There are several stories detailing the origins of the challenge coin.
The Roman Empire rewarded soldiers by presenting them with coins to recognize their achievements.
According to the most common story, challenge coins originated during World War I. American volunteers from all parts of the country filled the newly formed flying squadrons. Some were wealthy scions attending colleges such as Yale and Harvard who quit in mid-term to join the war.
In one squadron, a wealthy lieutenant ordered medallions struck in solid bronze and presented them to his unit. One young pilot placed the medallion in a small leather pouch that he wore about his neck. Shortly after acquiring the medallion, the pilots' aircraft was severely damaged by ground fire. He was forced to land behind enemy lines and was immediately captured by a German patrol. In order to discourage his escape, the Germans took all of his personal identification except for the small leather pouch around his neck. In the meantime, he was taken to a small French town near the front. Taking advantage of a bombardment that night, he escaped. However, he was without personal identification. He succeeded in avoiding German patrols by donning civilian attire and reached the front lines. With great difficulty, he crossed no-man's land. Eventually, he stumbled onto a French outpost. Saboteurs had plagued the French in the sector. They sometimes masqueraded as civilians and wore civilian clothes. Not recognizing the young pilot's American accent, the French thought him to be a saboteur and made ready to execute him. He had no identification to prove his allegiance, but he did have his leather pouch containing the medallion. He showed the medallion to his would-be executioners and one of his French captors recognized the squadron insignia on the medallion. They delayed his execution long enough for him to confirm his identity. Instead of shooting him they gave him a bottle of wine.
Back at his squadron, it became tradition to ensure that all members carried their medallion or coin at all times. This was accomplished through challenge in the following manner: a challenger would ask to see the medallion, if the challenged could not produce a medallion, they were required to buy a drink of choice for the member who challenged them. If the challenged member produced a medallion, then the challenging member was required to pay for the drink. This tradition continued on throughout the war and for many years after the war while surviving members of the squadron were still alive.
According to another story, challenge coins date back to World War II and were first used by Office of Strategic Service personnel who were deployed in Nazi held France. Similarly, Jim Harrington proposed a Jolly sixpence club amongst the junior officers of the 107th Infantry. The coins were simply a local coin used as a "bona fides" during a personal meeting to help verify a person's identity. There would be specific aspects such as type of coin, date of the coin, etc. that were examined by each party. This helped prevent infiltration into the meeting by a spy who would have to have advance knowledge of the meeting time and place as well as what coin was to be presented, amongst other signals, as bona fides.
While a number of legends place the advent of challenge coins in the post-Korean Conflict era (some as late as the Vietnam War), or even later, Colonel William "Buffalo Bill" Quinn had coins made for those who served in his 17th Infantry Regiment during 1950 and 1951.
Colonel Verne Green, commander of the 10th Special Forces Group-A, embraced the idea. He had a special coin struck with the unit's crest and motto in 1969. Until the 1980s, his unit was the only unit with an active challenge coin tradition.
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.
The challenge coin tradition has spread to other military units, in all branches of service, and even to non-military organizations as well as the United States Congress, which produces challenge coins for members of Congress to give to constituents. 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 the Air Force Officer Training School.
Challenge Coin History in Canada
The first appearance of a challenge coin within the Canadian Forces was that of the Canadian Airborne Regiment. Although conceptualized in the early 1970s, it was not officially adopted until the Regiment returned from Cyprus in 1974.
Recognized as an "Americanism", the widespread use of challenge coins is new to the Canadian Forces (CF) and was introduced by General Rick Hillier as the Canadian Army began to work closer with the US military. While many regiments and military establishments purchase them as 'challenge coins', most branches and schools within the CF use them for presentation purposes.
Every new officer cadet at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ontario, is issued a challenge coin upon completion of First-Year Orientation Period. The coin is engraved with the name of the college in French and English surrounding the college's coat of arms on the obverse. The cadet's college number and the Memorial Arch is on the reverse surrounded by the motto in both languages.
Members of the Electrical and Mechanical Engineering Branch Fund are issued challenge coins with the current RCEME badge and the member's branch fund membership number on the obverse side, and the original pre-unification 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.
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 Defence Staff and the Canadian Forces Chief Warrant Officer often present their personalized coins to deserving soldiers.
Police, security and fire departments have embraced the concept and have 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 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 act of challenging is called a "Coin Check" and is usually loudly announced.
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" or if an individual has an extra coin to pass it off to the person closest to him or her. Coins on belt buckles or key chains are not acceptable for meeting a challenge. However, a coin worn around the neck is acceptable for meeting a coin challenge.
Variants of the rules include the following but not limited to. 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. A coin presented to a low rank, by a high rank, (i.e.: Admiral) trumps all low rank coins in a challenge. Traditionally, the presentation of a coin is passed during a handshake. Some units provide strict time limits to respond to a challenge.
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. A safer place to carry a coin is in a pouch worn around the neck.
Note: A "Coin Check" consists of a Challenge and a Response.
- The challenge is initiated by drawing your coin, holding it in the air by whatever means possible and state, scream, shout or otherwise verbally acknowledge that you are initiating a coin check. Another, but less vocal method is to firmly place it on the bar, table, or floor (this should produce an audible noise which can be easily heard by those being challenged, but try not to leave a permanent imprint). If you accidentally drop your coin and it makes an audible sound upon impact, then you have just "accidentally" initiated a coin check. (This is called paying the price for improper care of your coin.)
- The response consists of all those persons being challenged drawing their coin in a like manner.
- If you are challenged and are unable to properly respond, you must buy a round of drinks for the challenger and the group being challenged.
- If everyone being challenged responds in the correct manner, the challenger must buy a round of drinks for all those people they challenged.
- Failure to buy a round is a despicable crime and will require that you turn-in your Coin to the issuing agency.
- Approved situations for a Coin Check
- Coin checks are permitted, ANY TIME, ANY PLACE.
- Exceptions to a Coin Check
- There are no exceptions to the rules. They apply to those clothed or unclothed. At the time of the challenge you are permitted one step and an arm’s reach to locate your coin. If you still cannot reach it -- SORRY ABOUT THAT!
- A coin is a coin. Not a belt buckle, not a pendant with a hole.