A Brief History of Challenge Coins

In modern times, ID cards have become a pretty standard measure of membership in a club. Be it a driver’s license, passport or shopping club card, these flat-and-boring tokens represent something beyond their laminated surfaces. That’s all good and well for the general population, but what if you belong to an organization or club that only a select few could possibly understand?

You get a challenge coin. Traditionally associated with the military, these beautiful coins are token-sized bragging rights that can be thrown down to prove membership in the most elite of groups. Whatever their physical design, challenge coins represent something about where their owners have been and who they’ve met along the way.

Challenge Coins: Disputed Roots

Also known as command coins, there’s some debate among scholars about the earliest appearance of these notable awards. While their widespread use can be traced to the Vietnam era, experts can’t agree if their earliest modern predecessors emerged during WWI or WWII. Most do agree that elite units were the first to adopt the tradition in modern times.

An early predecessor to these modern challenge coins can be found in ancient Rome, where soldiers received their pay after a day’s battle. They were paid in coins, and an additional coin was sometimes awarded to a soldier who’d stood out on the battlefield. Some accounts say that these coins were specially minted and reflected different military units.

During WWI, a wealthy officer was rumored to have bronze medallions commissioned for his flying squadron. It’s said that he handed these coins out to his men, who wore them in leather pouches around their necks. The story goes that one of the pilots was shot down and captured but escaped the Germans and made his way to France. There, he was suspected of being a spy until a French soldier saw the coin around his neck and recognized the unit’s insignia.

The Challenge Coin Comes to Korea and Vietnam

During the Korean War, Colonel “Buffalo Bill” Quinn of the 17th Infantry Regiment had challenge coins made for his men. These coins featured the regiment’s insignia on one side and a buffalo on the reverse side. They had a hole drilled at the top of the design so that their recipients could wear them on a chain.

In Vietnam, some frontline fighters preferred to carry personalized bullets in their pockets that could be used as a last resort to prevent enemy capture. A tradition emerged wherein fighters who entered a bar could be challenged by other to present their bullets. If a man who was challenged couldn’t produce his bullet, he had to buy drinks for the rest of the night. Coins eventually replaced the bullets and live munitions that soldiers pulled out to meet the challenge.

The Challenge Coin Today

Building on their illustrious history, challenge coins are used today to honor service in certain units and during deployments. The tradition of issuing challenges in bars continues too. Use of such coins has even gone beyond the military into arenas such as motorcycling and business.

Challenge coins are also exchanged among the upper echelons of the military as a sort of business card, and some even collect them. One of the most notable collectors is President Bill Clinton, whose official portrait features his personal challenge coin collection in the background. At Cristaux International, we’re proud to participate in this tradition too. Designing challenge coins to meet distinct accomplishments is another art we’ve mastered.