The Definition: What is a Challenge Coin?

The Definition: What is a Challenge Coin?

Do you know what a challenge coin is? Do you know what they stand for? If not, we've got a little history lesson for you. Here you can learn all...

Do you know what a challenge coin is? Do you know what they stand for? If not, we've got a little history lesson for you. Here you can learn all of the myths and legends of the challenge coin.

What is a Challenge Coin?
Are you now asking yourself, "What is a challenge coin?" Challenge coins are one of the fascinating traditions of the military. While their origins are shrouded in mystery, they have become a prized possession of soldiers throughout history.

So what is a challenge coin exactly? It is a coin-sized medallion presented to a soldier to signify some aspect of his or her membership in their chosen branch of the military. These coins are also given to a soldier to commemorate special services or promotions. The initial purpose of challenge coins was a show of unity and to inspire pride in the enlisted personnel.

In the beginning, they were stamped on the back of actual coins, but as the years progressed, challenge coins have become an entity unto themselves.

Each branch of the military has its own special challenge coins, often issuing unique coins for outstanding performance or having survived a particularly difficult battle.

What is the History of the Challenge Coins?
As we mentioned above, the history of the challenge coins is shrouded in mystery. The first issued coins were non-sanctioned, though a plethora of stories have been passed down for generations. The first mention of coins dates back to the Roman empire, but the most modern story originates from WWI.

The oldest story states that an Army Air Corps lieutenant had coins created for his entire unit. Shortly after that, one of the members of the unit was shot down and captured by German forces. They stripped him of his possessions, including any ID he was carrying, with the exception of a leather pouch he wore around his neck. This was where he wore his unit’s challenge coin. After using a bombing attack to cover his escape, he came to a French village where he was mistaken for a German spy, subject to execution. He was unable to produce any identification, opting to present his coin instead. One of the men recognized it, and the lieutenant was saved. Upon his return, he told his tale and helped inspire the tradition of keeping the coins handy.

The Challenge Behind the Challenge Coin!
It's no secret that deployed service personnel have to blow off steam the best way they can. The challenge aspect of the challenge coin started in a unique fashion.

The tradition begins with soldiers keeping a bullet or piece of shrapnel from a battle they survived. The bullets were then thrown down on a bar as a challenge to all present to see who had the biggest memento and story, the loser then buying a round of drinks for those involved.

In the interest of ending the tradition of slamming live ammo on bars, the special forces began issuing the challenge coins.

What are Challenge Coins Used for Today?
Challenge coins are still used today in the time-honored tradition of buying a round of drinks. The soldier initiating the challenge will call for a coin check, holding up their own coin. Anyone found without their coin has to buy the round.

However, if everyone produces a coin, the person who issued the challenge better have more coins than just their challenge coin, they are buying. Presidents are now having these coins made to commemorate their term in office. At times, they will present these coins to a soldier who has shown bravery, loyalty, or service to the United States.

It is highly likely that any uniformed soldier you see is carrying his or her coin closely and proudly, as many retirees do as well.

The Secret Challenge Coin Handshake
Perhaps the most coveted challenge coin is the one presented in secrecy. This coin is, no matter how many onlookers, presented very privately.

President George W. Bush was known to pass a coin to a wounded soldier returning home. While done in sight, the only ones who know that the deed was actually done are the giver and the receiver. These days, challenge coins are not an exclusive military symbol.

Law enforcement and firefighters use them as a symbol bravery and commemoration.

Challenge Coins are a Challenge Worthy of Pursuit
There are many collectors of challenge coins. Make no mistake; each coin struck tells a tale. The coins tell tales of bravery, surviving in the face of danger, and serving the country.

Challenge coins inspired pride of self and country, also aiding in a round or two as well. Collectors appreciate these mementos and all they stand for. The symbolism is tangible in each one, surviving quite a purpose in the process. 

Jesse Daugherty

Jesse Daugherty


Hello, I'm Jesse Daugherty, a music enthusiast, sports aficionado, and an avid supporter of the arts. I'm a writer and content creator. For the past 5 years, I've shared my knowledge of custom challenge coins and other promotional products, exploring their designs, meaning, and purpose.