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Tracing Origins: The Fascinating History of Challenge Coins

Challenge coins are a longstanding staple of the US military. They’re awarded to only the best of soldiers for going above and beyond the call of duty. If you ever see someone with a challenge coin, you should show them the utmost respect and honor.

But why? If you’ve ever wondered about the history of challenge coins, look no further.

Challenge Coins

Challenge coins are intricately designed 1 1/2 to 2-inch coins. They’re often made of iron, zinc, or brass, and finished with pewter or gold. The coins are designed with images and words representative of the awardee’s achievement.

Among the most valuable challenge coins is the commanders coin. These coins are only given to soldiers after achieving commander rank. A commander’s coin is the ultimate way to recognize a war hero.

Challenge coins have been awarded to soldiers going all the way back to ancient Rome. While the true origin of challenge coins is a little murky, what we do know is a fascinating look back in history.

The Ancient History of Challenge Coins

The earliest example of challenge coins dates back to the Roman Empire. 

Soldiers were awarded challenge coins after great military achievements. The coins were much simpler back then, often adorned with a portrait of the recipient. This tradition carried on into the Renaissance period.

During the renaissance, challenge coins were mainly given to royalty. They were awarded following monumental life events. Similarly, the coins featured a portrait of the royal member on one side, and a symbol on the other.

It was World War I that really defined the challenge coin, though.

The Pilot & the Challenge Coin

The most popular challenge coin story goes back to a specific WWI squadron.

Every member of this squadron was given a challenge coin by their wealthy lieutenant. It was a sign of solidarity, and a way to know who was part of the squad and who wasn’t. One pilot in the squad chose to wear his in a pouch around his neck. 

The pilot’s plane was shot down shortly after, and he was captured by Germans. They took everything from him but the pouch holding his coin. The Germans held the pilot captive in a small town in France.

One night during a bombardment, the pilot escaped capture disguised as a German. He made his way across no man’s land to a French outpost outside of the town. But the villagers weren’t keen to accept him.

The villagers thought he was a saboteur, and he had no way to prove them wrong without ID. They set an execution date for the pilot. Things looked grim.

Then the pilot had an idea. He showed them his challenge coin. One of the villagers recognized the symbols on it, and got the execution delayed.

They gave the pilot a bottle of wine and time to ID himself. He eventually did so, and returned to his squadron. From then on, every member of the squadron kept their coin on them at all times.

Getting Challenged

A sort of game arose after the soldier’s return. The rules were simple.

One member of the squad would challenge another by asking if they could present their coin. If they could not, they had to buy the challenger a drink of choice. If they could show their coin, then the challenger had to buy the drink.

This encouraged each soldier to keep their coin on them at all times. Eventually, challenge coins became a way to determine if someone on a squadron was a spy.

Each coin would be made with specific identifying numbers and symbols. If a coin was shown that didn’t match, the person was likely a spy. It’s not quite clear when this tradition started, though.

Challenge coins are still awarded to members of the military today. They’re more intricate than ever, and a lot more varied. They’ve even managed to find life outside of the US army.

The New Age of Challenge Coins

United States Presidents began awarding challenge coins in the 1990s. They would personally give them to members of government upon achievements. These include military personnel, police, and even scientists.

President Trump received a challenge coin featuring the words “Make America Great Again“. Obama left challenge coins on the graves of fallen soldiers during his presidency. Bill Clinton had a collection of coins himself, which he earned while in the military.

Challenge coins aren’t just relegated to the military and government officials, though. Custom challenge coins are made by industries across the board. From the NFL to the Eagle Scouts, challenge coins are made to represent all sorts of achievements.

Some people are into challenge coins as collector’s pieces. They seek out rare old coins, as well as novelty limited edition ones. These might feature pop culture icons, sports teams, or organization logos.

The Harley Owners Group made challenge coins for riders of their motorcycles. The brass, antique-looking coin is stamped with a Harley eagle and the words “the official riding club of Harley-Davidson”.

A lot of film producers also have challenge coins made. The executive producer of The Big Bang Theory gave challenge coins to the space shuttle crew. Breaking Bad crew members were all given challenge coins after wrapping the show.

Now more than ever, the challenge coin is a symbol of growth and success in a given industry. Its expansion beyond the military shows just how much these coins mean to people. Challenge coins really are the ultimate symbol of achievement.

Long Live Challenge Coins

If the history of challenge coins teaches us anything, it’s the meaning of admiration.

There’s no better feeling than getting a challenge coin in your field of expertise. If you’ve ever been awarded a challenge coin, take pride in it. You don’t have to wear it in a pouch around your neck, but who could blame you if you did?


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