The military, civilian organizations, and private companies alike use challenge coins to commemorate or identify members or events. These coins typicall range in size from 1.5 to 3 inches, with a variety of shapes and colors, and are typically made in gold, silver, nickel, copper, or brass. Modern uses of custom made challenge coins range from acknowledgment and comradery to an incredibly memorable business card. Coin traditions range back to the Turkish Lydian Lion, considered the oldest known coin, and the Roman empire.
Coins for Roman Legionaries
While perhaps not the oldest, the Republic of Rome was certainly an early adopter of coins. Initially, Roman coins were small and bronze, and experienced phases of diminishing and increasing value. The use of coins developed into the new Roman coinage system introduced in 211 BCE. The coin currency system continued to diversify in material and origin, and spread in circulation with the movement of troops. In fact, Roman mints often traveled along with the army. Minting rights were given to generals from the senate in order to pay the troops while traveling, according to the article “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Denarius.”
Various online sources mention enlisted soldiers of ancient Rome being gifted a specialty coin in addition to their daily pay, to acknowledge performance or service in battle. While there is no documentary proof of this theory, it is not unreasonable to think, as the generals had access to printing specialty coins. Specialized military coins were printed by Mark Anthony bearing the name of the particular legions they were destined for. Coins often varied in design and print throughout Roman coinage history.
Pisanello, the inventor of the commemorative portrait medal and celebrated master painter, revived commemorative coins. These portrait medals conveyed the skill of an artist and carried portraits or intricate decoration that celebrated an individual and their qualities, power, accomplishment, family status, beliefs, or significant life events. They followed the cultural humanism movement of the Renaissance, as well as the revived classic and ancient forms of perpetuating an individual, much like the emperors of ancient Rome.
Military Challenge Coins
The modern use of challenge coins has its origins in the military. There is a fair amount of mythology and lore surrounding the uses of challenge coins for identification and camaraderie. The stories amplified the modern tradition of an authority gifting a coin in acknowledgment, a recipient carrying a gifted or identifying coin, and drawing a coin out of pocket or on a string around the neck upon being challenged.
World War I
Though unverified, the legend of the World War I challenge coins continues to circulate in lore. The story depicts a wealthy lieutenant who made bronze medallions engraved with the squadron symbol, and gifted them to all members of the crew as mementos, keeping one in a leather pouch around his neck. The story deviates in that somebody — the lieutenant, one of the member soldiers, or a pilot, of the unit — was shot down in flight and captured by a German patrol. The story continues that, to discourage his escape, the German patrol took all of his belongings and personal identification, except for the leather pouch that contained the coin. The lieutenant/pilot/soldier was being transferred near a small French town/outpost, where he escaped.
Without the ability to speak French, nor any clothes to identify him by, the French soldiers assumed the escaped soldier was a German spy and planned to execute him. The escaped soldier presented the coin from the pouch which was recognized by one of the French soldiers. The lieutenant/pilot/soldier was saved (in some stories, given a bottle of wine) and returned to his unit, inspiring the tradition of keeping coins on the person for identification purposes at all times.
World War II
Another unconfirmed legend includes a tradition of coin keeping by the Office of Strategic Service for identification purposes in World War II. The story states that personnel deployed behind enemy lines in Nazi-occupied France would use a specific type of coin, or date of coin, as proof of identity amongst other signals. This coin presentation was used to ensure infiltration was not possible within secret meetings, even if the meeting time and location had been discovered.
Korea and Vietnam
In the early 1950’s Colonel William Quinn “Buffalo Bill” created coins to present to those serving in the 17th Infantry Regiment serving in Korea. The coin adopted the image of a buffalo in 1952, after the radio call name of “Buffalo Bill” for Colonel Willam Quinn. The coin continued to be issued until the 1960s.
The history of the Special Forces is long, and known for specialized uniform wear such as the green beret with a Trojan Horse badge. Colonel Vernon Green, commander of the 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) created the first Special Forces Coin in 1969 with a Trojan Horse on the front as a fundraiser to help purchase a German Wood Carved Special Forces Trooper.
Challenge coin history is founded on military tradition and the arts. While the military continues using coins as distinguished medals, mementos, and tools of camaraderie, challenge coins have become recognized in other forms of service such as civil servants and first responders. Coins have been used as commemorative tokens of celebration, or tribute to lost comrades for fire, police, and other government departments. Corporations and businesses have also found the value of challenge coins to build morale, distinguish a team or individual, and honor accomplishments through the presentation of a token gift.