The History of the Army Challenge Coin

history of army challenge coinToday, I’d like to share some history of the Army Challenge Coin.  In the military, the challenge coin is a prized possession.  After doing some 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.  Apparently 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 on, 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.  Ultimately, 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 1980s.

Of course, I cannot personally 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!

Since then, the role of the Army Challenge coin has evolved.  In modern times, the challenge coin is used to reward soldiers for specific achievements.  In most Battalion Sized units and higher the Commander and Sergeant Major have a challenge coin for their unit.  Often times, the challenge coins have the commander and Sergeant Major’s names on the coin.  Sometimes the coins are serial numbered too.

Most of these challenge coins are unique, beautiful and collectible.  With each coin, there is a story and a proud tradition.  When a soldier receives a coin, he/she is expected to carry it with them at all times.  In the event someone “challenges them,” they must take out the coin or buy the other person a beer (or do push-ups or something else).

There you have it.  Now you know the history of the Army Challenge Coin! Do you have any neat Challenge Coin stories? If you have something to add, just leave a comment to this post to share your thoughts. Also, if you have any questions about the Army Challenge Coin, you can post it below and I will attempt to provide an answer. Thanks and have a great day.

14 thoughts on “The History of the Army Challenge Coin”

  1. What a neat tradition. I had never heard of Challenge Coins before reading this post. It looks like they served a greater purpose half a century ago but it’s still cool that Challenge Coins live on in a new way. That’s interesting what you said Rick about them being over produced novelties just to raise a profit for the unit. I could see how it could lose integrity and become gimmicky.

    1. CB,

      Challenge coins are a nice tradition in the Army. Most units have them and most soldiers are excited to get new coins. I amassed more than 100 during my career from doing different things. Most of those have a close sentimental value to me. Thanks for the comment.


  2. Katelyn Hensel

    I was looking online because of this article and found quite a few different pictures of Military Challenge Coins. There were also quite a few personal and unique stories about how they were earned that I really enjoyed! Thanks for sharing, I fully intend to ask my family members who are in the army if they have any of the coins or know about them.

    If you’d like to check out the coins I found here is one picture

    1. Katelyn,

      What I like most about challenge coins are the memories I have from each coin. I can look at the coin and remember what I did to earn it. It’s a great way to reflect back on your career.

      Thanks for the comment.


  3. I love the stories of how they got their start. I personally love the coins regardless of how silly they seem to others as each that I have earned holds a special story to me. My favorite was from the Sergeant Major of the AMEDD. I was able to escort her around our post and she was very talkative and very nice. The coin was completely unexpected but beautiful and one of the last she gave out before she retired. I also received one from the three star general in charge of the AMEDD for completing the first of a training course for my MOS. I will always love the coins I have received.

    1. Good for you, Laura. It sounds like the AMEDD Sergeant Major’s Challenge Coins was very special to you. You should be proud of your accomplishments. Thanks for the comment.


  4. Wow, I love history. I never knew that the Army Challenge Coin started out in Nazi Germany. That was a great story, too, about the coin saving the guy’s life by proving he was American. These days I think of the coins mostly as novelties, ways of identifying someone as belonging to a unit, but it seems they had a more serious purpose in the past.

    1. The Challenge Coins definitely had an important role in history, but you could argue that they are just as important today. In every unit I’ve ever served in, earning a Challenge Coin was a big deal. I cherish every coin that I ever received.

      Thanks for the comment.


  5. I earned my most prized challenge coin on our last deployment in 2010. My unit was responsible for providing personal security details to dignitaries (general and flag officers and their civilian equivalents, up to and including the vice president) visiting Iraq. As such, we worked directly for the planners who were an element of the United States Forces-Iraq (USF-I) joint staff. The USF-I commander’s house, occupied during our deployment first by GEN Odierno and then by GEN Austin, was right around the corner from us. (Our ops center had a view across the lake of Al Faw Palace–definitely the glitziest assignment I’ve ever had.) The “coins” of the USF-I commanding general were about 4″ tall and 3″ wide, made in the shape of the shield that was the USF-I insignia. Not long after we arrived in country, one of the planners joked about GEN Odierno’s coins. “You know what they’re made of, right?” she asked. “Unobtainium.”

    1. Now that’s a funny story, Daniel.

      MG Odierno was my Division Commander when we invaded Iraq during OIF1. He was a fine leader and has definitely progressed up through the ranks nicely. It was an honor serving with him.


  6. I think the whole coin “tradition” is kind of funny. I served active duty USAF from 1984 to 1993, on several bases, and in Riyadh during Desert Storm, and never once heard of challenge coins. The closest thing to it was a Ronald Reagan commemorative coin we found in a desk after a unit went home. As a child, my mother worked for an aerospace contractor during the Apollo missions, and they were given certificates with some plastic coins attached, but nothing like the coins going around today. Additionally, during all of my research and reading of personal stories (I’m a hobbyist and have read a huge amount of published and non-published works – including family members who were pilots in WWII) with no mention ever of coins for commemoration or as described by the various stories. The likeliest story I’ve heard was the introduction of coins by USSOCOM in the 80’s as the different services were combined for Special Ops.

    I expect the spread is by well-meaning military training instructors trying to instill some esprit in their students. I’m sure they heard about it and then started using it – like the USAF Basic Training Coin Ceremony now. I know in my own experience the training instructors at my various leadership training in the USAF had all kinds of manufactured stories they told to try to make people feel more patriotic or whatever (I and a co-trainee got in trouble for challenging an instructors story where she mixed up the Bataan Death March, Hitler’s Assassination Attempt and a few other stories).

    I don’t really think there is anything wrong with the new “tradition,” but I think it’s purpose is more for the manufacturers and units fund raising (they have special coins made and sell for a profit). In any case, the extreme proliferation has made the concept a bit silly.

    1. Rick,

      I can see why you see the concept of Challenge Coins is silly.

      Personally, I like them and think they do serve their purpose in the military. However, some units/leaders overdo it.

      They should never be handed out like candy. They should be hard to earn, so they are respected and have a “high perceived value” to anyone who gets one.

      Thanks for the comment.


  7. This is an interesting article. Not having been in the military, I had never heard of an Army Challenge Coin before reading this. I would love to run across one. Have you ever earned a challenge coin? If so, what was it for?

    1. Lisa,

      I’d guess I’ve earned about 150 during my 15 years in. About 15 of those are very special to me. You can earn a challenge coin for lots of things such as doing a good job, passing an inspection, helping a soldier, scoring high on a test, and many other things. The criteria is normally determined by the person issuing the coin. Thanks for the comment.


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