Challenge Coin Tradition


What is a challenge coin?

A challenge coin is a coin with special and specific designs on it to represent the group it is made for.  It confirms membership in a specific group or organization; and can also be used to honor a special achievement.


Challenge Coin Description

The appearance of Challenge Coins vary, depending on the organization they represent.  Nobody really knows the origin of the challenge coin tradition, but there are a few theories, according to the DoD.  This tradition did not start as a sanctioned activity, making it difficult to find written documents description the history of the challenge coin.

The most well-known story dates back to World War I, when one of the Army lieutenants wanted to give each member of his unit a momento.  He ordered several coin-sized bronze medallions to be made for his unit.  The lieutenant carried his own medallion in a small leather pouch that he carried around his neck.  After his plane was shot down over Germany, his captors took everything he had, leaving him with no way to identify himself, other than the pouch with his coin.  During capture, he found some civilian clothing and escaped to a French outpost.  The French soldiers didn’t recognize his accent and he had no way to prove he was not the enemy, so they planned on executing the lieutenant.  When the lieutenant pulled out the coin from his pouch and showed them, one of the Frenchmen recognized the insignia as an ally and his life was spared.

This started the tradition of all members of a unit to carry the distinguishable coin at all times, in case of capture.

Another plausible and widely believed origin story is that in Vietnam, there was a bar run by an Army infantry group.  The infantrymen tried to force non-infantrymen to buy drinks for the other patrons of the bar unless they could prove they were infantry.  The proof required became the unit’s insignia on a coin.  This tradition is known as a coin check; and is why the coin is called a “challenge” coin to this day.


What Does a Challenge Coin Represent?

Challenge coins represent organizations, units, groups, and even sometimes teams.  They are used to commemorate membership into one of these groups, a special event, or special achievement.  The tradition of challenge coins is believed to stem from the U.S. military.  Over time, other groups such as police, firemen, and first responders have started using them, as well.  Civilian groups are even starting to use them as a way to promote comeraderie and reward similar interests and accomplishments.

Military Challenge Coins

Every branch, individual units, and special groups of the military have their own special challenge coin. Military leaders often earn challenge coins by rank, with top Generals and even the President of the United States possessing their own challenge coin.

Those in the military not only have a coin designating their specific unit, but can also earn coins for certain achievements, accomplishments and completing missions. Oftentimes servicemen and women collect several coins during their service that they proudly display after their service is complete.


What is the Purpose of a Challenge Coin?

Challenge coins serve many purposes, depending on why they were made and what they represent. But they always represent belonging, achievements, and pride.



Challenge coins in the military clearly state what unit or group servicemen and women belong to.  Part of the tradition and strength of the military is a sense of belonging, and serving the whole, not just yourself. The coin earned during your service recognizes this tradition and states clearly what group the servicemen and women belong in.


Awards and Recognition

Challenge coins are often given to team members who accomplish something worth commemorating. This further enforces the strength of the military by building morale and pride of a unit, and the challenge coins are a symbol of that strength.


Creates Bonds and Connections

The challenge coin tradition connects members of the military to one another. Veterans often display the challenge coins they earned during their service in shadow boxes. First responders also receive coins for extraordinary efforts, sometimes even during tragic times.

Challenge coins connect members of a group to one another, commemorating the shared accomplishments of the other same coin holders, bonding the group together.



What is the “Coin Check”?

A coin check is when a challenge is initiated or questions, and the coin holder must respond.

The challenger can draw his or her coin, hold it in the air and verbally (usually loudly) state that a coin check is being initiated. Another method is to place the coin firmly on the bar, table or floor with an audible noise.  All the challenged people must then produce their coin in the same firm manner. If you can’t produce your coin after being challenged, you have to buy a round of drinks.  However, if everyone being challenged responds properly, showing their coin, then the challenger must buy all those he challenged a round of drinks. Failing to follow the coin check “rules” and the appropriate challenger or those being challenged not buying the proper round of drinks is a civil crime!


Challenge Coins Outside the Military

Many groups outside the military also use challenge coins to commemorate their belonging to certain groups and their accomplishments. These coins are also held with pride and are also earned.  The symbolism of challenge coins has roots in the military, but their significance has spread to others as a powerful symbol of accomplishment.