The History of the Military Challenge Coin

by Allan Peretz

For hundreds of years, challenge coins have been a valued part of many military veterans’ lives. It's believed, in fact, that they originated in the Roman Empire. Today, these coins are cherished in many professions including the military, police, firefighters, and more.

Appearance of Challenge Coins

Coins were typically made of nickel, copper or pewter and came in all shapes and sizes although most were about 1.5 to 2 inches around and about a tenth of an inch thick (much like ours today).

Origin of the Challenge Coin

In Ancient Rome, it was not unheard of for enlisted soldiers to be rewarded monetarily for doing well in battle on a given day. He would be given his pay for the day along with another coin as an added bonus. There are rumors that the coins carried marks to signify which legion they came from. Some men kept their coins while others spent them on wine and women.

In our more modern society coins are given out commonly among individuals serving in our military. Challenge coins can serve as a sort of ID badge to remember which unit they served with.

Although at one time challenge coins were typically only used within the military, coins are used widely in today’s society for many reasons and among many different individuals. Some businesspeople exchange them like they would business cards. Coins may be used as fundraising tools, handed out to people to raise awareness or given as a reward system to people.

A coin that was minted by Colonel Buffalo Bill Quinn is said to be one of the earliest challenge coins that has been documented. He was of the 17th Infantry Regiment. With a buffalo on one side and the insignia belonging to the regiment on the other, these coins were given to the men of his crew during the Korean War. Men often drilled holes in the top and wore them around their necks.

During the Vietnam War challenge coins were making headway. Men carried their coins with pride, and more safely than their bullet club alternatives. Men used to carry bullets that were given as a reward for surviving a mission but also were given with the intention to be a sort of last resort if a soldier found himself in a predicament. When a challenge was presented amongst members of the bullet club, men often slammed live ammunition down on a tabletop. As a result, command ended this ordinance and replaced the bullet club bullets with Special Forces coins.

Today challenge coins are also given to every U.S. President. Each president typically receives more than one: one during inauguration, one to commemorate his administration and one that is available for the general public to be sold in stores and online.

Police, fire department, Boy Scouts, Harley Davidson riders, Star Wars cosplayers and more also enjoy these collectible treasures today.