Defense Media Network

The Origins of the Challenge Coin

The reawakening of a military tradition

Many Americans saw their first military challenge coins in November 2009, when President Barack Obama, at memorial services for the 13 victims of the mass shooting at Fort Hood, Texas, silently laid a commander’s coin below a photograph of each of the victims. The coins were meant to recognize the gravity of each victim’s sacrifice.

Challenge Coin Legends

In the U.S. military, the challenge coin – also known as a unit coin or commander’s coin – identifies its bearer as the member of a particular unit, and is a symbol of pride and fellowship. According to a few competing legends, the first challenge coins were used to establish identity. The most widely circulated origin myth involves a wealthy Ivy League lieutenant who had coins struck for each member of his squadron in the Army Air Corps during World War I. After he (or another squadron pilot, depending on the version) was shot down behind enemy lines, he was captured by the Germans and stripped of all identification – except for the coin, which he carried in a leather pouch around his neck. After escaping his captors, the pilot made contact with some French villagers who mistook him for a German saboteur and were preparing to execute him until he produced the coin. One of the Frenchmen recognized the unit insignia, and the pilot was saved.

Challenge coin on Mt. McKinley

First Lt. Graham Ward holds a coin from the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division at the summit of Mount McKinley. The coin was permanently deposited at the site. U.S. Army photo by Capt. Keelan McNulty

It’s a good story, though probably a bit of a stretch – how did the Germans miss the leather pouch around his neck? – and several others exist, one involving an American soldier who, during World War II, had his unit insignia stamped on the back of a Philippine coin to prove his identity to a group of guerrillas fighting against the Japanese invaders.

According to a story in a 1994 issue of Soldiers Magazine, the first American challenge coins were established in the 1960s, when a member of the 11th Special Forces Group had old coins overstamped with a different emblem and distributed them to group members.

Not long after, the 10th SFG became the first U.S. military unit to mint its own coin – and remained the only Army unit with its own coin until the mid-1980s, when the tradition took off.

Challenge Coin Customs

It wasn’t until the Vietnam era that the “challenge-response” tradition was established, in which unit members were challenged to prove membership by producing the unit coin – a custom soon enhanced by the requirement, if one was caught without the coin, to buy a round for other unit members.

Today, challenge coins are often given by a commanding officer as a reward to recognize outstanding service, according to Jesse Medford, founder of the Challenge Coin Association, an organization of military coin collectors and enthusiasts. “A company captain might purchase about 150 to 200 coins and give them out to all the people who worked for him,” said Medford, “or someone may only buy a handful, maybe 50 coins, and give them to select people as a reward for work above and beyond – not like a military decoration, but more of a kind of show of appreciation to their soldiers with a coin they purchased and designed themselves.”

Challenge coin aboard the ISS

A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Southwestern Division coin floats in a porthole during a space shuttle mission. NASA photo

Medford – who served 11 years in the Navy, from 1991 to 2002 – had never heard of military coins until he joined the Massachusetts Army National Guard, where he continues to serve as a platoon sergeant in the 26th Yankee Division. It was in Iraq, in 2005, when Medford was serving in the 42nd Military Police Brigade near the village of Al Khalis, that he received his first coin, from his lieutenant. “After everybody had got on the trucks to go to work, he called us to the side,” said Medford. “Our first thought was that we were about to get yelled at for something. Then he shook our hands, and the coin was in his hand.”

As more unit members have acquired coins over the last decade, Medford said, the challenge custom has become more widespread. “You’re more likely to have a coin with you now than you would have 10 or 15 years ago,” he said.

Over the decades, metal has been the preferred manufacturing material for challenge coins. However, a new type of challenge coin emerged among the military and law enforcement communities in 2007. Warrior Chip™ introduced Ceramic Challenge Coins™ as a unique, affordable alternative to metal coins. Known as The Next Generation Challenge Coin™, Warrior Chip’s proprietary ceramic polymer composition and process permanently embeds vibrant colors into the chip, creating more versatility in the design spectrum than is available with traditional metal coins. Warrior Chip™ has manufactured the only 1.75-inch chip in the world, and with the 4 mm thickness it provides a similar size, look and feel as that of a true metal challenge coin. One key advantage of Warrior Chip’s Ceramic Challenge Coin is there are no die fees, which have plagued the metal coin industry for years. Highly durable and lightweight, Warrior Chip’s Ceramic Challenge Coin has rapidly become a popular product with the military and law enforcement organizations. Whatever the material, challenge coins have become increasingly popular and the challenge ritual more common.

