Traditionally, challenge coins were used to foster camaraderie in the armed forces or to reward soldiers. These coins also served as unique identifiers, either of the person carrying the coin or as an autograph from high-ranking officials. The origin of the challenge coin is a bit of a mystery, but the following is the most popular account of its history.
The First Coin
The earliest mention of a coin being given to a soldier comes from Ancient Rome. In those days, it was common for soldiers to be rewarded for acts of valor or prowess with a single coin in addition to their daily pay. A soldier who fought well was just doing his job, but the Romans also believed in distinction among peers, so the single additional coin would signify a soldier’s standing as a skilled warrior. These coins were stamped with the mark of the legion and were kept as a status symbol instead of being spent as currency.
The First Challenge
During World War I an officer had bronze medallions made for his men with their squadron’s insignia. One of his men was shot down over Germany and had all of his belongings taken upon capture except for the medallion that was in a pouch around his neck.
Eventually the soldier escaped to France where he was intercepted by the underground. They were going to execute him as spy, but one of the resistance fighters recognized the insignia on the medallion and his execution was postponed until his identity could be verified.
Since then, it became more common for soldiers to carry coins or medallions with their unit’s insignia. The challenge began around World War II when soldiers out with their unit would slam their coin on a bar. Anyone who did not have their coin had to buy everyone drinks. If the whole unit had their coins, the challenger would have to buy the drinks.
The Challenge Today
Today, challenge coins also function as a business card or autograph, and military personal will sometimes see who can collect the most coins from the highest-ranking officials. The terms of the challenge are often determined between individuals or groups, but the resulting unity and camaraderie is still the same.
Challenge coins are more than just a fun novelty; these pieces of metal were originally awarded to those who fought the hardest and risked the most, and the coins played a crucial role in getting soldiers safely home. The companionship felt by those who have fought together is a deep bond, and a challenge coin can serve as a reminder of that bond long after the war is done.