Challenge coins are a famous part of military culture that has spread to many other organizations. Their origins are not entirely clear, since few people bother to write about traditions before they become famous, but historians still know a few things about how they started and how the tradition has changed over time.
Some sources claim that challenge coins have their roots in Roman currency. The people of Rome did use coins to commemorate major events, such as military victories, and they often handed out special coins to soldiers in honor of victory. Many officers in early modern military forces were familiar with Roman customs, so they may have brought the tradition into the modern world. On the other hand, the idea of a commemorative coin shows up in almost every culture, so it’s also possible that modern soldiers came up with it independently. Since there are few records on the topic, the origin is likely to stay shrouded in mystery forever.
Coins in the World Wars
Other sources claim that the coins came from the world wars. Huge populations mobilized to fight, and many of the young officers were wealthy men who had just come out of college. They may have had challenge coins minted as gifts to their units in order to raise morale or to celebrate specific victories. Given that many of these young men studied history, this is the most likely path that the Roman custom could have taken to enter the modern world.
Regardless of their precise origins, the coins quickly became useful tools. Since only the members of a specific unit would have them, soldiers could use them as a form of identification. One traditional story says that a pilot was captured behind enemy lines, and had his documents taken to prevent him from proving his identity if he escaped. He ran away anyway, and used his coin to prove that he was not an enemy infiltrator when he was arrested by the local civilians. Like many traditional stories, the details are hard to verify, but it is widely believed to be true, and the story encouraged more people to carry coins.
Coin checks developed when it became normal for people to carry their challenge coins. Traditionally, anyone who has a coin can call for everyone else to pull out theirs. People who don’t have one buy drinks for everyone else, and the challenger buys them if everyone has a coin. Other rules have emerged over time, such as restricting how a coin can be carried, but these are usually restricted to specific units.
Spreading to Civilian Life
When soldiers and their officers retire from military life, they often carry parts of military culture into the civilian world. Civilian coins are most common among groups that have many former military members, such as motorcycle clubs, police departments, and fraternal groups. Civilian use of the coins took off after the Vietnam War, and continues to spread to this day.
Even presidents have displayed challenge coins. Bill Clinton famously received many of them from American soldiers, and he displayed the coins in the Oval Office and in his official portrait. Other presidents, such as Obama, have used them in memorial services. Since they’re a strong symbol of military culture, it is likely that this trend will continue with future presidents.