The challenge ritual has become as varied as the number of unit coins themselves; depending on the unit, challenges don’t always involve the purchase of a drink, and there are different rules for what constitutes an actual challenge. The Special Forces are one of the few to have, even informally, their “coin check” rules posted online.

It would be a mistake to challenge Medford – so far, he’s received four coins for his National Guard service, and he’s never caught without them. The last time anyone tried was in 2007. “I was the only person at the table who had a coin on me,” Medford said. “He said I didn’t owe him a beer – but all the other guys did.”

Do you own a challenge coin that you particularly treasure? Is there a good story about how you got one? Have you ever had to pay for a round because you didn’t have your coin? Share your challenge coin stories with us in the comments section below.


Craig Collins is a veteran freelance writer and a regular Faircount Media Group contributor who...

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-9288">

    I have more than one “special” challenge coin and have never been without one or more when challenged.

    I earned my 1st “Old Guard” coin in 1981, but the second one I earned in ’82 and it was hand delivered to me in AK after I PCS’d there. Talk about shock, when the S3 and CSM showed up in my BN Commanders office to present it to me.

    My second “special” challenge coin came from being the 1st BN Mortars Platoon Leader of the 6th BN, 327th Infantry Regiment “Wolverines”. (The BN no longer exists.) (1983)

    The third “special” challenge coin was presented to me by one of the pilots from the 8th Special Operations Squadron “Blackbirds/With the guts to try”, after spending 2 weeks working with them. (1985)

    The fourth “special” challenge coin came from MOH recipient Bob Maxwell, who had given one to each of my Grandsons, when he found out his coins, given to the Grandsons, beat all the coins Grandpa had.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-12108">

    I have quite a few of them, being involved with the CG Food Service Awards program and workign with all fo the services in many facets.
    One particlular time comes to mind when we were at the awards and there were a bunch of us socializing after a function. The general from the US Forces Pacific was present along with his aid. I had asked him about his career and he had mentioned that he just left DPSC Philadelphia. I commented that he must have had the change of command with General Mungeon, he asked me if I knew him and I happened to have General Mungeons coin in my pocket and displayed it. Needless to say the General nor his aide had any coins left from the evening and we all shared a round of cheer. His aid later approached me and said that was the smoothest coining he had ever seen. And that was the first one ever on the General.

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-chuck-oldham even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-12507">

    That’s a great story. Thanks for sharing it and well played with the general.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-26842">
    Frank Barrett

    I have a few coins that i was presented with in my career. A couple were given to me outside of military duties by a retired colonel. Received one from my Major while i was in Iraq, in 2005, for volunteering a little too frequent…mission popped up i would always volunteer. Got to the point he would ask me if i wanted to go before he even brought it to units attention and eventually where he told me to take a 4 day RnR rest. Received another coin from my Lt. Col when we got called upon to aid Homeland security in 2007 in AZ with drug and immigration control. A Retired Colonel from Tennessee Guard gave me a coin to recognize my friendly and professional attitude outside of military duties when he would come into my store he gave me one of the old state guard coins. My DS in basic presented us with 911 coins with a quote from G W Bush to recognize us for volunteering to serve after the attacks(signed up in July 2002 officially recruiter for got to sign some papers in Oct 2001 that delayed me from shipping out) Lastly I was given a SOF Week coin from a SF officer after i volunteered to go on a mission with them when they were short a couple of troops. They welcomed me to go with them anytime because the way i handled myself with them.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-27142">

    I made these Custom Challenge Coins from actual SR-71 titanium from the Worlds fastest production jet aircraft. Commemorating Top Secret reconnaissance missions at the edge of space.

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-chuck-oldham odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-27553">

    Beautiful and unique. It’s almost strange to think of titanium, with respect to the SR-71, as being a natural metal color instead of flat black!

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-145389">

    U.S. Army’s 17th infantry reg. (buffalos), 7th infantry division, made coins in the Korean war out of buffalo nickels. this would predate the 10 SFG from your article.