Each branch of the American armed forces participates in the tradition of military challenge coins. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, and Air National Guard all have special challenge coins to represent their membership in their particular service branch.
Where the tradition all began is debatable, but some say it dates back to a young wealthy World War One pilot who commissioned the pile of brass medallions which he distributed to members of his fighter squadron as sentimental tokens of their experience together. Another tale has it that it was during World War Two in Germany, where American servicemen would meet at a pub and when challenged to present a German coin of low value, the last to do so would have to buy the drinks for all.
There are tales that during the Vietnam war, almost all of the men in combat carried these challenge tokens with them at all times as a form of identification as a member in his particular unit. The practice today is for men and women in the armed forces to be awarded special tokens from their commanding officers and medals of praise for jobs well done. Many have touted these tokens as more meaningful than any official form of praise or designation.
To some it may appear to be just a worthless round piece of metal. But to those who’ve earned them their meaning is far greater. They’re symbols, tokens, representations, something akin to a worry stone to clutch in times of great distress that war so often presents. They represent pride and loyalty, family and stick-togetherness. And once earned the rule prevails, the holder must carry it at all times to be presented upon challenge, or suffer a penalty.
As individual as the units of men and women who make up the armed forces, so too are the individualized coins that represent them and the experiences they’ve been designed to commemorate. Often depicting colorful images and emblems and containing troop mottos, they represent strength and unity for those who’ve earned them.
Gold, silver, copper, bronze — any number of metals can be used in minting. It’s happened that one commission instructed the mint to create a set using the metal from some equipment retrieved from a battle. Quite often it will be a significant event that inspires the creation and design of a coin, commemorating the event and forever reminding and bonding those who participated.
And it’s not only military personnel who take interest in this. Collectors of varied backgrounds have taken interest in the rich and meaningful history behind the stories of the sentimental tokens, and they trade and auction off pieces of their collections all over the world.
Many more organizations have taken to the idea and ideals which began with military challenge medallions. Groups such as Police and Firefighters, government agencies, and even enthusiasts of various hobbies and popular culture have minted challenge coins representing their own values and interests. Their purpose — as tokens of respect and brotherhood, of membership and belonging, as a source of comfort during difficult times — applies not just to members of the armed forces but to any and all who want incorporate the tradition as their own.
Get the inside scoop on everything you need to know about military challenge coins now in our complete guide to exquisite unit coins collecting.