Reward effort and build morale with custom challenge coins.

A military challenge coin is a coin that bears a unit’s insignia and is carried by its members. Traditionally, these coins are given to prove membership and to enhance morale.

Like many other aspects of military tradition, the origin of the challenge coin is debatable. The most common view is that it began during WWI with the U.S. Army Air Service (a precursor to the U.S. Air Force). At that time, air warfare was a new phenomenon. Squadrons were manned with volunteer pilots from civilian life. Common laborers to Ivy League students were drawn in by the adventure.

As the legend goes, a wealthy Ivy Leaguer ordered gold-plated coins for his squadron as mementos of their time together. One of the pilots put his coin into a leather pouch around his neck. A short while later, his aircraft was gunned down and he was captured. The Germans took his belongings but missed the leather pouch.

On his way to a POW camp, the British bombed the area, and the pilot escaped. Through great efforts, he snuck across the border and contacted the French patrol. Since he had no ID, they thought he was a German saboteur, and planned to execute him.

When he pulled out his military coin, one of the Frenchman recognized the unit insignia and stopped the execution. When the pilot returned to his squadron, it became a tradition for members to carry their coin at all times.

To ensure compliance, pilots would challenge each other. If the one being challenged couldn’t produce a coin, he was required to buy a drink for the challenger. However, if he could produce one, then the challenger had to buy the drink.

The challenge begins when the challenger slaps his coin down on the table or bar. Everyone present must immediately produce the coin for his or her organization. Anyone failing to do so must buy a round of drinks for the entire group. Undeniably, it takes a concerted effort to carry a challenge coin at all times.

Traditional rules state that you cannot deface the coin, especially if it makes it easier to carry it, such as attaching it to a key chain. However, it’s acceptable to carry it in a pouch around one’s neck (like in the legend). However, carrying it in a wallet often produces a telltale ring. This can be dangerous for certain military personnel who don’t always want to be identified in every situation.

Challenge coins can also be used as rewards and as tools for building morale. The tradition likely began among Special Forces units during the Vietnam War and spread to other units. As officers were reassigned, they carried the tradition of awarding coins for things that were worthy of recognition, but not enough to merit an official medal. For nearly two decades, The Monterey Company has been creating challenge coins for all branches of the U.S. military. For a variety of styles and artistic applications, check out the military coin gallery. To order your challenge coin, call 1-800-259-6496.