HomeSOCIETYMilitary Traditions: A Brief History of Challenge Coins

Military Traditions: A Brief History of Challenge Coins

Are you intrigued by historical artifacts? Excited when you see modern ones getting put to use? Challenge coins are one of the most popular military traditions, but they happen to be unfamiliar to a lot of the general public. Men in service and women in service are sure to understand the significance of the challenge coin, but we’re here to explain it to those of you that aren’t in the armed forces. 

Hopefully, the explanations below will help you to appreciate challenge coins the next time that you come into contact with them. Let’s get started.

The Origin Story of The Challenge Coin:

Sometime in around 1914, an Airforce squadron was meeting for the first time. American soldiers in World War One were likely coming into contact with more members of society than they ever had before. 

Things were stratified during that time, and American society operated more like a caste system than a free and open society. People didn’t come in contact with a lot of members outside of their social or economic class, but military warfare required that men get into groups regardless of wealth. 

The result was a little bit of tension and skepticism in the first meetings. One of the wealthier men invested in a set of custom coins for his squadron. Nothing fancy, just something to unite them and generate a little pride in their particular faction. 

As the story goes, the men were very proud of these coins. They were the only squadron in the military to have their personal coins, so they showed them off. 

Word spread, and it was well known that these men had the coins. It was interesting, albeit a little annoying, to see these unique medallions. 

Shot Down and Nearly Hopeless:

A few months later, the men were trained and flying their planes behind enemy lines. Note that this was only a decade or so after the Wright brothers brought humanity into the skies. 

Planes weren’t the same then. They were more dangerous and less shielded against the perils of war. As a result, one of the men was shot down behind enemy lines. 

This is a death sentence in most cases, but this soldier was one of the lucky ones. He survived, but he was taken captive and held hostage by German soldiers. Awaiting an almost imminent death, the building he was in got bombed. 

Again, the man survived when his captors weren’t so lucky. He escaped, taking the uniform of a German soldier to disguise himself. He had to make it back to friendly territory, but that meant getting to the battle line and crossing into No-Man’s-Land in German uniform. 

His third stroke of luck allowed him to get there and cross into French territory unscathed. Again, though, he was taken hostage by the French soldiers. 

How could he prove that he wasn’t a German spy? After all, he was dressed like a German soldier and came through from German territory. 

The Challenge Coin’s Fateful Role:

The man sat awaiting almost certain death in the hands of French soldiers. He’d already pushed his luck a few times, getting to his position through almost unimaginable odds. 

So, he sat there and tried to break the language barrier and explain how he’d gotten there. It was no use. It would have been too risky to keep the man alive, no matter how compelling his story might have been. 

Then, one of the French soldiers spoke up. He noticed the medallion that the man produced, recognizing from an encounter he’d had with an American soldier. He remembered that only those men were given the medallions and that there couldn’t be a way for anyone else to have one. 

The American soldier corroborated the French soldier’s account and made it entirely clear that he was an American. The man’s life was saved, birthing the mystery and wonder of the challenge coin that sparked one of the most popular military traditions of all time. 

Evolution of The Challenge Coin:

The idea of a “challenge coin” came to a lot later, long after a lot of different military groups had coins to unite and identify themselves. The challenge in question is whether or not the soldier can produce their coin at any given moment. 

In light of the miraculous story, having a coin on your person was a matter of importance. It might have even been a little superstitious. In any case, it was important that everyone have their coin on them at all times. 

If you put a soldier on the spot and they didn’t have their coin on their person, you were allowed to challenge them in whatever way you saw fit. In most cases, the challenge was to buy a round of drinks at the bar or humiliate the person in some way. 

Honor Coins and Other Applications:

In addition to coins that signify membership in a group, there are also coins that represent a person’s valor or bravery. You can think of challenge coins like this as cousins of “medals of honor” or other trophies for military honors in the field. 

Beyond that, coins are awarded to individuals in high places. For example, there have been a number of presidential challenge coins over the years, given to sitting presidents in honor of their place at the top of the military. 

You’ll find any number of challenge coins floating around in this day and age. A lot of businesses and other organizations use challenge coins to offer the same kind of recognition. It’s possible to have your own military challenge coins made for your own purposes as well. 

All of those coins stem back to the mythical-yet-possible story of the first squadron back in World War One. 

Want to Learn More About Military Traditions?

There are numerous military traditions with histories, just like the challenge coin. There’s no shortage of tall tales weaved with the truth for us all to enjoy and marvel at. 

We’re here to help you get the stories and information you need. Explore our site for more ideas on military honors, men and women in service, and a whole lot more. 

I'm Bipasha Zaman, a professional author with vast experience in the research field. Presently, I work for many sites. Also, I have a strong passion for writing creative blogs.


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