Modern Challenge Coin History

The Full History of Modern Challenge Coins

Jesse Daugherty

Jesse Daugherty

The Full History of Modern Challenge Coins
Photo by: Justin Cron @ Unsplash

The history of challenge coins can be traced all the way back to ancient times. However, the modern challenge coins that we know and love go back about a hundred years. What started as a military tradition has expanded further than many would have ever imagined. These days challenge coins are still used by the military, but they are also being used by businesses, brands, and companies of all sorts, and for many of the same reasons. Challenge coins are used as a way to reward excellent service; however, they can also be used to honor notable achievements such as promotions. 

Outside of the military, custom challenge coins have become popular for firefighters and police officers, even non-profits and other organizations who are looking to spread their message in innovative ways. Challenge coins have many uses, but today we take a deeper dive into the history of modern challenge coins. Let's take a look back!

It all started way back in ancient Rome. Roman soldiers were paid for performing well in battle. Not only would they receive the day's pay, but soldiers would also receive a separate coin as a bonus. Historians believe that these coins were decorated with the mark of the legion it originated from. These special "bonus" coins soon became keepsakes that Roman soldiers could carry as a memento of their hard work and dedication. 

Since those ancient times, challenge coins have remained part of military tradition, though, like the times, their purpose and design have changed. Fast forward through time and enter into the early 1900s. World War I was shaping up, and the world was on edge. World War I marked the first appearance of modern challenge coins as we know them. As folks joined the war in Europe, the legend of the challenge coin was about to be born. 

During World War I, volunteers from around the country joined squadrons and headed into the war zone. Many of these volunteers were well-to-do students who decided to leave school and fight for their country. As legend has it, in one squadron, a wealthy lieutenant made solid bronze medallions that featured the squadron emblem. Each of these medallions was handed out to each member of his crew while he kept one for himself, wearing it in a small leather pouch around his neck. 

As the story goes, the lieutenant’s aircraft was damaged during a mission in Germany, where he was forced to land behind enemy lines. He was subsequently captured by German forces, who took all of his personal belongings, except for the leather pouch around his neck. The lieutenant was imprisoned in France, where he escaped and snuck back across the front lines and into Allied territory. 

He was eventually discovered by French soldiers who didn't recognize his accent. Due in part to the lack of identification, the French soldiers assumed he was a German spy. In an attempt to save himself from execution, the lieutenant showed the medallion contained in his leather pouch. The French soldiers immediately recognized the squadron emblem, providing the lieutenant with time to prove his identity before being returned to his squadron. He then made it a point, and tradition, to make sure that all members of his squad had a special coin on hand for similar situations. 

Challenge coins grew in popularity during World War II. Historians have suggested that the Office of Strategic Service used coins as a way to identify personnel deployed behind enemy lines. These coins were local coins that were shown during meetings to verify a person’s identity. Anyone who wanted to attend the meeting would need to know the time and place of the meeting and the special coin that was agreed upon. After World War II, challenge coins became more popular among all ranks. 

During the Vietnam War, soldiers kept a piece of “lucky” artillery with them. This piece of ordnance would then make an appearance at the bar. You had to have your artillery, or else you would have to buy the next round. This practice led to the "challenge” part of the challenge coin tradition. The practice of carrying around ordnance was eventually prohibited, giving challenge coins their rightful place in military history. 

These days, military units around the world design custom challenge coins that hold significance to the unit. These challenge coins often include a battalion logo, company mascot, or other special details that have meaning. The coins are handed out to soldiers as a way to build camaraderie, though they are also used as recognition of accomplishments, promotions, and other achievements. For example, the U.S. Air Force awards a special airman’s coin once recruits graduate from USAF Basic Military Training or Officer Training School. 

Challenge coins have grown outside of the military as well. They have become a tradition for firefighters, police officers, and first responders, used in many of the same ways in the military. Challenge coins represent courage and bravery, and they have become an ideal way to recognize those who risk their lives for the safety of others. In fact, they are even becoming increasingly popular among businesses, companies, and organizations outside of the military. 

Here at ChallengeCoins4Less.com, we understand the significance of challenge coins and what they have to offer. Military challenge coins are among our most beloved products, and we take pride in producing them. Our staff includes military veterans, so we know the importance of getting military coins right. These coins represent a service to the nation and are an honor to the men and women with whom you served. With more than fifteen years of experience and a dedicated team of talented artists and designers, we're experts in crafting the best military challenge coins on the market. We have supplied custom challenge coins to every branch of the U.S. Armed Forces, and we look forward to producing many more great custom coins in the future. 

We take pride in what we do, and we make ordering easy. No matter what shape or size, our staff will turn your idea into an outstanding military challenge coin that will be cherished for years to come. We never charge for artwork or revisions, and we back up everything we sell with our 100% Satisfaction Guarantee. 

Are you ready to get started with your order? Simply fill out our free quote form or email us. We’d be honored to work with you!