The origin of challenge coins is shrouded in legend, partly because they are a strictly unofficial part of military culture, and because like any good tradition, they evolved over time from more than one original source.
The story goes that the first challenge coins were carried by a squadron of American fighter pilots during World War I. One pilot was shot down over no-mans land. He used a coin with the insignia of his squadron to identify himself to French soldiers intent on shooting him as a suspected saboteur. Thereafter, members of his squadron carried their coins at all times. To ensure they did, a ritual challenge was issued. If anyone struck their coin on a hard surface, such as a bar, all others in attendance had to respond in kind. Anyone not having their coin had to buy a round of drinks. If everyone had their coin, the challenger bought the round.
In Vietnam, members of elite army units always carried one round of ammunition with them just in case. As sometimes happens with tradition, this one got a little out of hand. Instead of carrying a rifle or pistol cartridge in his pocket when he visited a hootch (bar), some wise-guy carried a larger .50 caliber machine gun round. It wasn’t long before 20 mm, 40 mm, and even 105 mm cannon shells were carried to these gatherings. Common sense prevailed and challenge coins replaced live ordinance.
Today, challenge coins are a symbol of pride that military members and the private sector carry, not for personal identification, but to identify themselves as part of a team. Soldiers and Airmen from numerous countries have taken up the challenge. One of the ways to make new friends when deployed to somewhere far away is to trade coins. People strive for the most unusual coin. Carrying the coin of another unit or nation is okay, as long as you can show your connection with that organization.
Local amendments are not uncommon. One variation is that if everyone produces a coin, solid gold coins beat sterling silver, which beats base metal coins. Another variation to the challenge is that the rank listed on the coin determines the winner; Lieutenants coins beat Sergeants coins, etc. Still yet another variation involved serial number coins where the lowest serial number wins.
Reproduced in part from the Dover Air Force Base Historical Center (Air Mobility Command Museum), Dover, Delaware.
Rules of the Challenge
- Challenge coins must be kept on persons at all time
- Coins cannot be altered to wear as jewelry or ornamentation
- If the coin strikes a hard surface even by accident, it constitutes a challenge.
- All other coin owners must immediately produce their coins.
- If all other coin owners produce their coins, the challenger must buy drinks for the group.
- If a coin owner fails to produce a coin, that person or persons must buy a round for all those that produced their coin.
- If a coin falls on the ground while the owner is producing his coin, that person must automatically buy a round for the group.