Challenge coin

Challenge coin
Original USAF Airman's Coin.
The obverse of a U.S. Marine Corps birthday ball medallion.
U.S. Civil Affairs Corps coin
U.S. Civil Affairs Corps coin

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. In addition, they are also collected by service members. [1]


Origins of the challenge coin in the U.S.

Like many aspects of military tradition, the origins of the challenge coin are a matter of much debate with little supporting evidence. While many organizations and services claim to have been the originators of the challenge coin, the most commonly held view is that the tradition began in the Army Air Corps (a precursor of the current United States Air Force).

Air warfare was a new phenomenon during World War I. When the Army created flying squadrons they were manned with volunteer pilots from every walk of civilian life. While some of the early pilots came from working class or rural backgrounds, many were wealthy college students who withdrew from classes in the middle of the year, drawn by the adventure and romance of the new form of warfare.

As the legend goes,[1][2] one such student, a wealthy lieutenant, ordered small, solid-bronze medallions (or coins) 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 while later, this pilot’s aircraft was heavily damaged by ground fire (other sources claim it was an aerial dogfight), forcing him to land behind enemy lines, resulting in his capture by the Germans. The Germans confiscated the personal belongings from his pockets, but they didn’t catch 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. Unfortunately for him, the French had been on the lookout for German saboteurs dressed as civilians. The French mistook the American pilot for a German saboteur and immediately prepared to execute him.

Desperate to prove his allegiance and without any identification, 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 couldn’t 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.

Another aspect of the tradition dates back to when US military personnel were assigned to occupy post-World War II Germany. With the exchange rate, the West German one Pfennig coin was worth only a fraction of a U.S. cent, and they were thus generally considered not having enough value to be worth keeping - unless one was completely broke. At any place where servicemen would gather for a beer, if a soldier called out "Pfennig Check" everyone had to empty their pockets to show if they were saving any Pfennigs. If a soldier could produce a Pfennig, it meant that he was nearly broke. Likewise, if a soldier could not produce a Pfennig (meaning he had enough money to not bother saving them), he had to buy the next round.

Another part of the coin tradition dates back to the Vietnam war:

The tradition of the coin giving dates back to Vietnam actually when soldiers would tote along a piece of "lucky" ordnance that had helped them or narrowly missed them. At first it was small arms ammunition, but this practice grew to much bigger and more dangerous ordnance as time wound on. It became then actually a dangerous practice because of the size and power of the ordnance being carried, so commanders banned it, and instead gave away metal coins emblazoned with the unit crest or something similar. The main purpose of the ordnance had been when going into a bar, you had to have your lucky piece or you had to buy drinks for all who did have it. The coins worked far better in this regard as they were smaller and not as lethal! So, if you go to a military bar, whip out a challenge coin and slam it down on the bar, those who lack one buy drinks! Obviously you have to be careful about this tradition... However, Commanders and units give out coins for this and as mementos for services rendered or special occasions.[3]

There is another story about an American soldier scheduled to rendezvous with Philippine guerrillas during WWII. As the story goes, he carried a Philippine solid silver coin that was stamped on one side with the unit insignia. The coin was used to verify, to the guerrillas, that the soldier was their valid contact for the mission against the Japanese.[4]

The challenge coin tradition has spread to other military units, in all branches of service, and even to non-military organizations. Today, challenge coins are given to members upon joining an organization, as an award to improve morale, and sold to commemorate special occasions or as fundraisers. In the Air Force, military training instructors award an Airman's coin 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.[5]

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.[6]

Challenge coins and U.S. Presidents

President Bill Clinton displayed several racks of challenge coins, which had been given to him by U.S. servicemembers, 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 short but unexpected visit to Al-Asad Airbase in Anbar province, Iraq, September 3, 2007.[7]

President Barack Obama placed challenge coins on the memorials of the soldiers slain in the Fort Hood shooting.[8]


The tradition of a challenge is the most common way to ensure that members are carrying their unit's coin. The rules of a challenge are not always formalized for a unit, and may vary between organizations. The challenge only applies to those members that have been given a coin formally by their unit. This may lead to some controversy when challenges are initiated between members of different organizations and is not recommended. The tradition of the coin challenge is meant to be a source of morale in a unit, and forcing the challenge can cause a reverse effect.

The challenge, which can be made at any time, begins with the challenger drawing his/her coin, and slapping or placing the coin on the table or bar. In noisy environments, continuously rapping the challenge coin on a surface may initiate the challenge. (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 and 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 in their pockets or in some other readily accessible place on their persons, most versions of the rules permit a challenged person "a step and a reach" (particularly useful if one is challenged in the shower, a tradition in the Navy).

Variants of the rules include the following. If someone is able to steal a challenge coin, everyone in the group must buy a drink for that person. During a challenge, everyone in the group must buy a drink for the holder of the highest-ranking coin. Some units provide strict time limits to respond to a challenge.

