All About Commander Coins

All About Commander Coins

Commander coins are especially prized by the military men and women who receive them.

Challenge coins originated in the military, and have long been a part of military life. In recent years, they’ve also moved into the civilian world through corporations, clubs, schools and nonprofit organization. But one particular style of challenge coin, the commander coin, remains a military staple.

What makes commander coins different from standard challenge coins? Although many people use the terms interchangeably, there is a distinction to be made. There are a few important differences with commander coins. Before we get into that distinction, let’s consider some challenge coin basics.

What’s a Challenge Coin?

A challenge coin is a custom designed coin presented to someone to acknowledge membership in an organization or a group. In the military, challenge coins may indicate membership in a particular squad, unit or specialty. They also can be given for achievement, valor or accomplishing a specific mission. This is particularly true of commander coins.

Crafted of metal, each challenge coin features a unique design that belongs to the group a particular design represents. That’s usually the logo or emblem of the unit or group serving together. 

While challenge coins have been a military staple for decades, there’s no one story about how they originated. The most popular legend attributes them to a wealthy lieutenant who first had them made for his Army Air Corps squad during World War I. 

When one of the squad’s pilots was shot down in enemy territory, he was stripped of all his identification except for the coin he wore in a pouch around his neck. The pilot was able to escape and make his way to a French unit, where the coin identified him as an American, saving him from execution as a suspected spy. From then on, all members of the unit carried their coins with them at all times, a tradition that eventually expanded to other military branches.

Most commonly round, challenge coins actually can be crafted in virtually any custom shape, including ships, helicopters and more.

What’s a Commander Coin?

As we noted earlier, some use the terms commander coins and challenge coins interchangeably. There are a few differences, such as the fact that commander coins are most often round rather than custom shaped. Also, challenge coins are common in organizations outside the military as well. Commander coins are specifically for military members.

Within the military, the most important factor is who presents the coin. Essentially anyone can present a challenge coin. Units can order their own coins with their own custom insignia or design. A commander coin, on the other hand, is one that is presented, often at a formal ceremony, by a unit leader or ranking officer. As such, a true commander coin carries more prestige than a simple challenge coin.

Commander coins can be presented to an individual or an entire unit, depending on the accomplishment being recognized.

Characteristics of Commander Coins

Round custom coin representing the 53rd Test Support Squadron Commander

Commander coins are custom-designed, but they do tend to share certain features. Examples include: 

  • Commander's Insignia or Unit Emblems: These coins typically include the insignia, emblem, or logo of a specific commander, office, or military unit. This insignia is usually the central focus feature of the coin design.

  • Rank and Office Details:  Commander coins can include specific information about the commanding officer, including rank, name and office they hold. 

  • Personalization:  Commander coins can be personalized to honor a specific event, mission, or achievement directly related to the commander or unit. The coins can be personalized with specific dates, mission names, and other relevant details.

  • Limited Distribution:  Commander coins tend to be distributed in a more limited fashion than other challenge coins. A commander might present them to recognize outstanding performance or service, or as a  symbol of appreciation within the unit. This makes them especially desirable. 

  • Ceremonial Significance:  Commander coins are often presented at special formal ceremonies or events. Such events offer public recognition to honor service members who have made specific contributions or achieved certain goals or objectives.

The Meaning of Commander Coins

Each commander coin holds special meaning to those who receive them. A first sergeant at Hurlburt Field in Florida described it this way in an Air Force feature article:

“Commanders from all levels present Airmen with coins, but the intent and purpose behind it is to recognize those who have gone above and beyond and performed an excellent service or act,” said Master Sgt. Charles Mann. It's their way of saying 'Thank you, congratulations; I appreciate what you've done. Here's my coin.' And that means a lot coming from someone higher ranking." 

Round challenge coin representing 366th Maintenance Group Commander

A Personal Touch Adds Extra Meaning

The way commander coins are paid for can make them extra meaningful. Military regulations limit the use of government funds to specific types of coins for specific events and purposes. For any coins that fall outside those limitations, commanders must spend their own money. The willingness to do that shows a particular admiration for the recipient and gives the coin added meaning and sentimental value.

The Ultimate Commander Coins – Presidential Challenge Coins

When it comes to commander coins, there’s one that stands above all others – a custom coin from the Commander in Chief. The ultimate challenge coin is presented to the recipient by the President of the United States. 

President Bill Clinton began the tradition of presidential challenge coins in the 1990s. Since then, every succeeding president has had their own presidential coin designed, which they can present at their discretion.

It’s a rare honor, customarily presented via a handshake between the president and the recipient. To receive a presidential challenge coin is a truly extraordinary accomplishment, won by a select few.

As will all military challenge coins, commander coins are much more than just a simple “thank you.” They are a tangible example of the dedication, sacrifice and hard work of the recipients, by their commanding officers. They are a time-tested way to honor the service of the men and women whose job it is to keep us free.

At, we’ve had the honor of producing commander coins for every branch of the U.S. Armed Forces. We’re ready to serve all your custom challenge coin and commander coin needs. Call or email us today to find out more.



Rick Cundiff

Rick Cundiff

Content Director, Blogger

Rick Cundiff spent 15 years as a newspaper journalist before joining TJM Promos. He has been researching and writing about custom challenge coins and other promotional products for more than 10 years. He believes in the Oxford comma, eradicating the word "utilize," and Santa Claus.