What Purpose Do Challenge Coins Serve?

What Purpose Do Challenge Coins Serve?

Challenge coins are a way to honor dedication, celebrate achievement, foster camaraderie and more.

Challenge coins are specially designed items given to an individual, group, or unit from an authority as a display of gratitude, celebration, honor, membership and camaraderie. The origins of challenge coins are rooted in the military, but in recent years these coins have become popular in other orgainzations, including schools, nonprofits and businesses, representing unity, accomplishment, or even interest in business partnerships.

Challenge Coins in the Military

A traditional and cultural artifact in America’s armed services is the gifting of military challenge coins. Stories about how the practice began vary widely, and none have been proved. One says challenge coins originated in the early 1950s when Colonel William Quinn (Buffalo Bill) had them made, and presented them to the 17th Infantry regiment serving in Korea. Though this is one of the earliest verified usages of challenge coins, there is a great amount of lore regarding their use in World War I and World War II to identify individuals as part of a group, or as a strategy against infiltration by confirming identification with the presentation of a coin.

Membership in Units

Challenge coins are typically unique to the group they represent. They may be given as members join, or presented as a symbol of appreciation for a service member’s hard work, dedication, or sacrifice. As every coin represents a different unit, special event, anniversary, or individual, there is no “universal” challenge coin. 

However, there are challenge coin check rules that are adhered to across the military. A coin check consists of a coin holder initiating a challenge to verify and show coins, and the response of fellow coin holders who display their coins. If a fellow coin holder cannot produce their coin, they will usually have to buy drinks for all coin holders present. A coin check may occur at any time, and in any place, and even by accident, if a coin happens to slip out of a pocket and audibly fall to the floor.

Presidential Challenge Coins

High ranking individuals may choose to have coins of their own made to provide to service members to commemorate the individual’s valor in the line of duty and/or performance of service, or participation in a particular campaign or battle.

The president of the United States has a specialty challenge coin to gift as they see fit. The Presidential Challenge Coin has a tradition of its own, unique to each president, and deeply cherished and valued by those who receive it. Though Presidential Challenge Coins are often gifted to military personnel for exceptional service, they have also been given to leaders in civilian groups, or to commemorate visits from important foreign dignitaries.

  • President Bill Clinton was the first to give challenge coins as part of his presidency, and maintained a collection of his own, gifted by military personnel. 
  • President George W. Bush continued the tradition of gifting and receiving military coins, especially during visits to Iraq, and for wounded military service personnel.
  • President Barack Obama was known for placing challenge coins on the graves of fallen soldiers, as well as in the hands of Air Force One personnel. 
  • President Donald Trump revised the presidential coin by removing the traditional words “E Pluribus Unum” (Latin for “out of many, one”) and replacing them with his campaign slogan “Make America Great Again." The coin also was remade to be bigger, heavier, and more golden. Rather than just military service members, President Trump also gave Presidential Challenge Coins to campaign donors.

Challenge Coins in Civilian Organizations

Some civilian organizations have adopted the practice of gifting challenge coins for remarkable service, or as a token of celebration for the sacrifices civil servants make in the line of duty. Challenge coins may be used as memorial coins to celebrate and pay tribute to lost comrades. It is not uncommon for civil servants, such as police departments, EMS, fire departments, Search and Rescue, and government departments, to have their own challenge coins. A coin may honor an act of bravery and valor, commemorate an event such as retirement, or even help raise money for a cause. 

Challenge Coins in Business

Businesses have begun to realize the value of custom made company challenge coins. Custom challenge coins can be designed to incorporate logos, contact information, or as a morale-boosting reward for work ethic and accomplishment. Some businesses even provide challenge coins in lieu of business cards. A coin is memorable, making it a great choice to be handed out at trade shows or other marketing and networking events. 

Corporate coins are a way to show recognition and build morale. They can be personalized to pertain to an individual, team, or project, while carrying the logo of the company.

The Meaning of a Challenge Coin

With the expense it takes to make them, and the history behind them, challenge coins carry a sense of honor and value. To one who has received a challenge coin, it means that they were considered worthy of having it, and the responsibility of caring for it should be taken seriously.