The History of Challenge Coins: Enduring Military Traditions

The inception of challenge coins is deeply intertwined with military history, notably tracing back to World War I. The narrative begins with American volunteers, including affluent young men from prestigious institutions like Yale and Harvard, who joined the ranks of the newly minted flying squadrons. Among these volunteers, a particular lieutenant took the initiative to mint solid bronze medallions for his squadron, unknowingly laying the groundwork for what would become the revered tradition of military challenge coins.

One of these pilots, after being downed and captured behind enemy lines, managed to escape execution by presenting his medallion, which bore his squadron’s emblem, to his French captors. This medallion, carried in a simple leather pouch around his neck, was his only remaining piece of identification after his capture by German forces. The recognition of the insignia on the coin by the French soldiers not only saved his life but also led to a heartwarming conclusion to his ordeal—a bottle of wine instead of a firing squad.

This dramatic tale spurred a tradition within his squadron; members were encouraged to carry their medallions at all times. The ritual of challenging one another to present the coin became a symbol of unity and camaraderie, a practice that not only solidified group identity but also fostered a friendly means of ensuring that all members carried their coins. This practice of issuing a challenge, with drinks as stakes, fortified the bonds between squadron members throughout and beyond the war.

The Evolution of Challenge Coins Through the Ages

While World War I laid the foundational story for challenge coins, their significance and use expanded during World War II. Personnel from the Office of Strategic Service in Nazi-occupied France used coins as a means of authentication during covert meetings. This was mirrored in the formation of the Jolly sixpence club by junior officers in the 107th Infantry, emphasizing the role of coins in verifying identities to prevent espionage.

The historical depth of challenge coins is further enriched by their continued evolution. From their origins in wartime camaraderie and survival, to their adoption across military branches and even into the civilian sector, challenge coins have become a profound symbol of unity, bravery, and shared experience. Today, they are not only a testament to military challenge coins’ history but also emblematic of the broader legacy of honor and tradition they represent.

Further Insight into Challenge Coin Traditions

Reflecting on World War I, the story of the wealthy lieutenant and his squadron highlights the origins of the challenge coin tradition within the military. This narrative underscores the spontaneity of traditions that later become intrinsic to military culture. The act of carrying a challenge coin transformed from a simple safeguard to a profound emblem of identity and belonging, bridging gaps between soldiers and their allies in the tense theatres of war.

The Coinable Custom Challenge Coin Legacy

Custom coins have been in production since 560BC. Our time in the business is a little less than that, but there’s a lot of history behind coin manufacturing, and we’re happy to share our resources and the skills we’ve mastered over decades of minting high-quality custom challenge coins.

The Electrum Stater of Miletos, housed in the British Museum, demonstrates the ancient art of coin minting that has inspired contemporary techniques.

The legacy of challenge coins, symbolizing military unity and pride, has transcended generations. The practice of challenging one another to present a coin has not only endured but thrived, serving as a constant reminder of the values and stories of those who serve. In the modern era, challenge coins continue to be cherished symbols within the military, promoting a sense of pride and solidarity amongst service members.

A Continuing Challenge Coin Tradition: A Symbol of Military Unity and Honor

Source: Soldiers Magazine Aug 94 Vol 49, No 8 by Maj. Jeanne Fraser Brooks

Within days of his liberation from a prisoner of war camp, Sgt. Troy Dunlap received two Iraqi coins from an employee of the hotel where he and the other U.S. POWs were being housed by the Red Cross following their release. “One for you and one for me,” he told Maj. Rhonda Cornum who also had been taken prisoner when their UH-60 helicopter was shot down by members of Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard during Operation Desert Storm. “We joked that we could use them like military coins. … We planned how we would use the Iraqi money to ‘coin’ our friends when we got back to Fort Rucker,” Cornum wrote in her book, “She Went to War.”

“Coining” is a relatively new U.S. military tradition, but has roots in the Roman Empire, where coins were presented to reward achievements. In the U.S. military, the tradition goes back to the early 1960s. A member of the 11th Special Forces Group took old coins, had them over-stamped with a different emblem, then presented them to unit members, according to Roxanne Merritt, curator of the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Museum at Fort Bragg, N.C.

A former commander of the 10th SFG picked up on the idea, becoming the first to mint a unit coin for a U.S. military unit. The 10th Group remained the only Army unit with its own coin until the mid-1980s, Merritt said, when “an explosion took place and everybody started minting coins.” Originally, the coins, which bear the unit crest on the front and whatever design the unit wants on the back, were given out by commanders and sergeants major to recognize outstanding acts performed by soldiers in the course of duty.

“They’re a real morale booster,” said Duvall, “and tell the soldier, ‘you’re a member of our unit’ which builds unit cohesion. The soldiers carry their credit card, driver’s license and unit coin – their wallets are permanently deformed.” Don Phillips, a former commander of the 20th SFG, designed a coin for his unit and presented it to his soldiers when he retired. “Another unit asked me to make a coin for them, and then another, so I went into business making them,” said Phillips. To date, Phillips has made coins for “between 600 and 700 units.” The tradition has spread to the other services and is even being adopted by paramilitary units like the U.S. Marshall’s SWAT team, according to Phillips.

The proliferation of coins and their availability to the general public in post gift shops has caused Dr. Joseph Fisher, Special Operations Command historian, to view them as “not as special as they used to be; there are so many of them out there now.” But that doesn’t stop Fisher from carrying his with him at all times.

Making the coins available for purchase has added yet another dimension to the tradition – collecting. SMA Richard A. Kidd has approximately 300 of the coins on display in his office “museum.” He has even issued an open invitation to soldiers visiting the Washington, D.C., area to stop by his office “even when I’m not here” to see his collection of unit memorabilia.

According to Phillips, World War II soldiers were given a coin when they mustered out of the service.

But it wasn’t until the Vietnam era that a “challenge-response” was added to the tradition of giving unit members a coin. The initial challenge was to prove membership in a particular unit by producing the unit coin.

That was followed by the addition of the requirement to “buy a round” if a soldier didn’t have the coin. “Buying a round isn’t the only challenge these days,” said Phillips. “Drinking is frowned on, so the challenge can be anything. If you don’t have your coin, you get the detail.” Kidd still uses the original premise in distributing coins and carries some with him whenever he travels. “It’s a way to immediately recognize above-and-beyond – the-call-of-duty actions on the part of a soldier when you’re in the field,” said Kidd.

The Role of Custom Coins in Boer War Commerce

During the Boer War, where scarcity was the norm and resourcefulness a necessity, coins played a vital role in everyday life for soldiers. Among the most cherished possessions were custom-made coin purses, often fashioned from simple materials like sturdy leather. These purses, with slots meticulously designed to hold various denominations, served as a lifeline for soldiers in need of goods and supplies. Intriguingly, many of these coin purses came adorned with personalized ID tags, typically defaced Kruger pennies bearing the names of their owners and their respective farms or commandos. These tags not only provided identification but also underscored the intimate connection between personal identity and the instruments of trade during times of conflict.