The Story Behind Military Challenge Coins

Posted by dunitzsantrino on December 29th, 2014

There is almost nothing that signals camaraderie and pride like a military challenge coin. Normally less than 2 inches in diameter, they can come in a wide variety of shapes and designs. While most of them are round, it is not uncommon to see coins shaped like dog tags, shields, or even arrowheads. They are each engraved with details particular to the unit, and are always kept within reach. While military challenge coins are becoming more common in civilian pockets, they are still an important part of military life.

The Beginnings of Military Challenge Coins

Military challenge coins and tokens have been dated back to the ancient Roman legions. While these coins were often used as currency, they were still minted for individual units. Many Roman soldiers were able to be identified by their commanders simply by the military coin that they carried. Since these special coins were often given out as bonus for bravery and honor, many Roman soldiers refused to spend them. They would carry the coin with them as a reminder and as a token of honor.

Using these coins as a type of military challenge seems to have begun during the First World War. The popular story tells how a commander had special coins made for each of his young pilots. During the course of an air fight, one of these pilots found himself shot down in German territory. As he made his way back to his unit, he was stopped by an allied French patrol. In order to prove his identity, and save his life he used this coin to show that he was an American pilot. Since then military personnel have been issuing military coin challenges to their fellow servicemen.

The popular penalty for not showing a coin during the challenge is to buy the next round of drinks. Military members can trace the origins in this back to WWII, and the German custom of “pfenning checks”. This small German coin is equal to the American penny, and whoever did not have one in their pockets was stuck paying for that round of drinks. If everyone produced the small coin, the challenger was stuck paying for the bar tab.

Military challenge coins really began gaining attention in 2011, with the American Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates. During his emotional tour of American military bases in Afghanistan, he created a stir with his secret handshake. After shaking hands with various military personnel, each one found a specially minted challenge coin from the retiring Defense secretary. While using secret handshakes to give military challenge coins is rare, many believe it dates back to the Second Boer War, and the British hiring of mercenary soldiers. Since many of these British soldiers were not able to receive the traditional medal of valor, their commanding officers would keep it. Fellow soldiers would simply steal it, and pass it to the deserving soldier in a public handshake.

With the long history of bravery and honor that is attached to the military challenge coin, it is easy to see why they play such an important part in soldiers’ lives.

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