Many organizations across the United States give small medallions with the organization’s emblem etched into them to their members as a symbol of unity and pride within the group. These medallions are called Challenge Coins, and their roots lie in the Armed Forces of the United States.

The origin of the Challenge Coin

First, a little Challenge Coin history. The first Challenge Coin dates back to World War I. An officer of the United States Army Air Service was shot down and captured in Germany. He successfully escaped to French territory, and proved that he wasn’t a German spy by showing the French a special coin that identified him as a member of his unit in the U.S. Army Air Force.

The “challenge” aspect of the coin came decades later, and some say it originated in a Military run bar in Vietnam. Patrons of the bar were required to produce the medallions in order to prove they were members of the Military, and anyone who couldn’t “meet the Challenge” by showing they carried a coin had to buy drinks for everyone at the bar. Another theory is that the challenge originated from a German drinking game, where the last person to show a pfennig (a former German coin that was the equivalent of a penny), had to buy a round of drinks.

Challenge Coins as a Symbol of Accomplishments

Since then the Military Challenge Coin has become an iconic tradition, with many members carrying them, trading them, using them to prove membership to branches within the Military and gifting them as awards for accomplishments. Young and lower ranking soldiers who first join the Military work to impress high ranking officers enough to receive a Challenge Coin.

But as mentioned earlier, that tradition has reached far beyond just the military. Organizations like the Lions Club, Boy Scouts, police forces and NASCAR have their own Challenge Coins etched with their own insignias.  Like in the Military, the coins are used to prove membership to the organizations, and to help build morale. Even the presidents of the United States have their own challenge coins designed and can award them to friends, family and other citizens who show outstanding service to their country.

Now, more and more organizations are using the challenge coin, not only for proof of membership, but also as awards at events.  And because of the history and roots of the challenge coin, it also continues to serve as a way for these organizations to pay homage to the men and women who serve to protect our country.