Challenge Coin History

Traditionally, military challenge coins were designed and minted to represent a soldier’s squadron identity.

History tells of many stories about how these coins came to exist, but three of them are legendary. Recently, from the 1980’s to today, these coins have soared in popularity and the design possibilities seem endless. At The Monterey Company Inc. the present and future of the United States Military is in an enormously exciting period. The new colors and styles of challenge coins are slowly making a growing appearance to include women who now stand next to their brothers, sons, fathers, and husbands on the front line. While women have always played a part in the military, it was not until about 30 years ago that women could belong to a squadron, be deployed, and protect this country. While there are not a prolific number of women’s military challenge coins, the number is growing and history is changing. To clear up some confusion, let’s go back to the history of the challenge coins, why they became so popular, and how they have become the outstanding recognition award they signify today.

As this is a short blog, let me briefly summarize the three stories that to me, most suggest the beginning of challenge coins and how they became not only an important identifier and way to reward those who had gone above and beyond the call of duty, but also started a new social game to build moral and have some fun both on and off the battlefield. Many more stories told in greater detail can be found in history books and on-line, but for now, this will certainly give you a good insight.  Today, challenge coin stories are filled with examples of building camaraderie, but this medallion once saved lives according to the legends.

The first of the three stories I chose dates back to ancient Rome.  The story declares that each day after battle, the soldiers were paid with their normal currency, however those soldiers who were particularly virtuous were awarded with an extra coin that was distinctively minted with a very simple representation of the squad to which they belonged. The story lends that some of these soldiers held onto their coins as a medal of honor rather than spend them as currency.

The second story dates back to World War I where a wealthy officer had decided to independently create bronze medallions with his squadron’s symbol minted into the metal to give as a gift to his platoon. One of the men created a leather pouch and carried his coin around his neck with him everywhere. The American’s plane was struck down in a Nazi occupied territory in France and he was captured. Stripped of all of his identity, The Germans did not think to custom challenge coinstake the coin from around his neck. Somehow, the pilot escaped with his coin and fled to France. Because he had no identification, the French believed him to be a spy until the American’s coin was recognized by one of the French generals confirming he was an ally. The medallion quite literally saved his life and it was not only returned to the American, but the French also gave him a bottle of wine and sent him back to his troop. This was an exciting story to tell his regiment. To think, an unassuming coin could save your life and buy you a drink! By the time of World War II, more officers adopted making a “secret coin” to identify their troop. Believing this added identification would save lives, soldiers would often ask to see another man’s coin to confirm he had it on him. Americans stationed in Germany after WWII began a bar game of “Pfennig Checks” (pronounced fenigz). A pfennig was simply a coin currency used in Germany before the euro was adopted. The bar game would take place after a drink among friends was shared and one soldier would challenge another to show his troop’s coin and perhaps say, “Pfennig Check!” and slam his coin onto the bar. If the soldier could not produce his coin, then he would have to purchase the drink(s), but if he did have it, he would slam his coin down and the challenger would have to pay the bill for all who were in the “Challenge Game”.

Challenge coins had certainly started to become a recognized reward given to troops by their commanding officer. They were also sometimes used as a secret identifier to expose potential spys out of meetings. There are coins that date back to the Korean war and other antique coins with troop numbers engraved into them.  But not all troops had adopted minting their own coin; not every individual had heard of this exclusive game held by those lucky enough to get a coin by the time of the Vietnam War. This leads us to the third story of how Challenge coins may have been more widely introduced into the United States military.

It all started out as a bar game in which a small, elite group of front line soldiers from a Vietnam Wartime special ops team would carry on themselves at all times, a personalized bullet casing from the type of weapon they operated in combat. The challenger would place his engraved bullet casing on the table after a few drinks and demand to see everyone else’s. If they had theirs, then they were safe, but if they didn’t have it, they had to pay for all the drinks. In this group, you always kept your bullets close, on the battle field and in the bar! Well, word spread about this game, and soon this game produced a table full of bullets of every size and from every weapon, from 300 Savage, 303 British, 8mm Mauser, cannon shells, rocket shells, and miscellaneous artillery shells from all over Southeast Asia, but they were no longer personalized and the game had lost it’s meaning. It is said that in an attempt to control the game, the bullets were replaced with troop coins that were created to represent the squadron’s individual personalization. The coins were most likely hand stamped with a control number and often times, the troop’s name. The coins came to replace the bullet casing which saved your life on the frontline. To be caught without your coin, to lose your coin, or have it stolen was comparable to disloyalty, so soldiers kept their bullets (coins) on them at all times and guarded them with their lives, especially in the bar!
infantry coin
There are several other stories of how these challenge coins originated and what their meaning draws. Whichever story you are more partial to believing, the trend has prevailed and quite literally boomed into a tradition that is more popular than ever before. Remember, the above stories are just legends. The Special Forces Group known as the Green Berets were the only recognized units to have coins prior to 1987. I believe I read somewhere that it was the United States Special Operations Command that designed and distributed the first coin. But then again, there is a coin out there with a buffalo on it and says it is the 17th infantry coin of Korea 1950-55 and you can buy it for $175.00 online! These minted and registered recognition coins were an honor to receive and were made for those who had executed a more than average heroic deed. The troop coins were given to everyone to prove membership to a troop and to enhance moral, the recognition coins were something to make you sit a little taller in your saddle. Both coins would get you out of buying a drink in the bar if you had it on you!

Just as these coins have evolved, so has the military. The design of the coin now includes the faces and colors of women! As the military evolves to include women on the front line and in every aspect of every department of the military, the challenge coin has seen some significant modifications. No longer restricted to a masculine look with manly colors, more and more, we at The Monterey Company are getting calls for orders and creating designs that are including more pink and purple with men and women together on the challenge coins. Some coins show only the image of a woman in combat minted into the coin’s surface. While women have been serving in the military since the Revolutionary War in 1775-1783 with specific reference to Deborah Sampson who received a military pension from the Continental Congress, they were restricted until the 1970’s to Women's Challenge Coinsjobs in administration, the medical field, and only when absolutely necessary, permitted to fight. Alas, women were not recognized with a coin so they were exempt from the games in the bars. The most significant turning point for women in military in my assessment is the end of the military draft in 1973. Because the military was completely voluntary, it created more opportunities for women. At the same time the Equal Rights Amendment was proposed and it wasn’t long before the barriers collapsed and women became fully integrated into the armed services. 1976 saw the admittance of women into service academies. In 1991, more than 41,000 women were deployed into the combat zone during the Persian Gulf War and they were authorized to fly in combat missions. While met with great resistance in the beginning, in the past several decades, women have confirmed their place in the military as soldiers. Women are accepted and recognized and that means… they get challenge coins!

A Challenge Coin is something to feel proud of and to keep on your possession at all times. It is a comfort to know you belong to such an outstanding company of women and men, or to have been recognized for exceptional achievements by a Military coinscommanding officer or by the President of the United States. Can you imagine getting to reveal your presidential challenge coin to everyone during a coin check? Challenge coins have spread to our coast guards, fire departments, police departments, and even our last four Presidents have had special challenge/recognition coins minted. There are even regular civilians who have been awarded with a recognition coin, from news casters for a story well done to spouses who have lost their loved ones in battle given in gratitude. Recognition, gratitude, or challenge, these coins are a way to say thank you and I would like to say it now: Thank You United States Military of America! If I had a coin I would give one to each and every one of you.