Other considerations

One feature of challenge coins is it takes a conscious effort to carry one at all times. 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.[9][10][not in citation given] A generally safe place to carry a coin is in a pouch worn around the neck (like the pilot in the legend). Carrying a challenge coin in the wallet is problematic because the distinctive circular bulge can be mistaken for a condom, or can identify the individual as a military member—a serious security consideration in many places. Some unit rules specifically prohibit carrying a challenge coin in a wallet.[10][not in citation given]

While coins range dramatically in diameter and thickness, a Pocket Coin normally measures 38mm x 2.5mm thick, while a Presentation Coin or Medallion is traditionally 45mm x 3mm. They come in all shapes, from square, oval, multisided to one which replicates a "dog tag".

There are many finishes available – from a simple pewter to 24K gold. While there are only a few base metals, the patina (finish) can range from gold, silver, nickel, brass, copper. bronze plus the antiqued variations. Soft or hard enamel or a printed inset with an epoxy coating may add color (the epoxies are often more resilient and scratch resistant than the metal surfaces).


Challenge coins are moderately inexpensive to design and produce. There are two basic processes by which to manufacture: zinc-alloy castings or die struck bronze.

Zinc alloy castings offer the advantage of low cost. The quality is relatively good, but if carried as a pocket coin, the patina (finish) tends to wear off exposing the base metal. While a die struck bronze or brass coin is more expensive, the result renders a far superior product (numismatic quality).

As of 2010, coins manufactured in Asia typically cost between US$4.50 to US$12.00 per coin depending on production process and complexity of design, laser engraving, enamels, voids, etc. The dies must be sculpted by an artist and can range in cost from US$500 to US$900 depending on complexity. The cost of domestic manufacture can be two to three times this amount.

In order to be competitive, most North American companies offering challenge coins rely on having the product manufactured 'off-shore'. Many challenge coins are fabricated in South Korea, as the connection to the US military bases there is strong, and costs are cheaper than US made coins.

Types of Challenge Coins

There are two main types of challenge coins being manufactured by various companies today. The first, called hard enamel, is a process adopted from ancient Chinese lapel pins and uses hard baked enamels to give each coin a smooth finish. The more common process is known as soft enamel and leaves each coin with a textured surface, whereby the raised metal areas formed by stamping the design into metal are raised above the enamel color fills. The primary difference between the two finishes is determined by a polishing process that smooths out the raised metal areas to a point where they are even with the color fills. Hard enamel coins are polished to a smooth finish - soft enamel coins are left unfinished. [11] You can view a large collection of different types of challenge coins by clicking the following


Besides using coins for challenging, they are also used as rewards or awards for outstanding service or performance of duty. As such they are used as a tool to build morale. In the context as they are used by the modern U.S. military, the tradition probably began among special forces units during the Vietnam War. The tradition spread through the Airborne community, and by the early 1980s also into the 75th Ranger Regiment. 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, and have steadily grown in popularity since.

One widely known challenge coin in the United States Air Force was the "Bull Dog" challenge coin 2. that was exclusive to B-52 enlisted tail gunners. Since the B-52 gunner position was phased out in 1991, this famous challenge coin has become more rare.

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.

Some collectors buy them for their numismatic value.[12] Coins given as awards for accomplishments are normally given to the recipient during a handshake, passing from the right hand of the giver to the right hand of the awardee. It is also normal for the giver to offer a brief explanation of the reason for awarding the coin.

"Perhaps the largest collection of Army Engineer related coins exists in a large cabinet in the Army Engineer Association's (AEA) [Engineer Regimental Store], located in the Engineer Museum at the home of the Engineer Regiment. These coins were donated by store customers who have passed through the store since it opened in the late 1980s."[13]

Challenge coins in popular culture

  • At the end of the long-running American adventure drama television show JAG, the two main characters decide to marry, then flip the challenge coin of retired Rear Admiral A. J. Chegwidden to decide who will resign his or her military commission to accompany the other to a new duty station. The final image freezes with the coin in the air; the audience never sees it fall.
  • Colonel Eli McNulty coins Samantha Liston in E-Ring when she is in the running to be Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and a General is trying to put a stop to it. At one point the General initiates the 'Coin Check' to show that she should not have a senior job as she has not seen combat and, of course, Liston has no challenge coin - thus proving his point.
  • In the NCIS episode "Cloak" (11/18/2008), the SecNav gives Tony his coin, apparently as a means of identification. Tony relates to Ziva David the meaning of challenge coins, explaining that they are a form of bragging rights for who has "rubbed elbows" with the biggest brass. He also states that they will never have to buy drinks again.
  • Jessica Simpson and her fellow basic training graduates get coined in Private Valentine: Blonde & Dangerous.
  • In the "Betrayed" Episode of the adventure drama television show Chase, Deputy US Marshal Annie Frost, is shown to carry around her challenge coin regularly. A recent addition to the Marshal team, Luke, later expresses his frustration at not earning his challenge coin yet- however he earns it at the end of this episode.

