There are many examples of traditions that reinforce camaraderie in the military, but few are as respected as the practice of wearing a challenge piece - a small medallion or pledge that signifies that a person is a member of an organization. . Even if the provocative pieces have shattered the civilian population, they remain a mystery to those outside the armed forces.
What kind of challenge coin people use?
Normally, the challenge coins are about 1.5 to 2 inches in diameter and about 1/10th of an inch thick, but the style and size are quite different - some will even appear unusual shapes such as shields, pentagons, arrows and dogs brand. Coins are usually made of tin, copper or nickel and offer a variety of finishes (some limited edition coins are gold plated). The design can be simple - engrave the organization's badges and mottos, or have high-gloss highlights, multi-dimensional designs and tailoring.
When Challenge Coin Start?
It is almost impossible to know why and where the tradition of challenge coins began. One thing is certain: coins and military service go back far beyond our modern age.
One of the first known examples of an enlisted soldier who received a monetary reward for his courage took place in Ancient Rome. If a soldier performed well in battle that day, he would receive the typical payment for his day and a separate coin as a bonus. Some versions say that the coin was coined especially with a mark of the legion from which it came, which caused some men to cling to their coins as a souvenir, instead of spending it on women and wine.
Today, the use of coins in the army is much more nuanced. While many coins are given as tokens of appreciation for a job well done, especially for those who serve as part of a military operation, some managers exchange them almost like business cards or autographs that they can add to a collection. There are also coins that a soldier can use as an identification card to prove that they served in a particular unit. Still other currencies are given to civilians for publicity, or even sold as a tool to raise funds.
Stories say that the challenge began in Germany after World War II. Americans stationed there took up the local tradition of conducting “pfennig checks.” The pfennig was the lowest denomination of coin in Germany, and if you didn’t have one when a check was called, you were stuck buying the beers. This evolved from a pfenning to a unit’s medallion, and members would "challenge" each other by slamming a medallion down on the bar. If any member present didn’t have his medallion, he had to buy a drink for the challenger and for anyone else that had their coin. If all the other members had their medallions, the challenger had to buy everyone drinks....
The Secret Handshake
In June 2011, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates toured military bases in Afghanistan before his impending retirement. Along the way, he shook hands with dozens of men and women in the Armed Forces in what, to the naked eye, appeared to be a simple exchange of respect. It was, in fact, a secret handshake with a surprise inside for the recipient—a special Secretary of Defense challenge coin.
Not all challenge coins are passed by secret handshake, but it has become a tradition that many uphold. It could have its origins in the Second Boer War, fought between the British and South African colonists at the turn of the 20th century. The British hired many soldiers of fortune for the conflict, who, due to their mercenary status, were unable to earn medals of valor. It was not unusual, though, for the commanding officer of those mercenaries to receive the accommodation instead. Stories say that non-commissioned officers would often sneak into the tent of an unjustly awarded officer and cut the medal from the ribbon. Then, in a public ceremony, they would call the deserving mercenary forward and, palming the medal, shake his hand, passing it to the soldier as a way of indirectly thanking him for his service.
What's the First Official Challenge Coin?
Although nobody is sure how the coin challenge arose, a story goes back to the First World War, when a rich officer had bronze medallions with the flying squad's insignia to give to his men. Soon after, one of the young flying aces was shot down over Germany and captured. The Germans took everything in their person except for the small leather bag that he wore around his neck that coincidentally contained his medallion.
The pilot escaped and went to France. But the French believed he was a spy and they condemned him to execution. In an effort to prove his identity, the pilot presented the medallion. A French soldier recognized the badge and the execution was delayed. The French confirmed his identity and sent him back to his unit.
One of the first challenge coins was coined by Colonel "Buffalo Bill" Quinn, 17th Infantry Regiment, who made them for his men during the Korean War. The coin features a buffalo on one side as a nod to its creator, and the insignia of the regiment on the other side. A hole was drilled in the upper part so that men could use it around the neck, instead of in a leather bag.
Special Forces Coins
Challenge coins began to catch on during the Vietnam War. The first coins from this era were created by either the Army's 10th or 11th Special Forces Group and were little more than common currency with the unit’s insignia stamped on one side, but the men in the unit carried them with pride.
More importantly, though, it was a lot safer than the alternative—bullet clubs, whose members carried a single unused bullet at all times. Many of these bullets were given as a reward for surviving a mission, with the idea that it was now a “last resort bullet,” to be used on yourself instead of surrendering if defeat seemed imminent. Of course carrying a bullet was little more than a show of machismo, so what started off as handgun or M16 rounds, soon escalated to .50 caliber bullets, anti-aircraft rounds, and even artillery shells in an effort to one-up each other.
Unfortunately, when these bullet club members presented “The Challenge” to each other in bars, it meant they were slamming live ammunition down on the table. Worried that a deadly accident might occur, command banned the ordnance, and replaced it with limited edition Special Forces coins instead. Soon nearly every unit had their own coin, and some even minted commemorative coins for especially hard-fought battles to hand out to those who lived to tell the tale.
President (and Vice President) Challenge Coins
Starting with Bill Clinton, each president has had his own challenge, since Dick Cheney, the vice president has also had one.
Usually there are some different presidential coins, one for the inauguration, one that commemorates its administration and another available for the general public, often in gift shops or online. But there is a special official presidential currency that can only be received by shaking hands with the most powerful man in the world. As you can probably guess, this is the rarest and most sought after of all the challenge coins.
The president can distribute a currency at his own discretion, but they are usually reserved for special occasions, military personnel or foreign dignitaries. It has been said that George W. Bush reserved his coins for wounded soldiers returning from the Middle East. President Obama distributes them quite often, especially to the soldiers who climb the stairs in Air Force One.
Beyond the Military
Challenge coins are now being used by many different organizations. In the federal government, everyone, from Secret Service agents to White House staff and personal assistants to the president have their own coins. Probably the coolest coins are those of the Military Helpers of the White House, the people who carry the atomic ball, whose coins have, naturally, the shape of a soccer ball.
However, thanks in part to the online custom coin companies, they are all accepting the tradition. Nowadays, it is not uncommon for police and fire departments to have coins, as do many civic organizations, such as the Lions Club and the Boy Scouts. Even the Star Wars cosplayers of the 501st Legion, the Harley Davidson pilots and the Linux users have their own coins. Challenge coins have become a lasting and highly collectable way to show your loyalty anytime, anywhere.
So that you could also custom your own Challenge coin? No matter you're military or not.
Contact us to make one. Southkingze@gmail.com