
Engineer Association's (AEA) Engineer Regimental
Store, located in the Engineer Museum at the home of
the Engineer Regiment. These coins were donated by
store customers who have passed through the store
since it opened in the late 1980s."
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