Challenge Coin History

Written by Robin Brown on January 30, 2021
Challenge coins have an extremely long and intricate history, some of which have turned into legends and myths. However, the heritage left behind can still be seen today in social and military traditions.

Today the functions and look of challenge coins might have been changed, but the high value of these objects has not faded away. Let’s have a look at the most interesting facts of the history of Challenge coins.

1.They originate in the ancient roman times

coin originate in the ancient roman times
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Some of the histories of Challenge Coins has been lost and some legends and myths have carried on. However, the coins originate back in the Ancient Roman times and, by tradition, they have always been linked with military history.

Back then there was not a name for them yet, but during the Roman empire, they were used to reward soldiers. Moreover, emperors and kings would engrave a portrait of their faces into those coins. Often this meant that Challenge coins were used as a currency in exchange for services, especially the military.

The tradition of awarding a worthy soldier with a Challenge coin originates from the Roman Emperor Maximus. He used to hire mercenaries and Roman citizens during battles or wars.

The services offered by the legionaries were often rewarded with such medal coins that carried the image of their Emperor.

2.The World Wars and the military challenge coins

The birth of military challenge coins as we know them today is believed to happen during World War I.

Historians report that one of the first users of these coins was a wealthy officer who had his squadron’s insignia engraved in coins. They were then delivered the day before a mission over Europe to each member of the group.

The legend says that one of the soldiers was captured and stripped of its belongings during the mission, but the coin remained with him. This helped him being recognized as an American when he escaped Germany toward France, and it was key to his survival.

From this moment onwards, the coins are used to reward military services, boost morale, and express alliance. Today, in military units, coins are often used as proof of membership and they often portray the achievements of who shows them.

3.The Vietnam War and Secret Operations

After America joined the Vietnam War (1956-1975), their special forces were conducting clandestine operations Viet Cong and the Vietnamese Army.

The soldiers’ actions during these historical times were not openly accepted by the U.S. Army, so they would need a way to recognize each other.

Challenge coins were introduced by the Commander and Sergeant of the 1st Special Forces Group as a way to recognize the soldiers involved in the operations. The Group’s symbol was engraved in the metal, along with their motto.

Since is coin was linked to a specific soldier, this was also a way to recognize the achievements of each man and reward them properly. However, here historical facts are mixed with legends told in the Southeast Asian forests.

The tradition of this original coin within the 1st Special Forces group continues today, and the initial design is still kept as it was during the Vietnam War.

4.The modern “Coin Check” tradition

Challenge coin check image
This tradition that is still carried on today actually sees its origins during the Vietnam War. The bar instituted by the Americans in Vietnam was exclusive and only by showing enemy bullets or challenge coins, soldiers would have access to it.

Today this tradition has developed over the years and can still be witnessed in American bars popular among military members.

When one member of the group shouts “coin check”, the rest of the party composed of veterans and active-duty members has to place their coin on the bar.

The last person to do so is required to pay a round of drinks to the rest of the party. This is a great way to remember the times of their services and create a feeling of belonging.

Moreover, it can be used as an ice breaker in social situations and it is used to promote networking among the members of the same organization.

5.Modern uses

Starting from the 1990s, challenge coins were also used by leaders of private and public organizations to reward the members of the party.

This could help recognize members straight away, but also create a greater feeling of belonging and gratitude among them towards the organization.

Afterward, a tradition of stamping personal coins by U.S presidents started. President William (Bill) Jefferson Clinton was the first to create such challenge coins.

They were mainly used to reward the services of civilian and military leaders across the country. These coins were often made out of copper, bronze, or nickel, and often received with a secret handshake.

While the meaning of challenge coins has been similar throughout their history, today they can help recognize individuals on a larger scale. Some of the prints are in fact so well-known that they can be identified in many other countries.

Lastly, today’s challenge coins are used by private leaders and business owners to reward a worthy employee, increase morale, and commemorate 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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