Challenge coins are large coins that are custom-made for the military, firefighters, law enforcement, and other organizations. These coins can be cast or struck with military unit emblems, special artwork, and typically commemorate membership of a particular organization or to acknowledge an achievement.

Usually, the coins feature intricate designs with the organization’s symbol, name, or emblem on one side and intricate artwork on the reverse.


The history of challenge coins is shrouded in mystery. Some historians claim challenge coins go as far back as the Roman Empire. Most modern origin stories, however, date modern challenge coins to World War I, when military pilots had medallions associated with their squadron. If a combat pilot was downed in battle, that coin could serve as a crucial piece of life-saving identification to friendly forces.

What Are Challenge Coins Used For?

Nowadays, challenge coins aren’t just used to identify military personnel. These coins represent belonging and camaraderie. They can also represent gratitude for exemplary service to an organization or community, making them just as important to civilians.

The value of challenge coins relates to the significance people place on their membership within a particular organization. Groups that issue challenge coins include units throughout the military, police departments, fire stations, and Masonic temples. The coins represent the belonging and duty the team members share for each other and their common goals.

In addition, challenge coins can be given as a special reward or to recognize a professional achievement.

The purpose of challenge coins depends on the organization. Some treat challenge coins as tokens of membership. Others use challenge coins as a reward or thank you to outsiders for their hard work and contributions. Regardless, challenge coins mean a lot to those who hold them.

When members of these organizations get together, they often pull a “coin check” — where someone throws their challenge coin on the bar and everyone has to produce their own coin. Each organization typically has it’s own challenge coin rules.

What Does It Mean If Someone Gives You Their Challenge Coin?

A challenge coin, especially one given from a high-ranking person to someone of a lower rank, is a great honor. Think of it as an informal reward. Challenge coins are always meaningful, but coming from a superior, they become invaluable.

If you’re a military service member, you might receive a challenge coin from your unit commander for being a part of the unit, or for a special achievement. Unit commanders often have special coins cast in order to give out to their subordinates — typically contracting with a company like Embleholics to create custom artwork and molds.

What makes the reward “informal” is that there is not supposed to be any ceremony when someone gives a challenge coin. It is typically given surreptitiously in a handshake. You may have seen the President of the United States slip a coin in his hand before shaking hands with a military official (though this is usually only evident to those in the know or by watching a video replay with commentary alerting the viewer to the transaction). This is a high honor from the Commander-in-Chief to a lower-ranking military member. What is a challenge coin?

It’s a special moment for the recipient, who just received a surreptitious reward hidden in a handshake.

united states tenth fleet custom challenge coin

What Are Military Challenge Coins?

The United States Military is where the challenge coin tradition really caught on. It was popularized after World War I. In the military, challenge coins are very significant. Typically, new members of a unit don’t receive a challenge coin unless they’ve been on deployment or achieved something above their peers. It has to be earned.

This makes military challenge coins very valuable rewards, and challenging other service members with your coin (a “coin check”) is just as much about brotherhood as bragging rights. When someone challenges you, not only do you need to produce a coin — but you’ll be asked about the story behind it, who gave it to you, and what it represents.

US Army airborne military challenge coin

It’s a way of opening the conversation between people with similar experiences who might have difficulty talking about it. It’s a chance to share in the remembrance of service to your country and unit. And it’s a way to bond.

What Are Police Challenge Coins?

Because of the close ties between the military and law enforcement agencies, it’s unsurprising that challenge coins have also become a tradition among police officers. Challenge coins are also common with federal law enforcement agencies like the FBI and the Secret Service.

Large municipal police departments, including the New York City Police Department, have also started their own challenge coin traditions. Police challenge coins serve the same purpose as their military counterparts: fostering connections between fellow officers, and rewarding service.

What Are Firefighter Challenge Coins?

Many fire departments have also developed traditions around challenge coins. Different fire stations within the same district will try to one-up each other in a friendly competition to create the best design for their crew’s challenge coin. The coins represent the trust and belonging shared between fire department members.

Firefighter challenge coins represent camaraderie, and showcase an individuals membership of that fire station. Firefighters also challenge each other with their coins in the same way military members do. 

boeing firefighters challenge coin

What Are Masonic Coins?

Masonry is a significant part of many Americans’ lives. Masonic lodges are steeped in symbolism and brotherhood, so it makes sense that the challenge coin custom would be embraced.

custom masonic challenge coin featuring masonic symbols

The meaning behind Masonic challenge coins is often evident in their design. Many Masonic coins feature symbols important to them and their organization, such as the square and compass.

Other Types of Challenge Coins

What are challenge coins outside of the military? It’s well known that sports leagues like the NFL and NHL like to honor veterans and military with appreciation events or special nights at the stadium. Teams will often give out special items to attendees or specifically to veterans at their events. This is a simple, ideal way of honoring veterans, which also makes sense given the military and veteran connection with challenge coins. We worked with the Dallas Mavericks to create a coin for them, with their logos and symbols honoring each branch. We made a similar looking coin for the University of Washington as well.

dallas mavericks custom challenge coin saluting our troops

Business Challenge Coins

We find that any sector that a large number of veterans means challenge coins will follow as well. Although veterans tend to go work in government after the military, many do go into business either at corporations or as self-starters like ourselves.

With businesses, the tried and seemingly still true method of leaving a client with your contact information is a business card. But the business card just gets thrown out by almost everyone, or lost in the stack of hundreds of other business cards people have sitting in drawers and collecting dust.

For the modern business, we are selling challenge coins as great ways to leave a mark on an organization’s most important clients. Such coins typically include the company logo and any associated logo, along with their name, important symbols, and other important ideas. For example, we made a coin for a wealth management firm that featured a stock market bull and bear, while an insurance company made a coin to give out to their truck drivers, serving a useful purpose by helping to remind their truck drivers to drive safe.

We have also made several coins for SpaceX and the aerospace industry, featuring extremely creative scenes of rockets lifting off into space, rockets being built, and rockets heading to Mars even!

business custom challenge coin for spacex employee

Smaller companies can also make coins and would typically include contact information such as a phone number or email address, a website, and anything else important to what they do. We have made such coins for even seemingly unexpected businesses like a concrete company and also have our own massive Embleholics coin we give out to all of our customers.

Work With Embleholics

Now that you know the facts, if anyone ever asks you, “What are challenge coins?” send this article their way. Whatever organization you are a part of, challenge coins can be a wonderful way to build a sense of togetherness. Maybe you can create a new tradition for your team! The professionals at Embleholics are ready to help.

We believe that a military tradition like challenge coins should remain closely tied to the military and veteran community, not only in order to make sure new challenge coins keep the tradition with them, but also because we believe something so closely tied with the military should also support the livelihoods of former military members.

Many companies out there employ foreigners or are otherwise not affiliated with the military or being a veteran. We employ only veterans and primarily veterans with service-connected disabilities. We value the ability to work with veterans and strive to improve veterans’ lives as part of everything we do.

At Embleholics, we create custom challenge coins for the military, law enforcement, firefighters, Masons, and more. We are committed to producing high-quality products; we know these coins represent pride in your organization, so we ensure they are designed and created with precision and care.

Contact the passionate team at Embleholics today for a free quote.