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A 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 organization.
There are several stories detailing the origins of the challenge coin.
The Roman Empire rewarded soldiers by presenting them with coins to recognize
Challenge coins were also known as "Portrait Medals" during the Renaissance, and
were often used to commemorate specific events involving royalty, nobility, or
other types of well-to-do individuals. The medals would be given as gifts or
awards, and people also exchanged them with friends and associates. The most
common format was for one side to depict the patron while the other showed
something that represented that individual's family, house, lineage, and/or seal.
According to the most common story, challenge coins originated during World War
I. Before the entry of the United States into the war in 1917 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.
In 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 pilot's
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.
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 all times. 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 throughout the war and for many years after the war while surviving
members of the squadron were still alive.
According 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 Japanese.
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 the Air Force
Officer Training School.
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
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.
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
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.
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 loudly
The 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 them. 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, but are not limited to, the following: 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[clarification needed] 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 a challenge.
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.