A Brief Look at the History of Challenge Coins

Sometimes, history throws us little diamonds in the rough.

The challenge coin is one of these little forgotten gems of history. It’s so tucked in the lore of World War One that there isn’t clear evidence of the exact origin of the challenge coin.

There’s a heck of a story, though. We’re going to look at a brief history of challenge coins in this article, giving you the agreed-upon origins as well as some insight into how they’re used today.

We hope the ideas below deepen your appreciation for challenge coins and point out why they’re so meaningful to so many people. Let’s get started.

The Origins of Challenge Coins

The story starts on the eve of the United States’ entry into WWI.

At that time, different groups of society weren’t as willing or able to interact with one another. Things were pretty stratified. The wealthy did what they could to avoid all those less fortunate, and the “less fortunate” groups did what they could to stay away from one another.

There are myriad examples of people coming together during that time, but the general status quo was one of separation. When it came to uniting men in squadrons to fight a war, though, those separations needed to dissolve.

Men from all walks of life were placed together in squadrons. A wealthy man in one particular squadron of the Air Force had an idea that would potentially bring his comrades together.

Custom Air Force Medallions

This man had unique medallions made to signify his groups’ squadron. The set was one of a kind, and the idea of having distinctive coins wasn’t yet popular in the military. These were technically the first custom challenge coins.

You can carry on the tradition by making your own at customchallengecoins.net.

So, when the men received this gift, they showed everyone they could. It didn’t take long for most of the people they knew to find out about the coins. It meant a lot to the men, and they promised to keep those coins on their persons so long as they were fighting in the war.

Shot Down Behind Enemy Lines

Fast forward a number of months to the point when these men were actually in battle. Above Germany, they were engaging in dogfights, the extremely dangerous practice of combatting planes shooting one another out of the air.

Unfortunately, one of the men in our famed squadron was shot down and landed in Germany. He was okay, but there was no hope for his plane. He did what he could to try and escape the wreckage.

He was spotted and captured by German soldiers, held in a building to be interrogated and punished. While he sat there facing imminent death, the building was bombed. Once again, our man survived the explosion.

His captors weren’t so lucky and he was able to escape from the rubble. He also managed to grab the uniform of one of the German soldiers. He left, camouflaged in German military attire, and headed toward the fighting line of France.

No Man’s Land and A Stroke of Luck

As he approached the fighting line, there was one thing that must have stuck out in his mind; “how can I cross No Man’s Land?”

No Man’s Land is the stretch of land between two opposing factions. There’s enough space to keep both sides safe from any surprises, but it’s small enough that bullets can get across and do damage.

The important thing is that nobody should ever try to cross No Man’s Land because there’s almost a 100 percent chance that they won’t make it. There’s too much visibility and nothing to hide behind.

Somehow, someway, our man made it across. The difficulty was that he was wearing a German uniform, though. He arrived on the side of the French and was immediately taken hostage.

Held in a room similar to the one he was trapped in before, the man pleaded for his life and tried to express his identity. There was no way for the French soldiers to verify his claims, though.

How could they know that he wasn’t a German spy who spoke fluent English?

Life-Saving Medallion

At the end of his rope, the man showed his custom medallion. He tried to use it as a way of proving his American identity. The room wasn’t very receptive to this, as they didn’t know what the coin was or what it could possibly mean.

That was until one man spoke up.

The French soldier recognized the coin. He’d spoken with an American soldier who wouldn’t stop showing and talking about the coin. It was the exact same model, and the soldier knew that only men of the particular squadron would have access to a coin like that.

The word of the French soldier was enough to grant the American man’s freedom. He was saved.

The Spread of The Challenge Coin

Upon return, you can imagine how many times the soldier must have told that story. People he told recounted the story to people they knew, and the story spread like wildfire.

The important result of this is the idea that there’s something lucky about keeping the coin on you. If you’re shot down in enemy territory and stripped of all luck, the presence of your challenge coin could be the thing that saves you.

What Is a Challenge Coin?

The “challenge” of the coin is whether or not you have the coin on you.

For example, someone you’re with can challenge you to present the coin. If you have it on you, you’re safe. If you don’t, you’re open to all manner of humiliation and punishment.

The severity of that punishment depends on who challenges you. In the vast majority of cases, though, you’re just responsible for buying a round of beer for the table!

Want to Learn More About Military Challenge Coins?

We hope our look at challenge coins was useful to you. Maybe you’ll have a little more appreciation the next time you see one. There’s a lot more to learn,  though.

We’re here to help. Explore our site for more ideas on challenge coins, military history, lifestyle tips, and a whole lot more.