“What is a Challenge Coin?” – Custom Coins in the Military & Public Service
“What is a challenge coin?”
We hear this question all the time – at trade shows, on the phone with clients, or even from our friends and families.
It’s a valid question, however. Many people outside of the military, government or emergency services might not know what a challenge coin is or the history behind the collectible.
Well, wonder no more! We’re here to help you learn more about challenge coins whether you know someone who’s curious about them, or you just want to learn more for your own reasons. The next time someone asks “What is a challenge coin?”, you’ll be ready to answer!
First things first, you should know the legend behind challenge coins Even though the story itself is unverified, it’s accepted as the “official” origin of the challenge coin.
As the story goes, during World War I, a well-to-do American lieutenant designed medallions for himself and other pilots in his Army Air Corps squadron featuring the squadron emblem.
During a mission in Germany, the lieutenant was shot down behind enemy lines. He survived the crash and was captured by a German patrol. The lieutenant managed to escape his captors, and eventually made his way to France, still wearing a stolen German uniform.
French soldiers discovered him, and as he was still wearing the German uniform, assumed he was either a German soldier or spy. It was only when the lieutenant showed his squadron medallion that the French realized he was American and returned him to Allied forces.
The story spread like wildfire, with other parts of the military designing their own coins with a special design or logo. The practice became common among soldiers, and is still a popular tradition to this day.
Now you understand why the coin is popular with military personnel, but to fully answer the “What is a Challenge Coin?” question, you need to understand the “challenge” part of it as well!
The challenge coin rules date back to post-World War II Germany. Soldiers stationed in Germany were often paid in local currency, including a West German pfennig coin, which was only worth a fraction of a U.S. cent.
The low value of the pfennig meant that most soldiers didn’t keep them unless they were really strapped for cash. At local bars, a tradition among U.S. soldiers was to perform a “pfennig check”: asking bar patrons to turn out their pockets and place any pfennigs on the table.
If a soldier had a pfennig, it meant he was nearly broke. If the soldier did NOT have a pfennig, it meant he was well off and could thus afford to buy the next round for everyone!
Today, this practice continues in the form of a challenge coin. If a soldier is out for drinks and produces a challenge coin, everyone else in the group must also produce one, or risk buying the next round. However, if everyone else provides a coin, then the original challenger must buy the next round.
Be careful when you’re using a challenge coin – you could end up paying for everyone!
Lastly, to fully answer “What is a Challenge Coin?”, you’ll need to know about some of the design aspects of challenge coins. There are plenty of common designs out there, but not all coins are the same. Just ask us, we’ve designed coins in the shape of the USS Enterprise (CVN 65),