Challenge Coin History

Written by Robin Brown on January 30, 2021
Challenge coins have a fascinating and intricate history, intertwined with legends and folklore that have endured throughout the ages. These extraordinary objects have had a lasting impact on modern social and military traditions, embodying a tangible connection to our heritage.

Although the appearance and purpose of challenge coins have transformed over the years, their inherent worth has remained unwavering, unaffected by the passage of time. Let us embark on a journey into the captivating chronicles of challenge coins, uncovering the most captivating aspects of their historical tapestry.

1.They originate in the ancient roman times

coin originate in the ancient roman times
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The histories surrounding Challenge Coins may have experienced some loss over time, while certain legends and myths have endured. However, these coins can be traced back to ancient Roman times and have always been closely associated with military history.

Although they did not have a specific name at the time, during the Roman Empire, these coins were utilized as a means to reward soldiers. Notably, emperors and kings would have their portraits engraved on these coins. Consequently, Challenge Coins also served as a form of currency, particularly within military contexts.

The tradition of bestowing a deserving soldier with a Challenge Coin finds its origins in the actions of the Roman Emperor Maximus. He would hire both mercenaries and Roman citizens to partake in battles and wars. The services rendered by these legionaries were often acknowledged through the presentation of these medal-like coins bearing the image of their esteemed Emperor.

2.The World Wars and the military challenge coins

The emergence of military challenge coins in their present form is believed to have occurred during World War I.

Historical accounts indicate that one of the earliest adopters of these coins was a prosperous officer who had the insignia of his squadron engraved onto them. On the eve of a mission over Europe, each member of the group was presented with these specially crafted coins.

According to the legend, during the mission, one soldier was captured and stripped of all personal belongings, except for his coin. This seemingly insignificant item played a crucial role in his survival as he made his escape from Germany to France. The coin served as identification, allowing him to be recognized as an American, thus ensuring his safety.

Since that momentous event, challenge coins have been employed to acknowledge military service, bolster morale, and signify camaraderie. In contemporary military units, these coins often serve as tangible proof of membership and frequently bear symbols representing the accomplishments of those who possess them.

3.The Vietnam War and Secret Operations

Following America's involvement in the Vietnam War (1956-1975), their special forces engaged in covert operations against the Viet Cong and the Vietnamese Army.

Due to the nature of their activities, which were not openly acknowledged by the U.S. Army, the soldiers required a means to identify and recognize each other.

The introduction of challenge coins can be attributed to the Commander and Sergeant of the 1st Special Forces Group. These coins were created as a way to identify and honor the soldiers involved in these operations. The Group's emblem and motto were engraved onto the coins, solidifying their connection to the unit.

Since each coin was personalized for a specific soldier, they also served as a means to acknowledge individual achievements and offer appropriate rewards. However, it is important to note that historical facts intertwine with legends that emerged amidst the dense forests of Southeast Asia.

The tradition of the original coin within the 1st Special Forces Group remains alive today, with the design still preserved as it was during the Vietnam War.

4.The modern “Coin Check” tradition

Challenge coin check image
The origins of the enduring tradition we witness today can be traced back to the Vietnam War. American bars established during that time were exclusive spaces, accessible only to those who could present either enemy bullets or challenge coins.

Over the years, this tradition has evolved and is still prevalent in popular American bars frequented by military personnel.

When a member of the group initiates a "coin check" by shouting the phrase, all other veterans and active-duty members in the party must place their coins on the bar. The individual who is the last to produce their coin is then obliged to buy a round of drinks for the entire group. This practice serves as a powerful reminder of their past service and fosters a sense of belonging.

Furthermore, it serves as an icebreaker in social situations and promotes networking among members of the same organization.

5.Modern uses

Starting from the 1990s, the utilization of challenge coins extended beyond the military and became prevalent among leaders in both private and public organizations. These coins served as a means to reward and acknowledge the contributions of their members.

By employing challenge coins, leaders could readily identify their associates while fostering a deeper sense of belonging and gratitude towards the organization.

A notable development in the tradition was the introduction of personalized coins stamped by U.S. presidents, with President William (Bill) Jefferson Clinton being the first to create such challenge coinsThese presidential coins primarily aimed to recognize the services rendered by civilian and military leaders throughout the country. Typically crafted from copper, bronze, or nickel, these coins were often presented along with a secret handshake.

While the fundamental significance of challenge coins has remained consistent throughout their history, today they play a role in recognizing individuals on a broader scale. Some designs have gained such widespread recognition that they can be identified in various countries.

Furthermore, contemporary challenge coins are employed by private leaders and business owners to reward deserving employees, boost morale, and commemorate significant events.


While the history of challenge coins is extremely extensive, the deep meaning that they carry has not varied.

The way they are delivered to the members of a social or military group has changed, but they are still used to indicate recognition, alliance, and belonging to an organization.

They have been seen to be incredibly useful within private businesses to increase morale and employee satisfaction.

Lastly, the coins are used by the National Football, Baseball, and Hockey League. They are stamped with the logo of the team and fans can purchase specific ones.

Do you have a challenge coin? Did you know about its history? Let us know by leaving a comment below!

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Article written by Robin Brown
Robin Brown is part of the content team at Vivipins where he develops resources to help customers start and grow their own businesses.
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