Challenge Coin History

If you’ve got a challenge coin in your pocket, you’re aware of what it represents. Bravery, a deployment, service, even sacrifice. You might be a veteran, a firefighter, a law enforcement officer— even a Mason.

But have you ever wondered where the challenge coin custom started? In this article, we’ll explore the various historical accounts of challenge coins dating back to the Roman Empire and World War I.

Challenge Coin History

Challenge coins on display behind a former President

You may also wonder exactly how challenge coins got their start. Below, you’ll learn about the history and fascinating historical evolution of challenge coins.

The Ancient History of the Challenge Coin

The origin of challenge coins begins as far back as the Roman Empire. Although they weren’t called “challenge coins” at the time, they served a similar purpose.

According to historians, Roman soldiers would receive a bonus coin along with their daily pay if they excelled in battle. Since these coins were specially marked, soldiers often kept them as mementos rather than spending them.

Later, during the Renaissance, early variations of challenge coins were struck or minted, called “portrait medals.” They were typically given as awards or gifts to nobility, royalty, and well-off people. Usually, one side of the coin would feature the recipient’s portrait, while the other bore an image of their lineage, house, or family crest.

These commemorative portrait medals memorialized many important figures from the Renaissance and were able to communicate a lot of information about the recipient — either explicitly or through allegory and visual metaphor.

An Italian painter, Pisanello, first made portrait coins in honor of the Byzantine Emperor John VIII Paleologus’s visit to the Roman Catholic Church — a 10 inch medallion with the emperor’s portrait on one side, and a narrative scene on the reverse side.

Antonio Marescotti Medaglia con Pisanello

One of Pisanello’s portrait coins – by I, Sailko, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons 

Over the course of the next 10 years, Pisanello made 26 various commemorative portrait coins.

The first instance of using these coins in response to an actual challenge dates back to 17th-century France. During that time, many French Protestants fled the country to escape religious prosecution.

Those who remained formed a new group called the Huguenots. To avoid prosecution, they were forced to hold services in secret. To avoid infiltration from government spies, they created a special communion coin. Members of the church had to show this coin to be allowed entry into services.

History of Military Challenge Coins

Challenge coin history didn’t end with the Huguenots, as the legacy of the challenge coin tradition reinvented in the modern military.

It’s not clear when the tradition of military challenge coins started. There are no written, verifiable records, but there are anecdotal accounts of where modern challenge coins originated.

The most common story goes like this:

During World War I, a wealthy lieutenant ordered several bronze coins to be made. He handed out these coins to members of his squad and kept his own coin tethered safely around his neck.

One fateful day, his plane was shot down behind enemy lines in Germany, and the lieutenant found himself surrounded by German soldiers. They stripped the man of all his possessions, save for one: the bronze coin.

Challenge Coin History

A WWI aviator

The crafty lieutenant managed to escape and steal some civilian clothing. He then wandered into a French outpost, but because he wasn’t in uniform and had no identification, the soldiers didn’t recognize him.

They French soldiers planned to execute him until he brandished his special coin. The soldiers recognized the insignia on the coin and realized who the lieutenant was, so they spared him. When the lieutenant returned to his squadron, he made it a tradition for soldiers to carry their bronze coins at all times in case they ever ran into trouble.

Other Possibilities for the Origin of Modern Challenge Coins

The above story is compelling, but not everyone believes it to be true. Another story claims that a member of the 11th Special Forces Group stamped a special logo onto old coins back in the 1960s. A former commander of the 10th SFG liked this idea and decided to mint coins for his unit. As the story goes, this remained the only unit with its own challenge coin until the 1980s.

Another account claims the military challenge coin tradition started during the Vietnam War. According to the tale, an infantry-run bar attempted to shoo away outsiders by forcing patrons to prove they’d seen combat.

As a form of proof, patrons would show bullets, later upgrading to more dangerous ordinance like rockets and grenades. To put a stop to this disaster waiting to happen, the bar began accepting special coins with the unit’s insignia as proof.

President Trump gives a custom trump challenge coin to military service members

Former President Trump handing out a challenge coin

How Are Challenge Coins Used Today?

Today, challenge coins are used in much the same manner as they (allegedly) were many years ago. Military challenge coins are often given to service members to recognize accomplishments. All branches of the military— the Army, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, and Space Force, have variations of challenge coins to recognize their great accomplishments.

However, any group is free to issue challenge coins to its members. That includes police departments, fire departments, and Masonic lodges. Even some companies give challenge coins to their employees as well, most likely as a nod to the business owner’s military service.

The Modern Military Tradition of Challenge Coins

The military tradition of challenge coins is now used to commemorate important times during service, like a deployment, or membership in a unit.

Challenge coin holders can “challenge” other coin holders at any time. According to tradition, the person being challenged must present their coin. If your coin ‘outranks’ the other coin — you win and the loser has to buy you a drink.

For example, you might have recieved a challenge coin from your battalion commander for exceptional marksmanship on the CQB range. So you challenge a service member friend back home on leave — and he pulls out a Presidential Challenge Coin.

You’re buying!

Order Your Custom Challenge Coins Now

Challenge coin history is incredibly interesting and makes for a fascinating read. If you’d like to be a part of this storied tradition after learning the historical significance of challenge coins, order custom challenge coins today. We can produce coins in any shape and with various handsome finishes.

All artwork is free, and we provide free shipping worldwide.

To order your custom coins, submit a contact form and we’ll give you a free quote.

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