A Detailed Guide on the History of the Challenge Coin

Do you want to know more about how a small piece of metal became a symbol of pride, unity, and loyalty? 

Challenge coins are gifts to show appreciation to people who served the nation well. It’s typical for members of the military to receive challenge coins as a hallmark of their accomplishments. Today, you can even see challenge coins made for civilian use.

Are you curious about how the challenge coin came to be? This guide will tell you more about the long and symbolic history of the challenge coin.

1. What is a Challenge Coin? 

Before we dive into the history of the challenge coin, let’s discuss what a challenge coin is first. Giving, receiving, and carrying a challenge coin is part of military tradition. It’s a well-respected practice that continues to live on until today. 

Often, the typical challenge coin size is 1.5 to 2 inches in diameter. Their typical thickness is 1/10 of an inch. The typical appearance of a challenge coin is, well, coin-like.

However, this doesn’t mean that it can’t get customized in a variety of other appearances. Today, you can find challenge coins that come in all shapes. They can be in the shape of shields, stars, dog tags, pentagons, or other shapes.

Challenge coins also come in a variety of finishes and materials. The usual choices for the material include copper, nickel, and pewter. The finishes can be copper, silver, gold, or other.

Many challenge coins now also come in a variety of colors and designs. If you want to have a challenge coin made as a gift, there are many online options for customization. Take care to know the details about the recipient when you design a challenge coin. 

2. Mythical Origin of the Challenge Coin

Now that we have a background on challenge coins let’s get to its long and detailed history. 

There is no hard evidence that dates when the first challenge coin tradition began. The only thing we know is that it goes back beyond the modern age. One such story that may explain its origin occurs in Ancient Rome.

In those times, the soldiers received their wages daily. If they performed well in battle, they may get a bonus coin too. Many say that these bonus coins had special features.

Each coin bore the marks of the legion of a soldier. Even then, the challenge coins were a symbol of a soldier’s allegiance and bravery. This may not be far from the truth since the Romans were the first to stamp metals into coins.

These coins became more meaningful to the soldiers that received it. Some even chose not to spend the marked coins. Many soldiers saved them as a memento of their time in the war instead. 

3. The History of the Challenge Coin in World War I

Let’s jump forward to the First World War. It was a time when aviation technology was still very new, next to the invention of the machine gun. At the time, a flying squadron of young men came from all over the country to give voluntary services.

One lieutenant, a rich American, decided to give them medallions for their teamwork. He commissioned die-struck bronze medallions to give to each member of his squadron. Some rumors say the medallions had gold plating and fine details, and the pilots kept them close.

The Army Air Service made her way across Europe, and the coins came to different parts of the continent. One of the squadron’s planes got shot down over Germany and later got captured by German soldiers. He got held as a prisoner of war and had all his belongings and identification stripped off of him.

His captors left to him his clothing and the small leather pouch that held the medallion. On the way to the POW camp, the British raided the transport group at an occupied village. In the confusion, the pilot escaped and made his way to France.

He got mistaken for a spy by the French soldiers at the border. They received news of saboteurs, who dressed in civilian clothing. The ace, with no identification on him, was to die.

The pilot presented his medallion as his only proof of identity. One of the French soldiers recognized the insignia on it, and the execution got delayed. France got confirmation of his identity.

The soldier got sent back to his unit. News of his plight spread. Later, holes got drilled into the medallion, so soldiers didn’t have to place them in leather pouches.

Many see this story as the official start to the tradition of the challenge coins.

4. POTUS Gets a Challenge Coin

The history of the challenge coin extended to the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. However, this didn’t happen until the 1990s. Before that, only specific military units presented challenge coins to their members.

President Bill Clinton was the first US president to stamp a personal challenge coin. Since then, the challenge coin is different for each US president. Vice President Dick Cheney was the first US vice president to mint his challenge coin. 

During this time, the use of the challenge coin exploded in all sectors. That included both private and government sectors. It became a way to recognize people on the spot.

President George Bush presented his coin to wounded troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. President Barack Obama presented his challenge coin to a service member at Air Force One. Even Secretary of Defense Robert Gates presented his SECDEF challenge coins to troops he visited around the world. 

5. Challenge Coins of Today 

Today, anybody can receive a challenge coin. Local authorities, local government leaders, and corporate leaders can present challenge coins. You can even find online stores that sell and customize challenge coins. 

The US has over 1.3 million active-duty military personnel. Yet, not all get to receive a challenge coin. In the US military, challenge coins stay true to tradition as an acknowledgment of bravery.

The More You Know About Challenge Coin History

Now you understand the history of the challenge coin. We hope this detailed guide helped you understand better how challenge coins came to be. We also hope you now know the weight of a challenge coin, meaning its value.

That’s it for our post on the detailed history of challenge coins. If you want to see more content like this, check out our other guides now. Pick up all the informative and entertaining tips and tricks you need today!