Used as early as the Roman Empire, the Challenge Coin, or similar token, was presented by military leaders to soldiers for an exceptionally well-done job. Through the years, the coin’s purpose changed and evolved into a symbol of a unit’s pride and symbolized a unit’s esprit de corps. The coin became a means for members of the Profession of Arms to show pride in their organization, job and unit’s heritage.
One widely accepted story of the history behind the Air Force Challenge Coin begins with World War I when newly created flying squadrons were being formed. The story goes that a lieutenant ordered bronze medallions and presented them to his fellow pilots. One of those pilots wore his medallion inside a leather pouch around his neck. As fate would have it, that pilot was shot down or forced to land behind enemy lines and was captured by the German military. His captors took all of his personal effects and identification, except for the medallion.
The pilot escaped and evaded re-capture by the Germans as he attempted to make his way back to his unit. Along the way, the pilot came across a French outpost where he was again detained. The French believed the young pilot to be a saboteur since he had no personal identification. So they planned for his execution. The pilot showed his French captors his medallion, which displayed his squadron’s insignia. The French delayed his execution and were able to verify the pilot’s true identity. When the pilot was reunited with his squadron, it became a tradition that all members carry their medallions at all times.
Another and more recent story, comes from the Vietnam War era. IT is also generally agreed upon that this is where the “challenge” aspect of the coin originated. This story goes that the Challenge Coin originated from the “Bullet Clubs” in Vietnam. The Bullet Clubs were formed by front-line fighters who carried a live, fully functional, “personalized” bullet from their weapon with them wherever they went, especially to the “Hooch Bars.” If a member was ever challenged to produce his bullet and could not do so, then he had to buy everyone in the bar a round of drinks or drinks for the night depending upon locally established rules.
This system of carrying one’s bullet worked well for a while. But as is sometimes the case with GIs, the bullets became a little excessive. Some of the members began carrying cannon shells, rockets and all types of military ordnance. To provide a safer environment, the bullets were replaced with coins. The challenge rules remained, only the symbolic token used to show one’s pride in their unit and profession changed.
Regardless of where the Challenge Coin concept originated, the basic rules of the coin are the same in many parts of the world and are as follows:
- The rules must be explained to a new coin recipient.
- The coin must be carried at all times.
- The holder can be challenged at any time and if found to be without their coin, must buy drinks (how many depends on locally established rules) for those in attendance who produced their respective coins.
- The coin can never be passed to another individual during a challenge.
- As with any game, rules are subject to local interpretation and modification.
Source: Dean, R. (2002) Coining History, Sergeants Magazine, Air Force Sergeants Association