The history of challenge coins

Troops have been trading and saving challenge coins for decades

The history of challenge coins

Photo by U.S. Army Sgt. Eric-James Estrada/Flickr

By Staff Sgt. Gerhard S.

There are many wide-ranging stories, procedures, and misconceptions regarding military challenge coins. There is the ancient history that refers to Roman soldiers offering them to allied fighters to identify themselves as friendly. There are stories about downed fighter pilots in WWII using a coin stamped with a unit insignia to identify himself as American to the French who would rescue him.

The modern history though goes back to Vietnam with Special Forces groups keeping a live bullet in their pocket (bullet club), which would be slammed on the table as a challenge with drinks being the reward. By the late 1960's the 10th Special Forces Group began frowning on the “bullet in the pocket” procedure and started minting a formal coin complete with a location for engraving identification on the coin. The funds were initially used to pay for a life-size wooden statue that was displayed in Group HQ at Ft. Devens, MA and now, I assume, at Ft. Carson, CO. I received my first challenge coin in April of 1984 when in-processing at Ft. Devens, MA. I was given a short and informal lesson on its use that included dropping it on the floor, tapping it on the table, holding it in the air, and having to buy drinks if everyone in the challenge produced a coin, or conversely receiving a drink from all those that did not. I later found the rules were rather loose, diverse, and growing in number. I remember my company Commander forcefully throwing his coin into a pitcher of beer, and then when finding everyone at the table had their coins, he drank the whole pitcher, caught the coin in his teeth, and ordered three more pitchers for the table. (Respect.) This approach to a coin challenge had never been imparted to me.

“The first military unit known to have a coin was the oldest Special Forces unit in the Army, the 10th Special Forces Group. Green Berets were the only known units to have coins prior to the creation of the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) in 1987. Since then, the Challenge Coin tradition has spread far and wide in both the military and the private sector.” - ITS Tactical

So, while challenge coins were initially offered to members of elite units for the purpose of esprit de corps, the practice has evolved to a whole new level. I have been given coins for being a distinguished graduate at Air Assault School, and for my performance at an NCO Academy. I have been offered coins for excellence in supporting various units in Iraq and also received a coin from Chief of Staff Gen. Schoomaker after meeting him and discussing my service at a leadership forum at my local city hall. The drift goes even further today with coins being offered to civilians and others who have benefited the unit. It is no longer just the elite units that have coins – instead, every special office or discipline in the military now has their own coin. Even my fire department had coins minted a decade or so ago.

By the1990s, I found myself working with members of the military from every branch of the service in my National Guard long-range surveillance unit. We had a guy from the Coast Guard who served in Vietnam, Force Recon Marines, Navy machinists, Air Force AP's, and Former SF soldiers in the unit. As you can imagine, there were numerous thoughts and understandings regarding the use and purpose of the challenge coin. We found it necessary to create an SOP, and titled it the “Coin Check Constitution” in order to create some continuity and uniformity. Take a look at it here!: