Military Challenge Coins: Etiquette, History, Design, & Ordering Info

In today’s post, I want to educate you about military challenge coins. I’m going to cover the history, what it means to be given one, how to present one, designing your own challenge coin, and so much more. If you enjoy the content, please bookmark this post and share it with others.

What is a Challenge Coin?

Military Challenge Coins are normally a metal coin. They look like a medallion. Normally, the coin has the unit insignia, motto, and logo on it. Some are fancy, some are plain. Sometimes it has the commander’s and senior NCO’s name are engraved or printed on it as well.

Military leaders use these coins to recognize individual achievements in their chain of command. According to tradition, service members who’ve received the coin are supposed to always carry it with them.

In addition, service members can “challenge” each other to present their coin. If the challenged person fails to do so, they are responsible to buy the challenger a beer, do pushups, or whatever is custom in that unit.

Most military challenge coins are about the size of a U.S. half dollar or one dollar coin.

military challenge coins

Why Are They Important?

Military Challenge Coins are important for unit morale and esprit de corps. Everyone wants to feel appreciated. Leaders must recognize individual Soldier achievements. Some of those achievements might not be worthy of a formal award, such as an achievement medal.

That’s where challenge coins come in. You don’t need to fill out paperwork or get permission from someone higher in the chain of command to give someone a challenge coin. If you have your own challenge coin, you can present it to someone you deem worthy of receiving it. If you don’t have your own challenge coin, you could ask the first person in your chain of command (who does have one) if they could present the Soldier with their coin.

From personal experience, I know that most Soldiers admire and cherish the challenge coins they receive during their career. I still have mine, and I have been out of the military more than 10-years now.

History of the Challenge Coin

In the paragraphs below, I’d like to share the history of military challenge coins.

After doing some independent research online, I found one source that said the challenge coins first entered the service around WW2. The first (recorded) unit to create their own challenge coin was used by the Office of Strategic Service Personnel in Nazi, Germany.

Initially, the coins were used to help identify a person’s identity. The coins helped prevent spies and enemies from infiltrating secret meetings.

Another online source says that challenge coins date back to WW1 when a rich Lieutenant had lots of solid bronze coins made up for the people he served with. One of the pilots he served with crashed his fighter plane and had his challenge coin wrapped around his neck (on a string).

He became a POW with the Germans. Later, he used the coin to identify himself as an American, when being rescued by the French. According to the story, the coin is what he used to prove that he was an American. The coin saved his life and kept him from being executed by the French.

Moreover, in the 1950s, the 10th Special Forces Group created their own challenge coin. From what I found online, they were one of the only Army units to have their own challenge coins, up until the late 1980s.

Of course, I cannot validate any of these three stories about the history of the challenge coin. But they all do prove that the challenge coin dates back somewhere from 60 to 100-years! Amazing.

What Does It Mean to Be Given a Challenge Coin?

What does it mean to be given a challenge coin from someone? In my own words, it means that the person presenting you the coin believes you did something worthy enough to deserve it. Each commander or leader, who has their own coin, has different criterion for giving other people their challenge coin.

For some leaders, they hand out challenge coins like free candy. Other military leaders are more reserved with who they give them to.

Different groups give challenge coins to their members for different reasons. Many groups give their members custom challenge coins as a sign of their acceptance into the group. For example, the US Air Force provides graduates of their basic training program and officer training program challenge coins to congratulate them and commemorate the event.

Some groups only give out challenge coins to those who have achieved something great. For example, some law enforcement agencies and fire departments give out challenge coins when their officers and members go beyond the call of duty.

Challenge coins may also be given to non-members under special circumstances. This usually involves the non-member doing something great for that group. Members who have challenge coins also give them to guests of honor, such as politicians or special guests. ~ Custom Challenge Coins

How to Give a Challenge Coin

How do you give a challenge coin to someone else? What is the proper way to do it? There are different viewpoints on this subject, but I believe the best way to do this is in a group setting, ideally in a formation. You could have the Soldier report to the front of formation and the person presenting the coin could give the Soldier the challenge coin and tell everyone in the formation WHY the person is receiving it.

