For decades, those serving in the U.S. military have carried special coins from the moment that they are deployed until they finally retire. These coins are specifically minted and branded with the particular mottos and symbols associated with the soldier’s unit. Even if they are separated from their military family, they will forever carry the pride of their unit with the aid of these custom coins.
Nowadays, even those who do not necessarily practice a military lifestyle revere the existence and symbolism of the challenge coins. Also, the use of these custom coins is no longer limited to the military. Servicemen who work as firefighters, sailors, policemen, soldiers, and even the Marines proudly carry their own personal coins.
These are now meant to signify the bearer’s affiliation with a well-respected and recognized unit.
Brief History of Challenge Coins
While there is no concrete evidence that can be used to trace the origins of modern challenge coins, history suggests that the tradition can be traced to Ancient Rome. It is said that an enlisted Roman soldier could expect to receive a special coin as a reward for a display of valor or for simply rendering excellent service to the emperor.
Compared to the other coins that were given as a salary, these special coins contained the mark of a soldier’s platoon. As a result, many of the soldiers considered these items more as mementos rather than as regular currency.
In more recent history, challenge coins were seen to have played a significant role during World War I. An unnamed soldier was said to have been given a special custom coin that bore his squadron’s insignia. When he was captured by the Germans, only the coin was left in his possession. This particular coin apparently saved his life since it was recognized by the French who had initially planned on executing him on suspicions of working as a spy.
After this incident, special coins were specifically minted by Colonel Quinn of the 17th Infantry Regiment and distributed among his men during the Korean War. Since the Colonel carried the moniker Buffalo Bill, the coins bore a buffalo on one side and the unit’s insignia on the other. To make it more convenient for his troops, he had holes drilled into the coins so that they could wear them as medallions, instead of carrying them around in separate pouches.
In modern society, challenge coins are specifically differentiated from coins used as currency. The customized coins are either handed out as special tokens for exemplary service or exchanged with others as a way to grow personal coin collections. Civilians are now permitted to buy and own these special coins to help the military gain more publicity or raise more funds.
Physical Characteristics of a Challenge Coin
Although most challenge coins are at least 1/10 inches thick and measure at least 1.5 inches in diameter, they can still come in a wide range of shapes and sizes. Custom coins can be shaped like dog tags, shields, or arrowheads. Their designs can also incorporate cut-outs, 3D effects, and highlights. The cheaper and simpler custom coins are commonly made of copper, nickel or pewter, while the more expensive coins can be plated in gold.
While they originally served as medallions or tokens, these coins eventually became known as challenge coins. The reason for this moniker is the fact that they are usually used in games wherein coin-bearers use the items in challenges and games that often have corresponding penalties for the losers.
The origins of the challenge coin game initially began with the use of actual coins. Americans stationed in Germany during World War II used pfennigs in their games. These held the lowest denomination in German currency. The soldier who was unable to present a coin once the game was initiated had to pay for a round of beers.
Eventually, soldiers began using their customized coins or medallions instead of actual coins. Any soldier who was unable to procure his coin once the game was called, had to buy a drink for the other players who had brought their own coins. Conversely, if everyone around the table was able to bring out their coins, the challenger who initiated the game had to buy everyone else a round of drinks instead.