It seems kind of funny to give someone a tiny coin in order to honor them, right?

The tradition of challenge coins is a complex one that you might be curious about if you know anyone in the American armed forces. Challenge coins are one of those American traditions that are half-shrouded in the mysteries of history.

We’ll uncover the best-known origin story of challenge coins today. We’ll also look at how challenge coins get used and what their modern significance is. Hopefully, the ideas below give you a good idea of the challenge coin, so you can appreciate its meaning the next time you come into contact with one.

Let’s get started.

What Is a Challenge Coin?

A challenge coin is a coin given to someone in the armed forces to signify their participation in a group or to honor them for their merits. You might get a challenge coin by simply joining the army and going through basic training.

Down the line, you could get a more significant challenge coin for performing bravely in the line of duty. There are even challenge coins offered to the President of The United States in certain cases.

Marine traditions, air force traditions, navy traditions, and army traditions all use some challenge coins in one way or another. They hold a lot of significance to the people who receive them, and there are varying degrees of value in each coin.

Where Do Challenge Coins Come From?

The origin story of the challenge coin is a blend of historical facts and myth. That said, there’s no telling where that line gets drawn. The story could be ninety-nine percent true, or it could only have a little truth.

In any case, the story starts sometime during WW1. A group of soldiers that hardly knew one another got thrown into the same squadron. People from all walks of life came together, and this was uncommon at that time.

American society was far more stratified during the early 1900s, so the blend of rich and poor was far more unusual than it would be today. That bread some resentment and difficulty for a lot of squadrons.

In the spirit of brotherhood, one of the rich men in the squadron had coins made for each member. There was an engraving that signified the squadron, and the men were all very proud of these coins.

They showed them off to all who would look, and it was well known that the men of this group had this particular coin.

Behind Enemy Lines

Fast forward about a year, and the men find themselves fighting in Europe. They were an air force squadron, so it happened that one of the men was flying over Germany.

He got shot down, landing behind enemy lines but surviving. The man got captured and held hostage by the German soldiers there. Awaiting an almost certain death, the man sat inside a building that was bombed.

Miraculously, he wasn’t fatally wounded and managed to escape in the rubble. He stole some clothes from a wounded German soldier and tried to make his way back to the French territory where he was stationed.

He tramped toward No-Man’s-Land disguised, and managed to make his way across in quite the heroic feat. No-Man’s-Land is the territory between two opposing factions, often in active combat. Getting across that line was questionable at best.

Dressed in German military garb, the man was taken hostage by French soldiers. Again, he was held against his will and had almost no way of proving his American identity. He could have been a spy, and the French couldn’t take any chances with his life.

The Coin Saves The Day

After interrogating the man, the French soldiers could see no way that they could trust him. Death seemed imminent.

Just before he was about to meet his end, though, a French soldier stepped forward. He noticed the coin that the American soldier possessed. Another American soldier had shown it to him in passing, explaining the significance and telling the man that nobody other than his squadron possessed this coin.

In light of this news, the American soldier’s identity was verified. It was the coin that saved the man’s life.

News about the miraculous coin spread, and the idea of identifying one’s self with a challenge coin became a very popular one. The tradition started there, in that amazing tale of persistence and luck.

Modern Use of The Challenge Coin

Today, the use of the challenge coin has spread and evolved. Its significance in the American armed forces is powerful and present in almost all circles.

The idea of the “challenge” is one that evolved after WW1. Possession of your coin became a matter of superstition. People thought that, so long as you had the coin on you, there was a way to identify you in difficult situations.

So, everyone was expected to have their coin on them. You could challenge others to see if they had their military challenge coins and demand a punishment if they didn’t have them.

In most cases, the person that was missing their coin just had to buy a round of drinks for the bar, or do something embarrassing. In addition to being a way to tie groups of soldiers together, the coin served as a way to create games and pastimes.

Honor and Significance

Naturally, that camaraderie and meaning transferred through all the extremities of the military. Coins are used to symbolize membership in groups, as well as to reward bravery or exceptional behavior.

The coin is a step or two down from receiving a medal. Medals involve more ceremonious reception, and they often have higher standards for achievement.

Need More American Traditions Explained?

Hopefully, our look at the idea of the challenge coin was insightful for you. There’s a lot more to learn about American traditions, though. We’re here to help you get more of the information you’re interested in.

Explore our site for more ideas on challenge coins, military traditions, history, and much more.