Challenge Coin History
There are several stories detailing the origins of the challenge coin. For example, in ancient times, the Roman Empire rewarded soldiers by presenting them with coins to recognize their achievements. But more currently, challenge coins are rumored to have begun in the military in the 1900’s.
According to the most common story, challenge coins originated during World War I. Before the entry of the United States into the war in 1917 American volunteers from all parts of the country filled the newly formed flying squadrons. Some volunteers were wealthy descendants of noble families attending colleges such as Yale and Harvard who quit in mid-term to join the war.
In one squadron, a wealthy lieutenant ordered medallions struck in solid bronze and presented them to his unit. A pilot in his squadron placed the medallion he received in a small leather pouch that he wore around his neck. Shortly after acquiring the medallion, the pilot's aircraft was severely damaged by ground fire. He was forced to land behind enemy lines and was immediately captured by a German patrol. In order to discourage his escape, the Germans took all of his personal identification except for the small leather pouch around his neck. He was able to escape. However, he was without personal identification and wearing civilian clothes. Eventually, he stumbled onto a French outpost. Not recognizing the young pilot's American accent, the French thought him to be a saboteur and made ready to execute him. He had no identification to prove his allegiance, but he did have his leather pouch containing the medallion. He showed the medallion to his would-be executioners and one of his French captors recognized the squadron insignia on the medallion. They delayed his execution long enough for him to confirm his identity. Instead of shooting him they gave him a bottle of wine.
After this event, in his squadron, it became tradition to ensure that all members carried their medallion or coin at all times. This was accomplished through challenge in the following manner: a challenger would ask to see the medallion, if the challenged could not produce a medallion, they were required to buy a drink of choice for the member who challenged them. If the challenged member produced a medallion, then the challenging member was required to pay for the drink. This tradition continued throughout the war and for many years after the war while surviving members of the squadron were still alive.
The challenge coin tradition has spread to other military units, in all branches of service, and even to non-military organizations as well as the United States Congress, which produces challenge coins for members of Congress to give to constituents. Today, challenge coins are given to members upon joining an organization, as an award to improve morale, and sold to commemorate special occasions or as fundraisers.
The tradition of a challenge is the most common way to ensure that members are carrying their unit's coin. The challenge only applies to those members that have been given a coin formally by their unit. The tradition of the coin challenge is meant to be a source of morale in a unit, and forcing the challenge can cause a reverse effect. The act of challenging is called a "Coin Check" and is usually loudly announced.
The challenge, which can be made at any time, begins with the challenger drawing his/her coin, and slapping or placing the coin on the table or bar. In noisy environments, continuously rapping the challenge coin on a surface may initiate the challenge. (Accidentally dropping a challenge coin is considered to be a deliberate challenge to all present.) Everyone being challenged must immediately produce the coin for their organization and anyone failing to do so must buy a round of drinks for the challenger and everyone else who has their challenge coin. However, should everyone challenged be able to produce their coin, the challenger must buy a round of drinks for the group.
Coins on belt buckles or key chains are not acceptable for meeting a challenge. However, a coin worn around the neck is acceptable for meeting a coin challenge.
Variants of the rules include, but are not limited to, the following: If someone is able to steal a challenge coin, everyone in the group must buy a drink for that person. During a challenge, everyone in the group must buy a drink for the holder of the highest-ranking coin. A coin presented to a low rank, by a high rank, (i.e.: Admiral) trumps all low rank coins in a challenge. Traditionally, the presentation of a coin is passed during a handshake. Some units provide strict time limits to respond to a challenge.
Traditionally, rules of a challenge include a prohibition against defacing the coin, especially if it makes it easier to carry at all times. If the challenge coin is attached to a belt buckle or key ring, or has had a hole drilled in it to attach to a lanyard, it no longer qualifies as a challenge coin.A safer place to carry a coin is in a pouch worn around the neck.
Challenge Coin Uses
Besides using coins for challenging, they are also used as rewards or awards for outstanding service or performance of duty. As such, they are used as a tool to build morale. Military officials occasionally give them to non-military personnel for outstanding service or rewards.
In the context as they are used by the modern U.S. military, the tradition probably began among special forces units during the Vietnam War.The tradition spread through the Airborne community, and by the early 1980s also into the 75th Ranger Regiment.As officers were reassigned as their careers progressed, they carried with them the tradition of awarding a unit coin for acts that were worthy of recognition, but yet lacked enough merit to submit the soldiers act for an official medal.
One widely known challenge coin in the United States Air Force was the "Bull Dog" challenge coin that was exclusive to B-52 enlisted tail gunners. Since the B-52 gunner position was phased out in 1991, this famous challenge coin has become rarer.
This coin was presented to gunners upon graduation from their Air Force technical training and their entry into the "Gunners Association". In the earlier days of bombers, a bean or a nugget was used. The coin represents the attributes of strength and courage as reflected in the Bulldog, the gunner's official mascot. The coin was also given to certain "honorary gunners", usually commanders and leaders who portrayed the spirit of the bulldog.
Coins given as awards for accomplishments are normally given to the recipient during a handshake, passing from the right hand of the giver to the right hand of the awardee. It is also normal for the giver to offer a brief explanation of the reason for awarding the coin.
Outside of the military
Challenge coins are also exchanged outside the military. NASCAR, the NFL, cadets of the Civil Air Patrol, Eagle Scouts and World Series of Poker all have their own challenge coins. They are also becoming popular with police departments, fire departments and fraternal organizations. Many non-profits give challenge coins to donors to acknowledge their support of the organization.