Challenge coins have been around for decades. They are custom-minted coins that have been part of the military tradition. It is a symbol of camaraderie carried by every member of an organization. Where and when did the practice of challenge coins started?
Custom challenge coins are believed to have started in the military. Exactly when and why is still a mystery. The only sure thing about the practice of custom challenge coins is that it is a very old practice, older than today’s modern age.
History of Use in the military
The earliest known reference to the use of challenge coins is in Ancient Rome. Enlisted soldiers were given monetary rewards for displays of valor. The day’s pay is given after a day of battle. Good performance is given a special, separate coin- a bonus. This special coin is believed to be the very first custom challenge coin- minted specifically with the mark of the legion that the soldier belonged to.
Because of the special markings, soldiers who received these coins tend to hold on these, as a memento of their award, instead of spending this special coin on wine and women. This coin, in those ancient times, had market value, good as the regularly minted coins. The only difference was the special markings.
History as mark of identity
Over the next centuries, special coins were handed out as a token of valor and good military service. The first modern challenge coin was believed to have been used during World War I. A plane was shot down by German troops and the pilot was stripped off of all his belongings, except for a leather pouch that hung around his neck. The pouch incidentally contained the challenge coin- marked with the insignia of the company he belonged to.
The pilot was able to survive and escape prison. Arriving in France, the French army thought he was a spy. The pilot showed his challenge coin as proof of his identity. One of the French soldiers recognized the symbol printed on the coin and validated the pilot’s identity. Since then, it is believed, that challenge coins were used as a symbol of belonging to a certain military unit.
Why “challenge” coin
The specially marked coins trace its origin as a “challenge” coin after World War II, in Germany. American soldiers adopted the pfennig check. A pfennig is a German coin of the lowest value. Soldiers would bring out their pfennigs on put them on a table, “challenging” other soldiers to do the same. The one who has no pfennig to put on the table, or the last one to do so was obliged to buy everyone a round of drinks. Over the years, the pfennig was replaced by the unit’s medallion.
History of popular use
Custom challenge coins began to gain popularity during the Vietnam War. The US Army’s 10th and 11th Special Forces Groups created the first custom challenge coins. These were common currency with the unit’s insignia marked on one side of the coin. The men from these units carried these coins with pride.
Soon, other units followed suit, to distinguish their units and the men for their acts of valor. These coins were handed out as awards or commemorative coins to honor hard-fought battles that the men and their unit survived.
Today, challenge coins have extended outside of the military. US President Clinton started the tradition of presidents having their own custom challenge coins. These are made for the president’s inauguration, another to commemorate that president’s administration, and another to be made available to the public.
The rarest, most difficult and most-sought after custom challenge coin today is that official presidential coin that someone can only receive by shaking the US President’s hand. This happens upon the discretion of the president. President Bush was said to have given these coins to soldiers coming home after a war. President Obama is said to frequently give out these coins to the soldiers stationed on the stairs of Air Force One.
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