Another option is to do it privately. If you have your own challenge coin, and you want to present it to someone privately, you could call them into your office, or somewhere private, present them the coin and tell them why you are giving them the coin. This adds a nice personal touch, especially if you are a high-ranking officer or NCO giving away a coin.

Normally, the presenter has the coin tucked away in their hand. When they shake hands with the person they are giving the coin to, the coin is transferred to the recipient during the handshake.

Historically, the preferred way to give someone a challenge coin is by secret handshake. A commanding officer or high-ranking official will typically palm the coin and bestow it, either in public or private, upon the recipient.

This practice is believed to have begun during the Second Boer War. British mercenaries during the war could not receive official medals, and their superiors typically received the medals instead. Those believing this rule to be unfair would steal the medal and secretly give it to its rightful owner via a handshake. ~ Pins Pro Plus

Order Your Own Challenge Coins

If you are a military leader, in any capacity, it would be a clever idea to have your own custom challenge coin. As a Company Commander, my First Sergeant and I pooled our money together to create and purchase our own UNIT challenge coins.

Our Soldiers loved these challenge coins, often more than the formal awards we presented, such as AAMs and ARCOMs. We’d present a challenge coin or two, each drill weekend, for Soldiers who did an excellent job.

Soldiers would be called up at the end of day formation and be presented their coin. It’s been more than 10-years since I was in command, but I still have Soldiers reach out to me from time to time to tell me how much they loved the coin I gave them.

There are many websites online where you can design your own challenge coin. I don’t remember the exact amount, or the website I purchased mine from, but I believe I spent about $400 for 100 challenge coins, including the design and shipping. For the money invested, and the positive impact on Soldier morale, I think it was money well spent.

challenge coins rules and etiquette

Tips for Designing Your Own Military Challenge Coin

If you’re thinking about designing your own challenge coin, good for you. To me, that proves you are a leader who cares about your Soldiers. Here are some of my best tips to design a good one.

# 1: Create a Custom Design

Custom is key. You want your challenge coin to be unique. Look at other coins you have and do the opposite. Consider designing your own custom graphics or hire a professional to do so.

# 2: Compare Other Coins You Like

Look at the coins in your own personal collection. Which ones do you like best? How can you incorporate some of those designs into something unique of your own?

# 3: Bigger is Better

I think larger challenge coins really stand out. Most are the standard size of one and half or two inches wide. Consider getting a larger coin. This gives you more space for graphics and it’s different than most other coins people will receive.

# 4: Seek Input from the Professionals

Talk to the graphics people at the coin company you are shopping with. They are the professionals. This is what they do for a living. Tell them what you want it to look like and let them work their magic. Even if the custom design costs you an additional $50 or $100, it is well worth it.

# 5: Shop Around

Compare at least three different challenge coin companies for price. Also, create at least two or three “mock” designs for your coin. This will give you added perspective and help you find the right coin for you.

# 6: Order a Proof First

Whatever you do, order a proof before you order a large quantity of coins. Sometimes, your design looks amazing on paper or on the computer screen, but when you get the actual coin, it disappoints. By ordering a proof first, you will have a coin design you are happy with.

# 7: Include Graphics & Your Name

When designing your challenge coin, make sure you include your name, rank, and graphics. Do not create a plain coin without graphics. Those are outdated.

Challenge Coin Rules & Etiquette

As a Soldier and officer, here’s what I was told about challenge coin etiquette and rules.

First off, you must always carry it with you. If someone else in the unit has also received the coin, and they challenge you to see yours, you must present your coin. If you did not have it on you, you were required to purchase the other Soldier a beer. I was also told that if you don’t have the coin on you, but you have a higher-level command coin, you can TRUMP the other person’s coin and you win the challenge. Those were the rules I was told. I am not sure if they are 100% accurate, but those are the rules I’ve always played by.

