Every third Saturday in May since 1950, the United States celebrates Armed Forces Day, which honors the brave men and women serving in the five different branches of the U.S. military. These five branches include the U.S. Army, the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Navy, and the U.S. Marine Corps. While most of the country celebrates this holiday on the third Saturday in May, due to their training regimens, the National Guard and Reserve forces often celebrate Armed Forces Day at any point in May.
Given the ubiquitous nature of coins, it is unsurprising that there are a myriad of medals, coins, and Mint issues that are dedicated to our armed forces, with bronze national medals and the American Legion commemorative coins being some notable recent examples of the latter. While many coins and medals that feature our armed forces could be discussed in great detail, one type, in particular, caught my interest: Challenge coins.
Challenge coins provide a fascinating view of the military subculture of the United States, but the tradition of presenting coins to soldiers for their achievements dates back to the time of the Roman Empire. The most commonly accepted theory to their origin in the United States comes from the First World War. As the story goes, one wealthy lieutenant ordered several medallions to be struck in bronze and distributed them among his unit. One pilot in the lieutenant’s unit placed his medallion in a leather pouch that he wore around his neck. As fate would have it, the pilot was shot down, but after French troops confiscated the rest of his belongings, suspecting him of being a saboteur, the pilot presented his medallion as proof that he was an American. Instead of shooting him as a suspected enemy, the French gave him a bottle of wine after his identity was fully confirmed as a friend.
Challenge coins were used in World War II, particularly among Office of Strategic Service personnel who were stationed in Nazi-occupied France. The coins were useful in preventing infiltration from enemy units during confidential meetings since only allies would have them or know of their significance. Enemies were unaware of not only the exact meeting time and place but the coins that were used to identify friend from foe. Coins were also small enough that they were often overlooked if a soldier was searched by their captors.
Challenge coins owe their nickname to their use among service members in a ritual known as a “coin challenge.” Typically, challenges are initiated in a bar or some other public place among members of the same organization. Members of different organizations (either military, political, or civilian) will have different rules when it comes to their coins. Usually the initial challenger begins by either slapping his coin on a table or rapping it repeatedly if the environment is noisy, and, in some cases, accidentally dropping the coin is interpreted as a challenge as well.
Everyone present at the challenge must produce their respective coins, and any caught without their coin on-hand must buy the challenger (and anyone who successfully produced their coin) a round of drinks. If everyone successfully presents their coins, then the challenger must buy the drinks for everyone else. Additional rules for a coin challenge prohibit the defacing of a coin, which includes having a hole drilled in it to carry on a keychain or lanyard. Also, the highest-ranking member of the group will typically have drinks bought by everyone present whether they were the initial challenger or not. While these outline the general rules for challenging, this should not be considered an exhaustive list for the many ways that this tradition takes place.
Starting in the 1990s, challenge coins (as such medals have come to be known, despite not being legal-tender coins) began making their rounds among U.S. presidents, who were often presented the coins as gifts by service members. Members of Congress have also produced their own challenge coins, which are typically given to individuals within their respective constituencies. A variety of civilian organizations have also warmed to the concept of issuing challenge coins to members or those within their ranks who have distinguished themselves, with groups such as the NFL, NASCAR, and the Harley Owners Group making extensive use of them. Challenge coins are so popular that they have even made it into certain film and television productions, such as the crew of Breaking Bad being issued coins after each new season. Challenge coins have also seen use in foreign countries among both military and civilian organizations.
Challenge coins can range in composition from pewter to 24-karat gold. Enamel is commonly present to provide some coloration to the metal, and epoxy is often used as a coating. The two most common ways that challenge coins are produced include die-struck bronze or zinc-alloy castings. While die-struck bronze is considered of higher value to numismatists, zinc-alloy castings provide for greater flexibility of design and a lower cost to produce. To those who collect challenge coins, the die-struck bronze varieties are often more prized for their beauty and quality. While the early history of challenge coins is uncertain and different theories exist of how they began, what most collectors can agree on is that the tradition of their use is here to stay.