What do they look like? Challenge coins look like a specially designed coin. They’re almost always larger than any change you’ll find in your pocket and can be a variety of different shapes and sizes. Typically made of pewter, nickel, or copper, most challenge coins are 1½-2 inches in diameter and can come in circles, pentagons, arrowhead or even dog tag shapes. They have their own unique engraving and can have a variety of finishes including everything from paint to gold plating.
Challenge coins are used by all branches of the United States military for recognition of special achievement, membership in the unit, and awards. Commander coins are presented by officers and senior enlisted members of military organizations.
While there are many differing stories as to the origin and history of the Challenge Coin, many believe the tradition began during World War I in the United States Army Air Service, the current United States Air Force. When the Army created the first flying units they were mostly made up of volunteer pilots from various walks of life, including a large number of wealthy Ivy League students.
As the legend goes, one of these very wealthy Ivy League lieutenants had a set of solid bronze coins minted to hand out as mementos to his fellow pilots. The coins were gold-plated and quite valuable. One member of the squadron decided to carry his coin around his neck, even wearing it on missions. Some time later this same pilot was shot down behind enemy lines and captured by the Germans. One evening during a bombing raid the pilot managed to escape the POW camp and elude the German forces until he was spotted by a French patrol. Stripped of all of his identification, was taken by the French as a suspected German saboteur and set to be executed. Desperate to prove he was an American pilot, he had one of the French soldiers examine the coin he had hidden. The soldier recognized the insignia on the coin as an American squadron and he was spared certain death.
Upon returning to his squadron, it became a tradition for all members to carry their unit coin. Pilots were often "challenged" by their officers to see if they did indeed have their coin on them. If they didn't, they were then required to buy their officer a drink. If the pilot had his coin on him, the officer bought the drink.
This tradition spread to other military units in all branches of service and even to non military organizations. Challenge coins are commonly used as:
Multiple different federal government organizations have their own challenge coins including Secret Service agents, White House staff and even the President’s personal valets. The White House Military Aides have carry a truly unique coin dubbed the Atomic Football, which of course is shaped like a football.
Today, the popularity of challenge coins stretches beyond its roots with the military. They’re now a part of multiple organizations including:
Due to advancements in technology the ability to create your own challenge coin has been taken online. This is inspiring coins to be created for even smaller subsets of groups to create their own coins including some Harley Davidson riders and Linux users. Not necessarily used as challenge coins for these groups, the coins reflect membership in these groups.
President Bill Clinton displayed several racks of Challenge Coins given to him by members of the U.S. armed forces on the credenza behind his Oval Office desk. The challenge coins appear in the background of his official portrait hanging in the White House, and are currently on display at the Clinton Library.
Hungry for more? Here is a special piece on the History of the Challenge Coin and some more insight on how they’re created from NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams:
Here is History of Challenge Coin youtube video on NBC News with Brian Williams.