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Posted by BFM on Jul 30th 2023

LogoTags is proud to share the below research on military challenge coins as provided by our wonderful summer intern, Erin Kruh. Our company, Ball Chain Mfg. Co., Inc. ( ) and LogoTags ( ) are proud of our rich histories, and we hope you enjoy reading about the history on challenge coins.

The Dynamic and Differing Histories of Challenge Coins in the United States

Challenge coin traditions have been used at all levels of the military, within police and fire departments, and even gifted to members of Congress or other positions of honor within the U.S. for years. With such prevalent usage and widespread respect for these medallions, there are many different origin stories circulating today. Some claim these coins originate as early as the Roman Empire, being used as bonus pay for soldiers who were victorious in battle, while others claim that it was not until the more recent wars of the 20th century that these coins were minted and gifted to soldiers in the U.S. Army and beyond. The most popular theory is that, after having gifted these special coins to his fellow soldiers in his unit, a lieutenant’s life was saved by his very coin being used to verify his identity after being captured in World War I. He needed to prove his status with the allies, and it was the insignia upon his “challenge coin” that convinced his captors of his identity, ultimately saving him from execution as a traitor. From this story and others like it, soldiers were instructed to always have their military challenge coins on their person so that they could present them whenever needed, just in case.

The more modern tradition of “challenge coins” was born as soldiers would “challenge” each other to present their coins. If one failed to do so, they would have to pay for their challenger’s drink or meal. If they were able to present it, then they would be treated to a drink or meal for free. This tradition continues today, along with the tradition of honor that these coins bring to their holders. Whether these coins were gifted by the Roman Empire or only more recently, their varying origins do not change the pride they hold today. We understand how important these challenge coins are to both our history and our future, and that is why LogoTags is proud to create custom challenge coins as we honor their tradition.

The Most Likely Origin of Challenge Coins:

The prevailing theory is that challenge coins originated in the U.S. Army Air Service in World War I, as one of the lieutenants wanted to give each member of his unit a special token of their bond and service together. He gifted each member a bronze medallion with the unit’s insignia on it. That same lieutenant’s life was saved by his own coin when he was captured by the French, mistaken for the enemy, and needed to prove his identity as an ally to avoid execution. His coin with his insignia convinced his captors of his identity, and they released him. After the lieutenant’s return to his unit, it became a tradition for all soldiers carry a coin with their unit’s insignia “just in case.” (U.S. Department of Defense Website )

A Possible Extension of That Story:

To help ensure that soldiers were ready to present their coins whenever necessary, one squadron created a challenge using the coin. In this, a challenger would ask someone to present their medallion. If the challenged member could not produce their coin, they were required to buy a drink or meal for the challenger. If the challenged member produced their coin, then the challenger was required to pay for a drink or meal for the one they challenged. This practice encouraged members to carry their medallions at all times in order to avoid losing challenges. This tradition continued throughout the war and for many years after the war while surviving members of the squadron were still alive, earning these medallions the name “challenge coins.” (Syracuse Department of Public Safety Website

Coin Checks in the Vietnam Era:

According to another version, the tradition of challenge coins started in Vietnam, as a U.S. Army infantry bar wanted to ensure that non-infantrymen would stay away. Bar personnel forced suspected “outsiders” to buy drinks for the entire bar if they could not provide proof of having been in combat on the frontlines. Originally, the form of proof accepted was presenting enemy bullets, but as war machinery developed with grenades and rockets, this was not a foolproof method of identifying infantrymen. To address this situation, a coin-sized medallion was stamped with the unit’s insignia and became the new standard of proof. This challenge to outsiders became known as a “coin check,” and continues today as they have now been named “challenge coins.” (U.S. Department of Defense Website )

Possible Connections to World War I:

According to U.S. Department of Defense resources, the use of challenge coins may stem from 11th Special Forces Group during World War I. The Group obtained a batch of old coins, stamped a new design on top of the old, and then presented them to unit members. Many other commanders admired this gift idea and began to give emblemed coins to their units. The commander of the 10th SFG was the first to mint a unit coin for his specific military group. This group remained the only unit with their own minted coin until the mid-1980s, at which time many units took to the tradition, and the practice became widespread, as it is today. (U.S. Department of Defense Website Challenge Coin Tradition: Do You Know How It Started?-started/ )

Korean War Era Boasts the Oldest Challenge Coin Confirmed to Exist:

Another account centers on the oldest challenge coin confirmed to exist. In that story, Colonel William "Buffalo Bill'' Quinn had specialized coins created for those who served in his 17th Infantry Regiment during 1950 to 1958. This specific “Buffalo'' coin is the oldest challenge coin known in existence that resembles their modern presentations. For its design, one side has pictured a buffalo and the date 1812 which is the birth year of the 17th infantry unit. The other side laid their patch with the dates 1950-1958 and the word “Korea'' to recognize their specific tour of duty. This coin is considered the most valuable of its time, earning a place in history as the archetype of modern challenge coins. Its value is only furthered by its limited supply and rarity to exist outside of private collections. ( )

Origins May Date to the Roman Empire:

In some accounts, challenge coins trace back to the Roman Empire. The Empire would reward dutiful soldiers with special military coins in recognition of great actions. If a soldier was successful in battle or proved his strength, that soldier would receive both the usual day’s pay in coins and an additional bonus coin to represent the triumph. In certain records, these bonus coins were minted with the marks of the legion of the specific soldier. While originally intended as reward in the form of additional pay, many soldiers kept their special bonus coins as meaningful mementos of their time served. ( )


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