Origins of the Challenge Coin

Origins of the Challenge Coin

Challenge coins originated during World War I. American volunteers from all parts of the country filled the newly formed flying squadrons. One squadron, with a wealthy lieutenant ordered medallions struck in solid bronze and presented them to his unit. 


One young pilot placed the medallion in a small leather pouch that he wore about his neck. Shortly after deployment, his aircraft was severely damaged by ground fire. He was forced to land behind enemy lines and was captured by a German patrol. The Germans took all of his personal identification except for the small leather pouch around his neck. He was taken to a small French town near the front he escaped that night during  heavy bombardment but without personal identification. He succeeded in avoiding German patrols by donning civilian attire and reached the front lines. With great difficulty, he crossed no-man’s land.


Eventually, he stumbled onto a French outpost. Not recognizing the young pilot’s American accent, the French thought him to be a saboteur and made ready to execute him. He had no identification to prove his allegiance, but he did have his leather pouch containing the medallion. He showed the medallion to his would-be executioners and one of his French captors recognized the squadron insignia on the medallion. They delayed his execution long enough for him to confirm his identity. Back at his squadron, it became tradition to ensure that all members carried their medallion or coin at all times. 

The Proper Way to Make a Challenge

The tradition of a challenge is the most common way to ensure that members are carrying their unit’s coin. The challenge, which can be made at any time, begins with the challenger drawing his/her coin, and slapping or placing the coin on the table or bar. Everyone being challenged must immediately produce the coin for their organization and anyone failing to do so must buy a round of drinks for the challenger and everyone else who has their challenge coin. However, should everyone challenged be able to produce their coin, the challenger must buy a round of drinks for the group.

Reasons to Award Challenge Coins

Besides using coins for challenging, they are also used as rewards or awards for outstanding service or performance of duty. As such they are used as a tool to build morale. As officers were reassigned as their careers progressed, they carried with them the tradition of awarding a unit coin for acts that were worthy of recognition, but yet lacked enough merit to submit the soldiers act for an official medal and have steadily grown in popularity.


Coins given as awards for accomplishments are normally given to the recipient during a handshake, passing from the right hand of the giver to the right hand of the awardee. It is also normal for the giver to offer a brief explanation of the reason for awarding the coin.

The Presidential Portrait of Bill Clinton,

features a collection of challenge coins

in the background.