The Fascinating History of Military Challenge Coins

From the coins of ancient Rome to tall tales of execution and espionage, the history of military challenge coins is steeped in intrigue.

Since at least WWI, people use challenge coins as identifying tokens, to boost morale, and to honor memberships, team allegiances, and great deeds. The practice of the urban legend that is the challenge coin game is as vital as the coins themselves. So much so that even civilians are getting in on the act.

Are you interested in delving deeper into the history of challenge coins? Read on to find out why they hold such a special place in the hearts of so many.

All Coins Lead to Rome

It was standard for kings and emperors to mint coins in their name as a symbol of leadership and influence in centuries long gone.

Ancient Rome was among the first civilizations to fervently adopt this practice. Archeologists and even everyday people unearth hoards of Roman coins across Great Britain to this day.

While people used coins for commerce, the government also minted them to pay legionnaires. Roman soldiers were usually mercenaries, and keeping them well-financed kept them loyal to Rome.

In Imperial Rome, there was even a specially assigned military treasury called the aerariummilitare. The first Roman emperor, Augustus, founded the fund, and it housed the pensions–in minted coins–for veterans of the Imperial Roman army.

The coins included an emperor’s figurehead and scenes of military might or famous battles. Some collectors consider them the original military challenge coins.

World War One: The Challenge Coin Is Born

A more familiar and widely documented answer to the question “What are military challenge coins?” comes from WWI (1914-1918).

As the legend goes, a well-to-do military officer had a commemorative set of medallions crafted out of bronze. They were stamped with his flying squadron’s logo and presented to the squad members before their departure for European missions.

One such American fighter pilot was shot down and forced to land in France’s German-occupied territory, where the enemy promptly captured him. However, luck was on his side because the detention center they held him in came under fire from British forces. He used the cover of night, the chaos of the ensuing battle, and some borrowed German civilian clothing to escape.

He managed to flag down a French patrol who suspected he was a German spy from the look of his attire. His German captors had confiscated all of his identifying materials. If there were no way he could prove his identity to the French patrol, they would execute him.

Then, he remembered the military challenge coin he still wore in a leather pouch around his neck. He showed it to the French soldiers, and they recognized the squadron insignia. Famously, instead of executing him, they gave him a bottle of fine French wine.

When the pilot finally made it back to his squadron, the soldiers adopted his story as tradition and vowed to carry their insignia-stamped coin with them everywhere they went.

The Challenge Coin Game

The bottle of wine from military challenge coin history spurred the creation of the challenge coin game, played by American military personnel to this day.

The basic premise of the game is that you challenge another soldier to produce a coin. If they can’t produce one, they have to buy the challenger a drink. If the challenged person does pull out a coin, the challenger has to purchase the alcohol.

Every squadron and unit has its own rules and types of military challenge coins. For some, any old coin will do. For others, only a challenge coin related to the company you’re serving in–for example, inscribed with your squadron’s insignia–is good enough to avoid buying the booze.

Everyone loves a free tipple, so the game–and hence the challenge coin–quickly spread from the US Army to other military branches and even law enforcement and firefighter organizations.

Challenge Coins in Other Wars

Soldiers and officials serving in World War II used Challenge coins as identifying tokens to weed out “Nazi Infiltrators.” During meetings, personnel would present their coins for inspection. Trained inspectors would look for specific unique features, such as the date on the coin and its type.

In the Pacific, soldiers from America, assorted Oceanic nations, and locally recruited mercenaries carried out raids on the invading Japanese forces. American army officers confirmed their identity to allied Philippine guerrilla groups using a particular silver coin. Like its predecessor, this early form of challenge coin was stamped with their unit’s insignia.

One of the rare military challenge coins dates from the Korean War (1950 to 1953): that of the 17th Infantry of Korea, commanded by Colonel “Buffalo Bill” Quinn.

On one side, these unique coins feature an image of a buffalo and the date 1812. On the other, the 17th Infantry patch, the dates 1950 to 1951, and the word “Korea.” Officials presented them to every member that served in the 17th Infantry between the dates above.

Today, this coin is highly sought after by collectors. Because only a few were ever made, they’re hard to come by and are primarily held in private collections. Also, because they’re very rare, selling collectibles like these coins can yield a tremendous amount of profit.

Modern History of Challenge Coins

In contemporary times, challenge coins are more popular than ever. The military uses them, and now they’re also being adopted by other types of organizations.

The Boy Scouts of America, Harley Davidson riding clubs, and even financial institutions create challenge coins to celebrate specific milestones and events. Challenge coins are also popular with sports organizations like the PGA, NBL, NFL, and Major League Baseball. They use them to commemorate successful games or matches for staff, spectators, and players alike.

The most famous challenge coins of our times are the commander’s coin minted by every POTUS since President Bill Clinton. They present these unique coins to White House guests, diplomats, and foreign officials or use them to mark historic occasions like the 100th anniversary of WWI.

History of Military Challenge Coins Revealed

So there you have it, the entire history of military challenge coins laid bare. Does the explanation match up to the yarns you’ve heard spun? We’ll let you be the judge of that as you start a challenge coin collection of your own.

Are you interested in more history about popular collectibles and memorabilia? Take some time to browse the other articles on our blog.