There are many traditions in today’s Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, and Marine Corps that have easily traceable origins or have a backstory that is commonly accepted.
One example is the tradition of the military salute, which does not have a specific event or date to establish when the salute was adopted. But in military basic training manuals printed in times past, an old story about medieval knights raising their sword hand in the air to prove peaceful intent when approaching a stranger is accepted as the origin story of the salute.
Not all such traditions are as easily explained. The tradition of the challenge coin is one; there is much good-natured disagreement about how the practice got started.
But the challenge coin has become one of those parts of military life that few outsiders are witness to (for no specific reason-it’s no secret) but has an important place where team unity, camaraderie, and esprit de corps are concerned.
The coins are not “officially sanctioned” and their use is not required by the DoD, but as a tradition the use of such coins persists and will continue to do so.
What Is A Challenge Coin?
Physically speaking, what is a challenge coin? Military challenge coins are not uniformly designed, but most of them are roughly silver dollar-sized and usually have a design or a crest, and often have a saying around the perimeter of the coin.
Military challenge coins don’t always come uniformly round, either; some may come in the shape of dog tags, some may be uniquely shaped to match a unit insignia, and others may look like shields, arrowheads, etc.
Military challenge coins are manufactured by third parties-the Department of Defense does not have anything to do with the manufacture, design, or distribution of challenge coins, though organizations at the DoD level may have their own challenge coin just like other individual commands all over the world.
Commemorative, But Not Currency
Challenge coins are not considered currency-designing, printing, and distributing challenge coins works in a similar fashion to company t-shirts that you might find at a trade show-an individual unit or command designs and pays to have the coin manufactured-often out of “soda fund” or unit or organizational fundraising activities.
How Is A Challenge Coin Is Used
There are definite uses for a challenge coin, but if you ask a unit commander or anyone else in a position of military authority, you may learn that team building and morale are the primary motivations for carrying on the tradition. Why?
Because challenge coins aren’t just handed out to everyone in the unit. They are used as incentives and recognition for hard work. It’s not that people in the military specifically compete for them, but the coins are a kind of gesture that publicly recognizes the recipient of the coin in an informal or semi-formal way depending on the presentation.
Coins are often presented during unit musters, during the initial base tour of a new commander, during deployments or after military exercises, etc. Some prefer to pass on a challenge coin like a “secret handshake” so that the recipient doesn’t see it coming. Others may choose to make a more visible and public moment.
Depending on how you learn about the tradition of the challenge coin, you might think the tradition has mostly to do with socializing; the most common “use” of these coins in contemporary military circles involves a night on the town with a group of military members who may or may not be in the same organization.
If one of the group presents a coin, the member of the group who doesn’t have theirs with them has to buy the next round or pay the tab. If all members of the group have their coins, the challenger has to pay.
One Coin Or Many?
Generally speaking, the tradition does not require a military member to own only one coin to the exclusion of all others, but the coin representing the member’s current organization is the one most likely to be on display when the moment arises.
Such challenges can be issued and answered at any time, and those who have coins are urged to be ready.
This is the basis of the “challenge” of challenge coins, though according to some accounts of history, the challenge has been used with far higher stakes-we’ll explore that below.
The Challenge Coin Origin Story
Sadly, there is no one accepted story that explains the origins of military challenge coins. The practice may extend all the way to ancient Rome, where it was standard practice to award a bonus with the usual day’s pay for those who excelled.
The bonus came in the form of a specially minted coin that was technically currency but was (as the story goes) often kept as a memento.
The Earliest Challenge Coin?
From World War One, there is a challenge coin origin story that may or may not have basis in fact; An early version of the contemporary challenge coin saved a pilot’s life after escaping the Germans during World War One. The pilot escaped to France where he was arrested as a spy and led to execution.
But before the execution could take place, the pilot convinced his captors to look at the one item he managed to hang on to after German troops had confiscated all his other possessions upon capture. That item was a bronze coin featuring the logo of the pilot’s flying unit- created and distributed to the crews by a well-to-do officer.
The pilot’s identity was verified thanks to the coin, and he was not executed.
There are similar stories, none of which have the definitive origin; the use of coins became quite popular thanks in part to some who served during the Vietnam War era. The Department of Defense official site includes a tale of a Special Forces member who is said to have taken old coins and had them re-stamped with unit emblems.
According to a quote on the site by a representative of the Kennedy Special Warfare Museum in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, “A former commander of the 10th SFG picked up on the idea, becoming the first to mint a unit coin for the U.S. military unit.”
According to that narrative, 10th Group would be considered “the only Army unit with its own coin until the mid-1980s” when a challenge coin “explosion” occurred and the popularity of the practice drastically increased.
Where To Buy Challenge Coins
If you want to know where to purchase an individual challenge coin, the first thing you’ll learn is that if you wish to participate in the military tradition, you must (by tradition) wait until the coin is presented to you.
That is considered the “legit” way to participate in the practice. It’s a bit like the wear of military medals. It is true that anyone can purchase a Purple Heart or a replica of a Purple Heart and pin it to a piece of clothing.
But if you didn’t earn the medal, the wearing of the Purple Heart is a hollow gesture. Purchasing a challenge coin is more or less the same thing. You can find many third parties selling individual coins online including on Amazon.com, eBay, etc. Some need replacement coins after they have been lost, others may wish to include a replica of their originally issued coins for display in a shadow box, retirement gift, etc. There’s no shame in replacing the coins you have earned or buying them in a similar manner for a colleague.
However, if you are in need of a source of coins for your organization and wish to make a purchase in bulk, there are many third parties, local printing shops, and even overseas vendors in South Korea and elsewhere who can offer group discounts, work with you on future orders, etc. It’s best to comparison shop and ask other units or organizations who has given good customer service in the past.
You can always contact another unit on base–contact an orderly room, First Sergeant, Senior Chief, or Command Sergeant Major to get information on where those organizations obtain their coins and which shops to avoid where applicable.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News
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