The History of Challenge Coins and Their Role in Military Tradition

A custom challenge coin can be a great way to show appreciation for an employee or a member of your organization. However, knowing how and when to use a challenge coin is essential.

One story dates challenge coins back to World War I when a wealthy lieutenant had bronze medallions of his flying squadron’s insignia made for his unit. When the pilot was captured by German soldiers and saved from execution by French troops, he revealed his squadron coin, proving his identity and saving his life.


There are a lot of theories about how and why the challenge coin history came to be, but one thing is for sure: It’s a military tradition that goes back a long way. The most famous story traces the coin’s origins to World War I, as the army began building up its flying squadrons and filling them with volunteers from all walks of life. These men were often spies on covert missions, carrying coins with their organization’s logo to help them identify themselves to fellow agents and others in the field.

It’s also said that a WWI pilot had his plane shot down over enemy territory, and when he was apprehended by French soldiers who couldn’t verify his identity, he pulled out his squadron’s coin and showed it to them. This gave them enough time to recognize him as an American and save his life. The coin-carrying tradition grew from there.

Other accounts place the coin’s origins in the post-World War II era. Some believe that America GIs in occupied Germany brought the idea back home from their service, where they practiced a variation on the “pfennig check” of local bars where anyone who could produce a coin had to buy drinks for everyone else. In any event, the practice eventually made its way to other military branches. Now, virtually all armed forces members carry them to show their pride and camaraderie.


The idea behind the military challenge coin is to build unity and pride within an elite community. The recipients of these coins often feel a sense of camaraderie and connection to those who have received them, regardless of whether they have worked together. This has made these coins so effective in recognizing outstanding performance.

The exact origin of the military challenge coin is a bit of a mystery, but it seems to have begun during World War I. A story arose that a squadron leader gave his men bronze medallions featuring their unit’s insignia. When one of the pilots was captured by the Germans and faced execution, he presented his coin to his captors to prove his identity and save his life. From there, the tradition of showing the coin as proof of membership spread throughout the military.

Another possible origin is the Office of Strategic Services, a precursor to the CIA and involved in covert operations behind enemy lines. Members of the OSS frequently carried challenge coins to identify themselves when they were out on missions and also instilled a sense of camaraderie between them.

The coins can be any shape or size, featuring the organization’s logo, motto, and unique design or cutout. They may also be plated in gold or other precious metals. They are typically made of pewter or copper but can be minted in different materials and come in various finishes. The designs vary, too, from simple engravings to multi-dimensional and enamel highlights.

Civilian Organizations

The military isn’t the only organization that uses challenge coins to honor members who have excelled in their service. Police departments and other civilian groups also give them out to their employees for exemplary work and for taking on dangerous assignments. Some even use them as a substitute for business cards.

While knowing the detailed history of challenge coins is impossible, a few theories are popular. One involves a group of American soldiers who frequented bars in occupied Germany after World War II. Locals would perform a “pfennig check” on them, and anyone who couldn’t produce a coin of that denomination had to buy drinks for the entire bar. The Americans slightly modified the tradition, using their challenge coins instead of a pfennig and slamming them down rather than merely displaying them.

Another theory traces the origins of challenge coins back to World War I. A wealthy Army officer had bronze medallions made featuring the symbol of his flying squadron and presented them to his men before they departed on missions. When a pilot from this unit was shot down and captured by the Germans, he could escape because the French recognized him based on the coin he had with him.

Finally, some believe that challenge coins were first used by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a precursor to the modern-day Central Intelligence Agency. These agents often operated behind enemy lines, and it was vital for them to identify fellow spies. They carried coins emblazoned with the OSS insignia that helped them do just that.

Sports Organizations

For many members of the military, challenge coins have a special meaning. They symbolize the bond between soldiers and the spirit of camaraderie that is so important to live in the service. Many veterans are incredibly proud of their collections and display them publicly to connect with fellow veterans and share their experiences. The role of challenge coins extends beyond the military, though. They have also become popular with civilian organizations, such as police departments and firefighter services. The National Football League, Major League Baseball, and other professional sports teams have started stamping challenge coins with their team logos and championships for fans to purchase and enjoy.

There are several different legends surrounding the origin of the challenge coin. One of the most famous stories dates back to World War I when an Ivy League lieutenant gave challenge coins to his squadron of pilots. During a battle, one of the pilots was shot down and captured by the German army, who suspected him of being a spy. The pilot remembered to present his challenge coin, which helped him avoid execution and save the day.

Another exciting challenge coin tradition was reportedly started by American service members stationed in occupied Germany during World War II. The locals would perform a “pfennig check” in bars, where anyone who couldn’t produce a pfennig (the lowest denomination of currency in Germany) had to buy the next round of drinks. The service members altered the practice by replacing the pfennig with their unit’s challenge coin, passed in a secret handshake.

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