Challenge coins are medallions that carry an organization’s emblem, but more than a piece of metal, these symbolize everything that an organization stands for – bravery, camaraderie, integrity and valor. Challenge coins have been an integral part of the military service, with each coin representing a battle that was fought for the country, signifying triumph and bravery, and indicating the membership of an individual. While it has been minted for quite some time now, its origin has yet to be confirmed.
Some say it started way back World War I when a lieutenant gave his coin unit bronze medallions as a symbol of their membership. Among the unit was a pilot who kept his coin inside a leather pouch. During an expedition, his plane was badly damaged by ground fire. He landed on German territory and was immediately captured. To ensure he couldn’t escape, the German took all his identification except the coin.
Luckily, he was able to escape and flee from the land by pretending to be a civilian. However, his victory was short-lived as he was not recognized by the French allies and they were ready to execute him. The pilot, however, was able to prove his allegiance by using the bronze medal given by the Army Lieutenant.
His executors immediately recognized the insignia on the medal, so they released him and even offered him some wine. Though there is no evidence to prove this story, many believe it is where the use of challenge coins as a sign of unit’s membership started.
Others, however, believe that the challenge coin more likely originated in the 1960’s. A serviceman of the Special Forces group stamped the emblem of their society on an old coin and gave it to the other members of the group.
There is even a story saying the tradition of making challenge coins started back during the Roman Empire where they give coins as awards to the soldiers for their achievements. At the end of the day, soldiers would receive their pay, and extra coins if they performed well during the battle. Some say the coins are specially minted, which is the reason why soldiers would rather keep them rather than spend them.
Another story, nonetheless, associates the advent of challenge coins to the Second World War wherein the officers of the 107th Infantry used a coin to verify their identity during meetings. Their coin is just ordinary but it had a specific feature like the date or type which was checked during the gathering. Through this, they prevented the infiltration of a spy because one must know first the time, date, location of the meeting and the type of coin to be presented in order to get in.
Among other legends is one that says it started with a soldier assigned with the Philippine Guerillas during the World War II. He was carrying a solid silver coin from the Philippines, which he used to prove to the guerillas that he wasn’t a spy but an ally for their mission against the Japanese.
While it may not be the first, one of the earliest challenge coin was minted by a 17th Infantry Regiment named Colonel “Buffalo Bill” Quinn. The coin had the emblem of the Regiment on one side and a buffalo, in honor of the creator, on the other. It was even designed with a hole drilled up top so that members could wear it around their necks, instead of being placed inside leather pouches.
While there is no way to prove how it started, the challenge coin is still being minted with over thousands of coins used to recognize membership in the military and other organizations.