Military historians debate the origins of challenge coins, but their first traces date to Roman Times. It is believed that Roman Officers before the battle would take a rivet off their armor and give it to a Roman soldier as a sign of strength during battle.
The Challenge coin re-emerged in history is a uniquely American tradition whose origination is often debated. Firstly, it is believed to come from an Army-Airforce pilot during World War I who distributed matching bronze coins to members of his unit as a keepsake before deploying. This pilot carried his custom-made coin in a leather pouch on his neck that wasn’t searched or confiscated after his plane was shot down and he was taken captive by German soldiers.
The pilot managed a daring escape and headed toward a French outpost where he was threatened with execution for being a German spy with no way to identify himself. Enraged at the accusation, the pilot presented the challenge coin around his neck, and one of the French soldiers happened to recognize the symbol stamped on the coin. This challenge coin saved the pilot's life and earned him a bottle of wine from the French for his troubles.
A second origin story insists that during World War II, US soldiers fighting in European began a local tradition called “pfennig checks.” The pfennig was the lowest monetary coin unit, and soldiers caught without one when a “coin check” was called found themselves purchasing drinks for everyone who did have one.
Finally, the coin is believed to have come from an Army infantry-run bar in Vietnam would use coin checks to “challenge” non-infantrymen and outsiders to prove they had been in combat.
Originally these challenges began with presenting enemy bullets. Still, in the spirit of everything infantry, this quickly escalated to soldiers being required to present grenades, rockets, and unexploded ordinance as proof before; finally, a coin-sized item emblazoned with the unit’s insignia became the accepted form of proof. Though its origin story is still hotly contested, the first officially recorded use of challenge coins custom-made for a unit came from the United States Army when a member of the 11th Special Forces Group took old coins, had them over-stamped with a different emblem, then presented them to unit members. A former commander of the 10th Special Forces Group-A picked up on the idea the unit remained the only Army unit with its coin until the mid-1980s when an explosion of interest caused everybody to start minting coins.
The Army remains among the most recognized branch of the US Military in the challenge coin tradition. Still, the tradition quickly spread throughout the US Military, Police Departments, Fire/EMS other organizations.
Each organization carries on this tradition of passing their challenge coins through handshakes to reward, commemorate, and honor a timed to continue to honor service members, Veterans, Police, Fire/EMS Departments, and all those who have been involved in the time-honored tradition of ceremoniously receiving a coin to mark memorable events, achievements, and distinctive acts of service.