Challenge coins have a long history in the military. Traditionally, these coins were given to soldiers to recognize their valor and sacrifices to fulfill their duties for their country. The practice of giving special coins for these started in Ancient Rome. This became more popular during the Second Boer War but for a different reason. During this war, non-commissioned military personnel were used to help the British forces. They had a mercenary status, which prevented them from receiving military awards and citations. The award was unjustly given to their commanding officer instead. In order to remedy the injustice, these non-commissioned personnel took the award without the commanding officer’s knowledge. The medallion was cut off from its ribbon. Then, in a public ceremony, they would commend the rightful person. Part of the ceremony would be a handshake, during which the said coin or medallion was passed secretly to the rightful recipient of the award.
Challenge coins are also given to certain units, to show membership. A legend is actually attached to this use of the coins. An aircraft gunman was downed in a German territory. All his belongings were taken from him except for a coin. He later escaped and found himself in France. The French troops mistook him for a spy and sentenced him to death. He had no other proof that he was an ally, except for his single coin. The coin was given to him and his fellow soldiers by one of their officers. The coin was recognized to be that of an ally. Using the coin, the aircraft gunman’s identity was later confirmed. He was set free and escorted back to his unit. Through the next few years, challenge coins became a symbol of one’s membership to specific units.
Another time that challenge coins were used was during the Korean War. Members of the 17th Infantry Regimen that served in this war received the “Buffalo Bill” challenge coin. The commanding officer, Colonel Quinn, had these coins to honor the unit’s participation in the war.
These coins are also given when a soldier finishes trainings or after completing certain mission. One example is the United States Air Force. Their cadets would receive their first coins in a coin ceremony as part of their graduation. A few more coins would be given to the airmen during their term of service.
In recent years, these special coins are no longer confined within the military ranks. Personnel would also get coins in recognition for the services rendered to the military cause.
Pioneered by US President Bill Clinton, challenge coins were also given to families of soldiers to recognize the sacrifice made by their relatives. These coins are also given to chosen dignitaries, as a sign of respect and warm welcome. A few people who rendered extraordinary support and service for the US also receive Presidential coins. Coins are handed out according to the discretion of the president. President George W. Bush was known to hand these out to injured soldiers when they came home from military tour of duty in the Middle East. President Obama is known to give these more often to soldiers that are stationed at the stairs of the President’s Air Force One. The coins are given during a handshake.
Challenge coins are not just restricted to military use. Police departments would hand these coins to officers for doing a good job. Fore departments hand these out to firefighters, especially after a particularly difficult rescue situation. Civic organizations are known to give out coins to their members. These include organizations such the Boys Scouts and the Lions Club. Lastly, there are several civilian groups that have their own coins. This includes Star Wars’ 501st Legion cosplayers, Linux users, and riders of Harley Davidson.