If you have friends or family members who have served in the U.S. Armed forces, you may have seen intricately designed medallions that many of them have. They’re called Military Challenge Coins, and the act of carrying them around is one steeped in military history and tradition.

Roots of the Military Challenge Coins

The history of challenge coins are said to date back to World War I.

During the war a wealthy lieutenant from the Army Air Service had special coins made for each man in his unit, so the men could feel united and proud to serve.  A little while later, a pilot from the lieutenant’s unit was shot down over Germany. The pilot survived the crash, but was quickly captured by German soldiers. The Germans took his belongings away, besides a leather pouch strapped around his neck with his unit’s coin inside. The soldier waited until the perfect timing and managed to escape from the hands of the Germans. He eventually made it to a French Outpost, but that didn't mean he was safe. The French had no way of knowing who the pilot was, and accused him of being a spy, and threatened with execution.

With no way to prove his identity, the pilot felt hopeless. That’s when he remembered the coin tucked away in the pouch around his neck. He showed the coin to the Frenchmen, and luckily, one of them recognized it immediately. The French officers informed the others the pilot was not a spy and in fact an American. His life was spared and he was able to be reunited back with his unit.

Ever since then, higher ranking officials in the military have carried a uniquely designed medallion with an insignia or emblem etched onto it. The officers exchange coins with each other, and at times give the coins away to soldiers whose service in the military stands out as exceptional.

Use of Military Challenge Coins

But giving and exchanging coins isn’t the only thing the coins are for. The coins are used to prove membership in specific units and are also frequently used for the military’s adaptation of a German drinking game called the “Pfennig Check” or “Pfenning Challenge.” The Pfennig was a coin with the lowest value in Germany, and if you didn’t have one on you when called for a “Pfennig Check,” the next round of drinks for everyone was on you. Members of the U.S. Armed Forces started using their special medallions for the same purpose at bars. The soldier who didn’t have their unit coin on them lost the “challenge” and had to buy drinks for their comrades. Hence the term “Challenge Coin.”

With a rich history and meaning attached to them, U.S. Servicemen and women continue to proudly carry the challenge coins as a symbol of unity and pride in their branch and unit, along with serving as a reminder of the sacrifices made by the service men and women who fight to protect our freedoms.