Knowing all the facts of the challenge coin history is virtually impossible, in part because this is a tradition that was already commonly practiced in many empires and cultures as far back as the ancient world. Where was the exact starting point? Nobody knows for sure, but historians have a lot of information about not only the true predecessors to the modern challenge coins but also on similar practices and traditions that all military units use today.
Just What Are These Coins?
When someone starts talking about these challenge coins from the military, at least in modern times, they’re not talking about a recognized currency in most cases but a specially minted, designed, or crafted coin/medallion that is created with a well recognized symbol, insignia, or emblem of a popular unit or organization. The challenge coin history may have started out as an honorary token for going above and beyond the call of duty back in ancient times, today they are mostly used as evidence. Having one of these coins is one of the best ways to prove membership.
This not only works as a point of pride and to enhance both morale and unity among a special group or unit but they also work to prove membership against a challenge and ferret out liars, con men, or pretenders. There are service members who even collect these coins out of extreme respect for what they represent and the units or organizations they represent.
Earliest Known Predecessors To The Modern Challenge Coin
The earliest confirmed examples of this tradition that is widespread and well acknowledged among history buffs go all the way back to Ancient Rome. In the old Roman Empire soldiers who showed special valor, performed incredibly well as part of a unit, or otherwise performed in a positive way that was noticed would not only get their regular pay but also a separate coin that was considered a bonus. At first, this might have been a regular coin but at some point, these “bonus coins” were minted with a special design – the mark of the legion that they were awarded from.
There are multiple historical accounts that say many soldiers began to hold onto these special coins as proof of service and a memento from their time in the service rather than spending them. This type of habit would make this a popular practice that would pop up again and again long after the Roman Empire was done and gone.
The First "Official" Challenge Coin?
One of the most popular stories about where challenge coins came from in modern times can be traced back to the first World War. While no one can confirm this story for sure, the popular version of the tale goes that a wealthy officer in one of the early flying squadrons has bronze medallions featuring the squad’s insignia made for every one of his men. One of the fliers was shot down over Germany and then captured, stripping him of most of what he had but allowing him to keep the small pouch around his neck that contained that special bronze medallion.
The story goes that the pilot managed to escape and even somehow make his way back to the lines in France, where the French believe he was a spy and were going to execute him. The pilot showed the bronze medallion and one of the soldiers recognized that insignia. The execution was delayed long enough to confirm his identity and then return him to his unit – though with no word on whether or not he received an apology.
The Challenge (Post World War II)
At least in the United States services, most people agree that the “challenge” part of the challenge coin started with service members stationed in Germany post World War II. Americans there learned about a local tradition of “pfennig checks.” The pfennig is like a penny, the lowest coin denomination, and if a group called for a pfennig check and you didn’t have one, you were stuck buying the next round of beer.
For the servicemen, it made sense to change this to a unit coin or medallion, and if the person didn’t have theirs they had to buy a beer for everyone who did. However, if everyone had their medallion then the challenger would have to buy the drinks for everyone else.
Confirmed Early Challenge Coins In Korea
Colonel “Buffalo Bill” Quinn minted these coins for the 17th Infantry Regiment during the Korean War and one was given to every man in the unit. This caught on quickly and led to the modern challenge coin movement, which today not only includes all branches of the armed forces but also extends to many emergency services, as well. The idea of an identifying special coin has become a standard part of the experience and keeps up a rich tradition of acknowledgment to the accomplishment of those who worked so hard and sacrificed so much to get there. The challenge coin history is indeed rich and full of deep rooted tradition.