Challenge Coin History: Tracing the Roots

How much do you know about the challenge coin history? Time for a lesson! Here, were are tracing the roots of this great tradition.

Challenge coins are a great American tradition, but did they really begin with us?

Today, we use challenge coins to commemorate a job well done. They can be issued to anyone from US presidents to police officers and first responders, to corporate leaders. Most commonly, they’re given to soldiers and veterans after a hard-fought battle or tour abroad.

It seems like as American a tradition as you’re likely to find in the modern world, but the truth is, we don’t really know for certain where the idea of challenge coins came from. Yep, challenge coin history is actually kind of mysterious.

Today, we’re going to talk about a few plausible challenge coin origin stories. These little commemorative coins say a lot about someone who has one, but what can we say about the coin itself? It’s time to find out.

Investigating Challenge Coin History

Challenge coins aren’t exactly an abstract concept, which makes it really hard to identify where they might’ve started. There are various origin stories that range from ridiculous to plausible. None are proven, but they’re all quite interesting.

Ancient Rome?

One theory is that the first challenge coin was given to an ancient Roman soldier for an act of valor. He’d get his normal pay, then an extra coin on the side for a job well done. It’s said that these coins were marked with the legion that they came from, so the soldiers were more keen to hang on to them as keepsakes.

A Life Saver

Another, more unbelievable, challenge coin origin story tells of a WWI pilot that was given a special coin denoting his squadron and unit by a general. When he was shot down by the enemy, the Germans took all of his belongings except his medallion.

He eventually escaped to France but was captured by French soldiers that assumed he was a spy. Facing execution, the soldier remembered the medallion and used it to prove his identity.

The Challenge

The “challenge” aspect of challenge coins is said to originate in post-WWII, where Americans would conduct coin checks. If you were in a bar when someone called for a medallion check, you’d have to slam down your challenge coin on the surface.

The soldiers that didn’t have their medallions with them would have to buy drinks for the soldiers that did. Hence, the challenge.

Who Knows

All of these histories are equally entertaining and likely to have happened. Unfortunately, unless we find an ancient Roman soldier’s wax tablet or an American soldier’s diary corroborating one of these stories, we’ll never know for sure.

The Significance of Challenge Coins Now

Now, custom challenge coins are given out to military members, local heroes, and government officials for a litany of reasons. You could even make one for someone in your life for any kind of accomplishment. They’re popular collector’s items because of the rare beauty that one of these coins has.

The roots of the challenge coin are long forgotten, but we’re lucky to be able to enjoy them more than ever today.

Issue Your Own Challenge

Learning about challenge coin history is a pretty fun trip through military history as a whole. Finding out more about the way soldiers were treated and celebrated, even in ancient times, is a great way to appreciate the soldiers of today.

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