For the United States military, and all of the branches, custom challenge coins have been a staple for decades. Legend has it that these challenge coins date back more than 100 years, to the Army Air Service in World War I. Since then they have remained a treasured part of military life.
The apocryphal origin story has it that a wealthy lieutenant had custom coins struck for all the members of his squad. A member of his squad was shot down and captured behind enemy lines.
However, the intrepid airman escaped and made his way to French-occupied territory. He still faced mortal danger, having been stripped of his identification by his captors, and unable to speak French, he was considered a German spy.
As French troops prepared to execute him, he was able to produce the coin. Upon realizing he was an ally, the French troops returned him safely to his squad. Thus the legend of the military challenge coin began.
Military coins became icons of Army service, and later of other branches of the U.S. military. With substantial lore behind them, these coins are more popular than ever. From the Pentagon to the newest recruit, custom challenge coins are a beloved part of Army life.
With several specific traditions behind them, these coins are a well-established aspect of military lore. Tradition holds that those who possess a challenge coin must keep it within one and a half steps of their reach at all times, no exceptions.
When held to the strictest requirements, that includes while showering. If you're more than a step and a half from your coin, you lose, and the next round at the bar is on you. A challenger can issue a challenge to other members of the group to show their coins at any time. The person who is unable to produce a coin when challenged to do so buys the next round of drinks.
Military coins are typically designed for specific units, squads, teams or for missions. Whether in Germany, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, or anywhere else in the world, they often increase unit cohesiveness and camaraderie.
These coins serve as a means to bond with fellow soldiers. In recent years the Army has introduced challenge coins for new recruits as well. These coins are meant to reinforce seven Army core values: Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity, and Personal Courage.
From their Army origins, challenge coins have extended to all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces. Public safety agencies such as fire and police departments and emergency medical services have created their own tradition as well.
In fact, military coins have become such an established part of pop culture that they’re now frequently shown on television and in movies as well.
Even private organizations, including clubs and businesses, have introduced their own custom challenge coins too.
The humble coins have come a long way from their origins a century ago. From War I to the present, they hold an honored place in military tradition.