What Does a Challenge Coin Really Mean?

If you’re in the military or a first responder, you’ve probably seen or been given a challenge coin for meeting a dignitary, getting a promotion, or even for merit.

A challenge coin is a coin that’s specially designed to represent an occasion or an organization. These coins are usually small and made of various metals, including brass, zinc, and bronze. Some challenge coins are also made of 24-carat gold.

The coins usually have a unique design belonging to the institution they represent. The insignia or emblem of the organization is usually engraved onto the coin. The organization’s motto may also be etched around the coin’s edge.

While most coins are round, some come in other shapes. Some designs also include unique features or cutouts.


What Do Challenge Coins Represent?

These coins represent teams, organizations, or units. They can also represent a special event, an anniversary, or an achievement. A challenge coin represents unity and builds lasting, close-knit bonds between the individuals given the coins. They have long been used in the military and by first responders.


A History of Challenge Coins

The tradition of challenge coins is said to have begun among soldiers in the military. The earliest accounts date the practice back to Ancient Rome when special coins were awarded to soldiers to appreciate their valor in battle. Various historians claim that the special coins were marked with their battalion’s symbol, which prompted most soldiers to keep them as souvenirs.

Others believe that the origin of these coins can be traced to World War I. The story goes that the aircraft of a pilot soldier who received a stamped bronze medallion was captured by German soldiers as a spy.

It is said that even after the German soldiers took the pilot’s personal identification to discourage his escape, the young soldier still found a way to escape. After finding his way back to his home base, he then used his medallion to prove that he wasn’t a spy. However, this is likely a myth.


What Challenge are Challenge Coins Associated with?

This varies between groups, but generally, the challenge is linked to drinking. It was started as a way to ensure that all members of a squadron had their coin with them at all times.

The most common version of this challenge entails one member of a group, referred to as the challenger, initiating the challenge by placing the coin on the nearest surface. Individuals around the challenger must then produce their own challenge coins.

If any person cannot produce a challenge coin for the “coin check,” they have to buy drinks for those who produced theirs. However, if every individual presents their coin, the challenger is tasked with buying the drinks.

The original purpose of the challenge was to avail the coin for security purposes, as those who couldn’t produce a coin were considered impostors. However, as better security systems were implemented, the use of the coin became more of a tradition than for official use.

The traditional rules of the challenge also forbid the coin from being defaced, especially if defacing will make it easier to carry. For example, if the coin has a hole drilled in it so that it can be attached to a lanyard or is attached to a key ring or belt buckle, it can no longer qualify as a challenge coin.

What Does it Mean to be Given a Challenge Coin?

As mentioned above, challenge coins are awarded for different reasons. Some groups give their members unique challenge coins to signify their acceptance into the group. For instance, the Air Force gives basic and officer training graduates challenge coins to commemorate their graduation.

A coin’s rank is usually determined by the rank of the person giving the challenge coin. For instance, a challenge coin from an admiral will outrank a challenge coin from a vice admiral. Traditionally, a challenge coin is usually given during a handshake. Coins are also ranked by the level of difficulty endured to attain them.

Other groups give challenge coins to individuals who’ve achieved something great to honor special accomplishments in the line of duty. For instance, some fire departments and law enforcement agencies award challenge coins to officers who went beyond the call of duty.

Politicians and government agencies also use challenge coins to recognize first responders in their communities, creating a sense of unity and honor, especially during a tragedy or loss. In addition, challenge coins can also be given to non-members in special circumstances.

What Are Other Purposes of Challenge Coins?

Recently, civilian groups have begun using them to promote brands, build morale in teams, and link individuals with similar interests. Some corporations have even started handing out challenge coins at trade shows, conferences, and sales events.

It makes sense since a challenge coin is unforgettable compared to a business card. Apart from companies, sports teams and schools have also begun using challenge coins for branding. Team logos and school mascots are engraved onto coins that are handed out at different events.

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