Quick Guide to Challenge Coins

4 min read

1. Learn about challenge coins and their history

A man walks into a bar in Saigon…and pulls out a strange coin, which he taps on the bar to get the attention of everyone around him. “Coin check!” he yelled.

Immediately several people in the room pulled similar coins from their pockets. One pats himself on the back for looking for his drink, then shyly tells the bartender that the next round is on him when he can’t find it.

This is an example of a now uncommon “challenge”, known as a challenge coin. It’s a military tradition that has grown tremendously since its inception, and Challenge Coins are now available to everyone from orchestras to presidents. But the origin of this coin is the US military.

2. The mysterious origin of the challenge coin

Challenge coins are now so common that they are issued by civilian organizations, but while there are many stories about where they came from, it is clear that they are military.

These small medals can be pocketed as a status symbol. They are not an officially recognized part of the U.S. military, but they are one of the most common traditions. Although they are called “coins”, it is often possible to use tokens or medals instead of actual coins as the actual host “coins”. Historically, some believe the idea for challenge coins came from the Roman legions who conquered most of the “known world” centuries ago. Legion commanders would give captured coins to soldiers as a token of appreciation for their bravery in battle. These coins are often spent. Later, special symbols would be printed on coins to identify members who served in the same platoon or division or who participated in a particular battle or campaign. Some say the origin stems from World War I, when a lieutenant commissioned copper coins for his troops. A fighter pilot is captured and escapes, and when he reaches a French outpost they think he’s a spy. Before he was shot, he showed them the coin, which he carried around his neck in a pouch that had been left untouched when the Germans stripped him of his identification. The coin saved his life.

Some historians believe it came from a Vietnamese bar that used enemy bullets or challenge coins as entry codes. Some trace it back to the 11th Special Forces Group in the 1960s, where a member stamped an insignia on an old coin and gifted it to other members of the unit. Others trace it to the Boer War. There are some units, including the Tenth Special Forces Group, that have their own coinage traditions. Nonetheless, it is widely believed that the challenge coin tradition took on a life of its own in the US military in the mid-1980s. It went from being a niche tradition to something that almost every unit is involved in today. Today, due to low cost and rapid production methods,

The coin itself has several meanings throughout its life, including local coins of a particular type and denomination that may be used for identification. But the general form today is a small medallion bearing the emblem of the person or organization that issued it and presented it.

3. How to use challenge coins

There are many variations on the basic challenge, but they usually revolve around buying a round of drinks. When someone pulls out a coin and initiates a coin check or challenge, everyone present must either pull out their challenge coin or buy a round of drinks.

The tradition is less common than it used to be, and it’s often loose enough not to stick to a drink if it’s cited today. Today, challenge coins are often used for display, and some are not even in coin form. Coins are traditionally passed from the giver to the recipient with a handshake. The recipient does not look down at the coin. Instead, they make direct eye contact with the person handing them.

Older challenge traditions are not as common as they used to be. While challenge ceremonies vary from unit to unit in the military, many coins are now simply displayed or collected.

Military personnel (especially field rank officers) often give out personal challenge coins. This goes up to the highest level. Congress has challenge coins, and so does the president. Civil society organizations also mint their own coins. Iron Man 2 director Jon Favreau honored the tradition by presenting custom challenge tokens to service members at Edwards Air Force Base, which helped create the film, and himself at the During the filming, I also won challenge coins many times.

4. Collect Challenge Coins

Most modern military members collect a small number of challenge coins during their military service. Some people collect them. This condition is more common among active duty and retired military members than among the general public. Nonetheless, collectors of Exonumia (tokens and medals) may be interested in challenge coins to round out their selection.

Challenge coins are still more common among the military than civilians, but that may change as collectors learn about this unique tradition. For any information on coins, including Exonumia, follow APMEX. We’ll help you find the unique and interesting coins you’re looking for.

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