A challenge coin is a small coin or medallion (usually military), bearing an organization’s insignia or emblem and carried by the organization’s members. They are given to prove membership when challenged and to enhance morale.
Origin of the Challenge Coin Tradition in the United States
The origin of the challenge coin is vague, but the most commonly held view is that the tradition began in the United States Army Air Service, a forerunner of the current United States Air Force.
During World War I, flying squadrons they were manned with volunteer pilots. Some came from working class or rural backgrounds while others many were wealthy college dropouts lured by the adventure and romance of flying.
One legend is that one such student, a wealthy lieutenant, ordered small, solid-bronze medallions struck, which he then presented to the other pilots in his squadron as mementos of their service together. The coin was gold-plated, bore the squadron’s insignia, and was quite valuable. One of the pilots in the squadron, who had never owned anything like the coin, placed it in a leather pouch he wore around his neck for safekeeping. A short time later, this pilot’s aircraft was heavily damaged in combat, forcing him to land behind enemy lines where he was captured by the Germans who confiscated his personal belongings from his pockets, but they missed the leather pouch around his neck. On his way to a permanent prisoner of war facility, he was held overnight in a small German-held French village near the front. During the night, the town was bombarded by the British, creating enough confusion to allow the pilot to escape.
The pilot avoided German patrols by donning civilian attire, but all of his identification had been confiscated so he had no way to prove his identity. With great difficulty, he crept across no-man’s land and made contact with a French patrol that was on the lookout for German saboteurs dressed as civilians. The French mistook the American pilot for a German saboteur and prepared to execute him.
Desperate to prove his allegiance, the pilot pulled out the coin from his leather pouch and showed it to his French captors. One of the Frenchmen recognized the unit insignia on the coin and delayed the execution long enough to confirm the pilot's identity.
Once the pilot safely returned to his squadron, it became a tradition for all members to carry their coin at all times. To ensure compliance, the pilots would challenge each other to produce the coin. If the challenged pilot could not produce the coin, he was required to buy a drink of choice for the challenger; if the challenged could produce the coin, the challenger would purchase the drink.
During World War II, there was a story about an American soldier scheduled to rendezvous with Philippine guerrillas who carried a Philippine solid silver coin stamped with the unit insignia to verify to the guerrillas that he was their valid contact for a mission against the Japanese.
During post-World War II, US military personnel were assigned to occupy Germany where the one Pfennig coin was worth only a fraction of a U.S. cent, and was considered not worth saving, unless one was broke. In bars, if a soldier called out "Pfennig Check," everyone had to empty their pockets to show if they were saving any Pfennigs. If a soldier had a Pfennig, it meant that he was nearly broke. If a soldier did not have a Pfennig, it meant he had enough money not to bother saving them, so he had to buy the next round.
During the Vietnam war, soldiers would carry a piece of "lucky" ordnance that had helped them or narrowly missed them. When this became dangerous, commanders banned the practice, and gave the men metal coins emblazoned with the unit crest or something similar to replace the lucky piece. When you sent into a military bar, slammed you coin on the bar and those who lacked one had to buy you a drink. Commanders and units also gave the coins as mementos for services rendered or special occasions.
The challenge coin tradition probably began amongst special forces units during the Vietnam War and spread through the Airborne community. By the early 1980s, it has spread into the 75th Infantry "Rangers." As officers were reassigned as their careers progressed, they carried with them the tradition of awarding a unit coin for acts that were worthy of recognition, but yet lacked enough merit to submit the soldiers act for an official medal. Challenge coins were not very common until the First Persian Gulf War of 1990-1991, but have steadily grown in popularity since.
One widely known challenge coin in the United States Air Force was the "Bull Dog" challenge coin that was exclusive to B-52 enlisted tail gunners. This coin was presented to gunners upon graduation from their Air Force technical training and their entry into the "Gunners Association." In the earlier days of bombers, a bean or a nugget was used. The coin represents the attributes of strength and courage as reflected in the Bulldog, the gunner's official mascot. The coin was also given to certain "honorary gunners," usually commanders and leaders who portrayed the spirit of the bulldog. Since the B-52 gunner position was phased out in 1991, this famous challenge coin has become a military tradition.
Current Challenge Coin Tradition
This tradition spread all branches of service and even to nonmilitary organizations. Today, challenge coins are given to members upon joining an organization, as an award to improve morale, and are sold to commemorate special occasions or as fundraisers. In 2008, Leatherneck Magazine gave a 90th anniversary Leatherneck challenge coin to a select few readers who sent in letters to their Sound Off section which the editors particularly liked. In the Air Force, an Airman's coin is awarded to new enlisted personnel upon completion of their United States Air Force Basic Military Training and to new officers upon completion of their Air Force Officer Training School.
President Bill Clinton displayed several racks of challenge coins, which had been given to him by U.S. service members, on the credenza behind his Oval Office desk. These coins are currently on display at the Clinton Library. The challenge coins appear in the background of his official portrait, now hanging in the White House. President George W. Bush received a challenge coin from a Marine combat patrol unit during his visit to Al-Asad Airbase in Anbar province, Iraq, September 3, 2007. President Barack Obama placed challenge coins on the memorials of the soldiers slain in the Fort Hood shooting.
A challenge is a way to verify that members are carrying the coin formally issued by their organization. The rules of a challenge are not always formalized, and may vary between organizations, thus challenges between members of different organizations are not recommended.
The challenge, which may be made at any time, begins with the challenger drawing his/her coin and slapping or placing the coin on the table or bar, or in noisy places, continuously rapping the coin on a surface. Accidentally dropping a challenge coin is considered to be a deliberate challenge to all present. Everyone being challenged must immediately produce the coin for their organization; anyone failing to do so must buy a round of drinks for the challenger and everyone else who has their challenge coin. However, should everyone challenged be able to produce their coin, the challenger must buy a round of drinks for the group While most holders of challenge coins usually carry them with them, most versions of the rules permit a challenged person "a step and a reach" to produce the coin.
A variant of the rules is that if you are able to steal a challenge coin, everyone in the group must buy you a drink. In another variant, everyone in the group must buy a drink for the holder of the highest-ranking coin. Some rules have strict time limits to respond to a challenge.
Traditionally, rules of a challenge include a prohibition against defacing the coin, especially if it makes it easier to carry at all times. If the challenge coin is attached to a belt buckle or key ring, or has had a hole drilled in it to attach to a lanyard, it no longer qualifies as a challenge coin. A generally safe place to carry a coin is in a pouch worn around the neck. Carrying a challenge coin in the wallet is a problem for military personnel because the distinctive circular bulge may identify the person as a military member, which may be a security consideration in many places. For this reason, some unit rules specifically prohibit carrying a challenge coin in a wallet.