History of Challenge Coins by Greg November 24, 2014
The/Studio has recently added Challenge Coins to our product offering. Challenge Coins are specially minted coins. It is a small coin or medallion bearing an organization’s insignia or emblem and is carried by the organization’s members. Traditionally, they are given to prove membership when challenged and to enhance morale. In addition, they are also collected. In practice, challenge coins are normally presented in recognition of special achievement by a member of the unit. They are also exchanged in recognition of visits to an organization.
Before The/Studio offered this product I became very interested in the origin of the name Challenge Coin. Why was it called a Challenge Coin?
What I discovered was quite interesting.
History of the Challenge Coin
There are several stories detailing the origins of the challenge coin. According to the most common story, challenge coins originated during World War I. American volunteers from all parts of the country filled the newly formed flying squadrons. Some were wealthy scions attending colleges such as Yale and Harvard who quit in mid-term to join the war. In one squadron, a wealthy lieutenant ordered medallions struck in solid bronze and presented them to his unit. One young pilot placed the medallion in a small leather pouch that he wore about his neck.
Shortly after acquiring the medallion, the pilots’ aircraft was severely damaged by ground fire. He was forced to land behind enemy lines and was immediately captured by a German patrol. In order to discourage his escape, the Germans took all of his personal identification except for the small leather pouch around his neck. In the meantime, he was taken to a small French town near the front. Taking advantage of a bombardment that night, he escaped. However, he was without personal identification. He succeeded in avoiding German patrols by donning civilian attire and reached the front lines. With great difficulty, he crossed no-man’s land.
Eventually, he stumbled onto a French outpost. Unfortunately, saboteurs had plagued the French in the sector. They sometimes masqueraded as civilians and wore civilian clothes. Not recognizing the young pilot’s American accent, the French thought him to be a saboteur and made ready to execute him. He had no identification to prove his allegiance, but he did have his leather pouch containing the medallion. He showed the medallion to his would-be executioners and one of his French captors recognized the squadron insignia on the medallion. They delayed his execution long enough for him to confirm his identity. Instead of shooting him they gave him a bottle of wine.
Back at his squadron, it became tradition to ensure that all members carried their medallion or coin at all times. This was accomplished through “challenge” in the following manner – a challenger would ask to see the medallion. If the challenged could not produce a medallion, they were required to buy a drink of choice for the member who challenged them. If the challenged member produced a medallion, then the challenging member was required to pay for the drink. This tradition of the “challenge” continued on throughout the war and for many years after the war while surviving members of the squadron were still alive.
The challenge, which can be made at any time, begins with the challenger drawing his/her coin, and slapping or placing the coin on the table or bar. In noisy environments, continuously rapping the challenge coin on a surface may initiate the challenge. (Accidentally dropping a challenge coin is considered to be a deliberate challenge to all present.) Everyone being challenged must immediately produce the coin for their organization and anyone failing to do so must buy a round of drinks for the challenger and everyone else who has their challenge coin. However, should everyone challenged be able to produce their coin, the challenger must buy a round of drinks for the group.
While this tradition of the “challenge” stills exists today within the military, the use of challenge coins has also grown greatly within the private sector for companies and organizations. But without the “challenge” requiring drinks to be purchased. Today in the private sector they are used still as a source of identity to group or organization and also for recognition.
If you too ever wondered why these custom manufactured coins are called Challenge Coins, now you know…