Here’s what I found online about military challenge coin etiquette:

It’s an honor to be given a challenge coin. That’s why it’s important to know the etiquette surrounding these important mementos. When you use challenge coins the right way, you’re contributing to a time tested tradition that puts camaraderie and membership on the table. Here are the twelve essential rules you’ve got to follow if you want to play the challenge coin game.

1. The rules of the game should be given or explained to everyone given a coin. It’s rude to call out a challenge if you haven’t broken down the way it works ahead of time.

2. Coins must be carried at all times, and challenges can be called out anywhere and at any time. You can only take four steps in order to reach your coin.

3. The challenger must clearly state whether the challenge is for one drink or a round of drinks.

4. If the person challenged fails to produce the coin, the challenge must be honored and drinks must be purchased. Each person can only be challenged once.

5. If everyone who is challenged manages to produce a coin, the challenger is on the hook to buy the drinks. Be careful who you challenge.

6. Never, ever hand someone else a coin in response to a challenge. Doing so is the same as giving the person the coin. The coin can be placed on the table, and anyone who wants to examine it is honor-bound to return it to its original location.

7. If you lose your coin, you’re responsible to replace it as soon as you possibly can. Losing your coin doesn’t absolve you from responsibility to follow the rules of the game. In other words, you’re buying a lot of drinks if you lose it.

8. There are zero exceptions to these rules. They apply whether you’re wearing clothes or not, so think ahead. Remember, you’ve got four steps to get within arm’s reach of your coin.

9. A challenge coin is a coin. It’s not a belt buckle or bracelet or necklace, so don’t use it like one. The exception is for coins that are carried in a pouch around the neck.

10. You must control your coin at all times. It indicates honor, so you shouldn’t give it to just anyone.

11. You may not drill holes in your coin.

12. These rules apply to anyone worthy to be given a coin, anyone who’s known to own a coin and anyone who buys a coin.

The bottom line is that a challenge coin is a thing of honor, and you should treat it like one

Source: New England AWPA

Challenge Coin Holder & Display

Displaying your military challenge coins is lots of fun. Having a nice display is definitely a great conversation starter. When people visit your home or office and see your challenge coin display, they will be in awe, especially veterans and other service members.

You can purchase a nice challenge coin display online for anywhere from $50 to $200. You can have a nice wooden one with a glass case for $100 to $300. If you plan to make a career out of the military, or you have already acquired a bunch of challenge coins, having a nice display is essential.

Some people display their coins by when they received them. Others organize their challenge coins by the rank of the person, or command, they received them from. This is a personal choice. Do what makes you happy.

display your challenge coins

Buying & Selling Challenge Coins

I had to add this section to this article. Many of you know that I buy and sell antiques on eBay, so maybe my perspective as a reseller of different items can help you.

While earning challenge coins is always your best bet, many people have turned into challenge coin collectors. If that describes you, I would encourage you to visit eBay from time to time to see what’s available. They normally have several thousand different challenge coins for sale at any given moment in time. Also, if some of your challenge coins ever lose their sentimental value to you, you can always earn some extra pocket change selling them to other collectors on eBay. Food for thought.


In conclusion, this is everything I know about military challenge coins. These coins have an important role in today’s military. If you are a military leader in any capacity, especially in a command position, you must have your own challenge coins. It’s non-negotiable.

Don’t be stingy! Reward your Soldiers when they do a good job. When you present your coins to others, do it professionally and make it memorable. How you present a gift is often more important than the gift itself. Soldiers love their challenge coins!

I hope you found this information helpful. If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment below. Thank you.

If you’d like to research challenge coin display holders, like the one you see below, check out my Amazon link.

challenge coin holder

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chuck holmes

Chuck Holmes
Former Army Major (resigned)

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