What are Military Challenge Coins?

At its most basic level, a military challenge coin is a tangible object that is used to signify moments in a serviceman’s life within the military. Every challenge coin has its own emblem and motto. The challenge coin began its life during the American Civil War and World War I, where it was traditional for soldiers to carry a coin with them from their home state or country.

The most common use for a military challenge coin, known as “coining” is inspired by the German practice of “pfennig check.” American soldiers operating in Germany would discover that it was common for German men to call for a pfennig check; every man would reveal whether or not he possessed at least one pfennig, the least valuable German coin, and any man who failed to produce one would be forced to buy a round of drinks for the group. Coining works on a similar principle, where one serviceman will slam his challenge coin onto the table or bar and then ask another serviceman to produce his own challenge coin. Whoever reveals the challenge coin with the highest merit is owed a drink by the other parties involved. This ritual of challenge extends to third parties who overhear the challenge and will slam their own coin down before drinks are ordered; depending on the merit of the third party’s challenge coin, the holders of the less-prestigious coins may both wind up buying drinks for the third party challenger.

Although challenge coins are to be carried with a serviceman at all times, their status as hard metal merit badges means that few servicemen would willingly avoid carrying any challenge coins they have earned. The stipulation of “at all times” is very true; coin checks can be called for even when using the bathroom and there are various penalties for a serviceman who fails to produce a coin when they are called to do so. Commanders will sometimes award personal challenge coins as rewards to upstanding members under his command and senior leaders have been known to gift their own coins to foreign dignitaries or other VIPs.

While challenge coins can be made for a variety of achievements, such as gaining a rank or being brought forth to see the commander-in-chief, the list below covers some of the more noteworthy challenge coins in existence:

  • Coins signifying promotion to a certain rank.
  • Coins signifying involvement within a specific division.
  • Coins for serving in a combat zone.
  • Graduating from a military college like Annapolis’ Naval Academy or West Point.
  • Joining the military police.
  • Diving for the army.
  • Earning the Medal of Honor.
  • Attending a formal military ball.