How Did Challenge Coins Start?

Some of the first known stories go back to the Roman Empire, when soldiers were given coins to honor significant achievements. During the Renaissance Age, nobles had “Portrait Medals” made with their family crest on one side and the image of a patron on the other side. However, there is a lot more to the history of challenge coins.

Military Tradition

Today, one of the most popular military traditions is the distribution of a challenge coin to show affiliation with a soldier’s unit or to acknowledge an achievement. Non-military groups have also adopted a similar concept to honor an outstanding employee, for example. There is no known time period when coins were first used in the military as challenge coins, but the topic has been widely debated and there are several popular stories throughout history where coins have been used to recognize achievements and denote military affiliation.

The Origins of the Challenge Coin

At the beginning of WWI, many Americans dropped out of prestigious universities to join the war effort. One wealthy lieutenant ordered medallions struck in solid bronze for his unit and carried his in a leather pouch around his neck. On one of his first missions his aircraft was taken down by German soldiers, who took all of his personal belongings, except his leather pouch. He was taken to a small French town near the front lines and escaped during a night bombardment. He concealed his identity with civilian attire and made his way to a French outpost before he was re-captured by enemy soldiers suspicious of his accent. The lieutenant presented the leather pouch with this medallion to his captors, buying himself the time to prove his identity and escape execution. He was then presented with a bottle of wine! The lieutenant’s squadron later required all members to carry their medallion or coin, and anyone who did not carry it were required to buy a drink for whomever asked to see it.

Challenge coins were used by Office of Strategic Service personnel who were deployed in Nazi held France during WWII. Similarly, Jim Harrington proposed what he called a Jolly sixpence club among the junior officers of the 107th Infantry. These coins were simply a local coin used as “bona fides” during a personal meeting to help verify a person’s identity. To prevent infiltration by spies, members’ coins needed to be a certain type and display the coin date before members could be admitted.

Other legends suggest the use of challenge coins originating after the Korea or Vietnam wars. Colonel William “Buffalo Bill” Quinn, of the 17th Infantry Regiment had custom challenge coins made for his fellow soldiers in the 1950s. Colonel Verne Green, commander of the 10th Special Forces Group-A, embraced the idea in 1969. He had a special challenge coin struck with the unit’s crest and motto. Until the 1980s, the 10th Special Forces Group-A was the only unit with an active challenge coin tradition. There is another WWII story about an American soldier that used a custom a Philippine solid silver coin stamped on one side with the unit insignia to rendezvous with Philippine guerrillas. The coin was used to assure guerrillas that the soldier was their valid contact for missions against the Japanese.

Over the past few decades the military challenge coin tradition has spread to every branch of service, and even to non-military organizations, corporations, dignitaries and events. Currently, challenge coins are given to military members upon joining a unit, as an award, and are sometimes sold to commemorate a special occasion or as a fundraiser. Regardless of how challenge coins started, the core tradition has led to a great bond among service men and women and their supporters.

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