If you’ve served in any branch of the armed forces, chances are you’ve received a “challenge coin.” But you may not realize just how this longstanding military tradition came to be. These coins have a fascinating story and lore all their own.
The history of the challenge coin has developed its own mythology. Some are convinced that the tradition of the coin can be traced as far back as the First World War. The story goes that a downed American pilot trying to make his way back to Allied lines through No Man’s Land was confronted by a French patrol. Convinced the pilot was German, the French officer was prepared to execute him. Unable to speak French, the desperate pilot finally produced a commemorative coin that was in his pocket. This coin had been given to each man in the squadron before departing for France, and it bore the unit insignia. Luckily, the French officer immediately recognized the unit symbol on the coin, and the pilot’s life was spared.
But another version of the challenge coin’s origins begins after WWII, when GIs in occupied Germany adopted a local game called the “pfenning check.” A pfenning is the smallest unit of German currency, roughly equal to a US penny. Whenever members of a unit would enter a German bar, someone would call out, “pfenning check!” And the last person to produce a pfenning would be charged with buying a round of drinks for his buddies.
The oldest challenge coin that would be recognizable to the modern serviceman is the one created by Col. “Buffalo” Bill Quinn for his 17th Infantry during the Korean conflict. But it wasn’t until a decade later that the coins really began to catch on as morale builders. In the Vietnam War, elite units like the Special Forces had unique coins struck to symbolize the tight bonds forged in combat, and intense unit pride. The coins were not meant merely as tokens, but as badges of honor.
Today, challenge coins remain symbols of hard-won honors, and brotherhood, but they are given for a variety of reasons. Some congratulate the recipient on a job well done, others are given for participation in a specific operation. And the tradition has expanded from the U.S. Military to the armed forces of the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia.
These days, many law enforcement groups and even fire departments have their own challenge coins.
But one must remember that the operative word in “challenge coin” is, of course, “challenge,” and it’s the tradition of the challenge that ensures that those who receive one of these coveted coins carries it at all times. Many military units have specific and arcane challenge rules that must be followed – some of these harkening back to the old “pfenning check” legend. Often, a challenge is initiated when a coin holder loudly slaps his coin on a table, or continually taps it. At that point, each member of the unit must produce their own coin – those who don’t are honor bound to buy drinks for his comrades.
So whether you’re active duty or retired, it’s always best to keep any challenge coins that you’ve earned within easy reach; you never know when the gauntlet might be thrown down. If you’re unprepared, you may find yourself buying a round of drinks and perpetuating one of the military’s quirkiest traditions.