There are many traditions that build camaraderie and boost morale in the military, but few are as well-known and as respected as carrying a challenge coin that signifies your unit or battalion. And you had better have your coin on you when challenged by your comrades, or you will be buying everyone’s drinks! But how did this tradition begin?
The most accepted story asserts that military challenge coins started in World War I, when a wealthy officer handed out bronze medallions struck with the flying squadron’s insignia to his pilots. Shortly after, one of the pilots was shot down and captured over Germany. The Germans took all of his identification and possessions except for the leather pouch he wore around his neck that contained his medallion. The pilot managed to escape and headed towards France, but the French thought him to be a spy and he was sentenced to execution. He attempted to prove his identification by presenting the coin with his unit’s crest, and a French soldier happened to recognize the insignia. After returning to his squadron, it became tradition to ensure that all members carried their coins at all times.
“Challenging” became the most common way to make sure that all personnel are carrying their unit’s coins. A challenger draws his/her coin, and slaps it on the table or bar. Everyone being challenged must immediately produce their own coin and anyone failing to do so must buy a round of drinks for the challenger and the group. However, should everyone produce their coin, the challenger must then buy the drinks for the group. Traditionally it is against the rules to deface the coin to make it easier to carry, such as drilling a hole to be worn around the neck, or attaching to a belt buckle or key ring.
Whether used for identification, unit pride, or to ensure your free bar tab, giving out military challenge coins is a long-standing practice that is sure to endure.