“What is a Challenge Coin?” – Custom Coins in the Military & Public Service

- May 3, 2019
“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!

American pilots and mechanics prepare for daylight raids on German trenches and cities. Petite Sythe, France. WWI. Aug. 16, 1918


First things first, you should know the story (legend or otherwise) behind challenge coins. Even though the story itself is unverified, it’s accepted as the “official” origin of the challenge coin.

As the legend 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!

Know the challenge or risk buying the next round!

The Challenge

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 itself has roots dating 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 that look like a pocket watch, have mermaids or sea monsters on them, and even one coin that looks like a pizza.

Many challenge coins feature a unit or battalion mascot, a business logo, or some other sort of custom message or design the client chooses. Many military and police coins feature a slogan in English or Latin that is relevant to the military unit or police force.

A common design for firefighters is the cross of St. Florian, the patron saint of firefighters. Be careful though, don’t confuse it with the Maltese Cross, which looks similar but represents something completely different!

Business coins often feature the logo of the business or perhaps a special sales or charity initiative the business is looking to promote.


There you have it! The next time someone asks you “What is a Challenge Coin?”, you’ll be fully prepared to answer and impart some newfound knowledge. Aren’t you so smart? We think so. And if they still don’t believe you, well, just send them to us and we’ll make sure they’re sorted out.

Thanks for reading!