What Are Challenge Coins and Where Did They Come From?

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A Brief History

During the Renaissance, challenge coins were also known as “Portrait Medals” and were often used to commemorate specific events involving royalty, nobility, or other types of well-to-do individuals.   So, what are challenge coins, and how have they become some of the most common collectible items?  Find out the history of the challenge coin now.

Digging Deeper

Are you looking for a special way to honor the active-duty military member or veteran in your life?  Do you think that although all of your employees work well on an individual level, the teamwork that your company needs to take things to the next level just is not there?  Do you work for a nonprofit or support an important cause and want to find an innovative way to spread the word about what you do?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, then challenge coins might be the solution you have been looking for.  But what are challenge coins, where did they come from, and how can they help you to achieve the above objectives and more?  Keep on reading this post to find out.

What Are Challenge Coins? 

So, what are challenge coins, exactly?  Let us begin with the legend of how they came about in the first place. Though there are a few different accounts, the most accepted one is as follows.

During World War One, a wealthy army officer wanted to honor the members of his flying squadron. Unsure of how to thank them for their service and celebrate the friendships they had formed with one another, he decided to make medallions to give to his fellow soldiers.  The medallions — the first-ever challenge coins — were printed with his unit’s insignia and name.

Unfortunately, a member of his squadron was shot down over Germany a few weeks later and captured by German soldiers. They took everything from him except for a small pouch around his neck, which was where he kept the medallion from his officer.  Somehow, the young pilot escaped to France, where he was discovered by French soldiers. Believing he was an enemy spy, his French captors decided to have him executed.

The only way he could prove his identity and save his life?  By showing the soldiers his medallion with his American insignia.  He survived, and the legend of military coins was born.

The Challenge Coin Game

Now that you can answer the question, “What is a challenge coin?” let us talk about the two most popular ways they are used today.

The first way is designed to promote a sense of camaraderie and fun among military members, coworkers, or any other group of people.  The game usually takes place inside of a bar, but any setting will do. Without saying a word, at any point of their choosing, someone starts the game by raising their challenge coin into the air.  Everyone else must, also silently, follow suit.

Commonly known as a “coin check,” the game is designed to promote the idea that everyone should carry their coin with them at all times.  The person/people who left their challenge coins at home, or the last person to hold their coin up into the air, must buy the next round of drinks for everyone present. (If you are doing a coin check outside of a bar setting, you can choose any kind of consequence you would like.)

The second use of challenge coins is not quite as fun, but its importance cannot be understated.  Unfortunately, it is no secret that many members of our military or other emergency responders like police officers and firefighters struggle with PTSD, depression, and other mental health issues.  Sometimes, these brave men and women have no idea how to ask for help and support. They may also feel a bit of shame about doing so.

When someone you care about is in need of emotional support or even emergency or professional mental health services, all they have to do is hand another person their challenge coin, which signals to their support system that there is a need for a conversation.  Challenge coins have saved countless lives and will continue to do so in the future.

Types and Designs of Challenge Coins

Now, let us talk about a few of the most popular types and designs of challenge coins.

Often, in addition to using challenge coins for the aforementioned purposes, many also choose to collect the coins.  The Presidential challenge coin is an especially collectible option. Usually, these coins will have the name of the President, a picture of the White House, the seal of the United States, and sometimes a picture of the President themselves on them.  There are also police challenge coins that have the officer’s unit number, the date, their name, and the police insignia on them.

Challenge coins can be made for office workers, nonprofits to help raise awareness about a cause, family members for family reunions, and any other profession or celebration you can think of.  You can choose the colors, the material, the texture, and even the shape and size of your coin and the ridging around it according to your preferences.

Are Challenge Coins Right for Your Organization?

From army and navy challenge coins to coins that have the phone number of your non-profit printed on them, the sky is the limit when it comes to the designs and purposes of these special medallions.

Now that you know the answer to the inquiry, “What are challenge coins?” we’re willing to bet that you have already started dreaming up a few of your own design ideas, but what other ways can you build up a sense of teamwork and support in your workplace? How can you show family members and friends just how much you care about them?  Our blog is here to help you figure out all that and more.  Please read through the rest of our posts, or start every morning by reading our latest article, for ideas you do not want to miss out on.

Question for students (and subscribers): Do you have any challenge coins?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Nelson, Andrew G.  Uncommon Valor II: Challenge Coins of the NYPD Emergency Service Unit.  Huntzman Enterprises, 2017.

The featured image in this article, a photograph by United States Navy, Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Elisia V. Gonzales of Ambassador Michael Michalak, U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam, and Adm. Timothy J. Keating, commander, U.S. Pacific Command, showing off their new coins after an office call to the U.S. embassy in Hanoi, is a work of a sailor or employee of the U.S. Navy, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, it is in the public domain in the United States.


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