Challenge coins outside of the military

The popularity of challenge coins are stretching past the military. NASCAR,[14] the NFL, Eagle Scouts and World Series of Poker all have their own challenge coins. They are also becoming extremely popular with Police Departments, Fire Departments and Fraternal organizations. In 2007, the Utah Symphony and Opera gave challenge coins to all of its staff and musicians, making it the first symphony organization in America to embrace the challenge coin tradition.[citation needed] Coins do not have to be given to someone to be called a challenge coin, as many non-governmental organizations sell challenge coins to fundraise or promote their products or services.

Members of the National Association of Buffalo Soldiers and Troopers Motorcycle Club must earn their challenge coin.

Another organization in which challenge coins have gained popularity is the "National Association of Buffalo Soldiers and Troopers Motorcycle Club" (NABSTMC) which has over 85 chapters totaling over 2,000 members. The coin is 1.75 inches in diameter, minted in solid brass with an antique finish. The front of the coin bears the NABSTMC Buffalo Soldier Logo. Also depicted is the year the club was established, which was 1999. The back of the coin proudly displays the "Cavalry Charge" with the motto of the 9th and 10th Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers - "We Can, We Will" and "Ready Forward". The coin must be earned by the members and can only be presented by a National Officer or Chapter President for a noteworthy accomplishment.

In 2009, the Harley Owners Group (H.O.G.) created and made available its own challenge coin to Harley-Davidson motorcycle owners through the H.O.G. Members Only website, stating "Those who ride Harley-Davidson motorcycles share a bond in much the same way as those who have served their country with pride. Carrying a H.O.G. National Challenge Coin in your pocket, on your bike or off, is a meaningful way to show your pride of Harley-Davidson ownership – while also paying tribute to those who serve." The H.O.G. National Challenge Coin, available for US$12, measures 1.75 inches in diameter and is minted in U.S.A. from solid brass alloy with an antique finish. The H.O.G. Eagle logo is stamped on the coin. The Harley-Davidson Bar and Shield logo encircled with the words The Official Riding Club of Harley-Davidson is stamped on the back.

In his audio commentary for the DVD release of Iron Man 2, film director Jon Favreau notes that he had Iron Man 2 challenge coins made to distribute to United States Air Force personnel as a gesture of thanks for their cooperation while the production (and its predecessor, Iron Man) filmed on location at Edwards Air Force Base.

Bill Prady, Executive Producer of The Big Bang Theory recently gave the Big Bang Theory Executive Producer's Challenge Coin to the crew of the last Space Shuttle.[15]

On the "Rockets" episode of Locked N' Loaded With R. Lee Ermey R. Lee (Gunny) Ermey presents a challenge coin to 2nd Lt. Carr as a reward for being the "Top Gun" in his class with the Javelin Portable Rocket Launching System.


  • Recognized as a welcome "Americanism", the use of challenge coins is relatively new to the Canadian Forces (CF). General Rick Hillier, recently retired Chief of the Defense Staff, recognized the benefits of using coins and promoted their use as the CF began to work closer with the US military. While many ships, regiments and military establishments purchase them as 'Challenge Coins', most branches and schools within the CF use them for presentation purposes.
  • Members of the Canadian Forces Electrical and Mechanical Engineering Branch Fund are issued challenge coins with the current EME-GEM badge and the member's branch fund membership number on the obverse side, and the original RCEME badge and branch motto on the reverse side. Usually, these are issued to Craftsmen at the Canadian Forces School of Electrical and Mechanical Engineering, in Borden, Ontario, where branch fund membership is first offered. (See image)
  • Many of the CF training centres and staff colleges have a unique coin - some available for the students to purchase, others available only by presentation by the establishment or the Commandant for exemplary achievement while attending the facility. General Walter Natynczyk, Chief of the Defense Staff and the Canadian Forces Chief Warrant Officer often present their personalized coins to deserving soldiers.
  • Police, Security and Fire Departments have recently embraced the concept and found coins to be an excellent means of team building and creating a sense of brotherhood or belonging. Many feature a patron saint, badge or representative equipment.


The challenge coin tradition was introduced into the Swiss Armed Forces by American officers on training missions and other assignments for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, of which Switzerland is a member. Coins are not issued, but rather ordered and paid for by Swiss officers of various branches within the Army.


  1. ^ a b "Challenge Coin", Accessed 10 March 2008. "Commanders use specially minted military coins to improve morale, foster unit esprit de corps and honor service members for their hard work. ... In one squadron, a wealthy lieutenant ordered medallions struck in solid bronze and presented them to his unit."
  2. ^ Cpl. Wil Acosta, "History of the challenge coin", Marine Corps News March 4, 2005. Copied at Accessed 10 March 2008
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^ R. R. Keane, reply to William F. Storm's letter to Sound Off, Leatherneck XCI 1 January (2008): 2
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^ a b
  11. ^
  12. ^
  13. ^ Morgan, Michael. 2011 "Veterans & Reunions." Army Engineer Magazine. September-October 2011, page 30.
  14. ^
  15. ^

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