Air Force Challenge Coins: 9 Reasons To Celebrate USAF Heritage & Military Excellence

7 minute read

Published on: 22 May 2019

Last modified on: 18 Mar 2024

9 Reasons We Love Air Force Challenge Coins
Table of Contents

Honoring Valor: The Significance of USAF Challenge Coins

Have you encountered the prestigious Air Force challenge coin, a symbol revered not just in the Marine Corps but across military branches, including the Coast Guard. These distinguished items, from the rank coin to the coveted airman coin, embody the essence of force challenge and honor. Let's explore the unique stories behind these tokens, as cherished in the Air Force as the ranks they represent and as iconic as the shirts worn by our service members.

1.  Air Force Coins Have History 

The legend dates back to World War I. The story goes that Germans shot down an American pilot in Germany during the war. He made his way to the Allied forces but had no proof of identity. 

The French troops who intercepted him doubted his claims of being an American pilot and thought he was a spy. He was set for execution until he pulled out a medallion with his squadron's symbol on it. 

The medallion saved the pilot's life. He used it to prove his identity and get safe-passage back to his squadron. 

After that, it became customary in his squadron to always carry the medallion as a form of identification. The custom slowly spread across all Airmen. 

9 Reasons We Love Air Force Challenge Coins

Eventually, the idea of the challenge coin reached all branches of the military and other public service positions such as fire departments.

2. It's a Rite of Passage

Air Force trainees receive their first challenge coin, called the Airman’s coin, when they complete basic training. There is an official ceremony during which Commanders impart trainees with a coin. 

This is the most significant challenge coin an Airman will receive. The Wing Commander or Commander Chief Master Sergeant gives the medallion. It signifies that a trainee is now officially an Airman. 

They are no longer the lowly status of a trainee. 

3. There's a Traditional Hand-off (Like a Secret Handshake)

Any good custom involves a secret handshake. This one is no different. There is pomp and circumstance involved in giving coins. 

You can't give someone a coin. You can't mail it. You can't toss it across the bar. 

The challenge coin must pass during a handshake. The Commander places the challenge coin in his/her palm. The Commander then shakes the hand of the Airman. 

During the handshake, the challenge coin transfers from the Commander's palm to the palm of the Airman.

No other form of challenge coin transfer is acceptable.  

4. It's a Challenge

Every Airman knows that keeping with the legend, you must keep your challenge coin on you at all times. You never know when a coin challenge or coin check will happen. 

A coin check is when a member of the Air Force demands that all other present members show their coins. This can happen at any time, during any circumstances, so you better be prepared.

Any Airman that can't immediately produce their challenge coin owes the challenger a drink. If everyone present can and does produce their coin, the challenger owes a round of drinks for all he/she challenged. 

5. Your Air Force Challenge Coin Tells Your History 

The Airman's coin is your first military coin earned, but it's not the last. Airmen earn and add coins throughout their military careers.

Your collection of coins tells your professional history.

The President or other First Sergeants award coins for services performed, that are deemed worthy.

6. There are Rules Even For Air Force Senior Officers

Along with the handshake pass off, there are other rules an Airman follows.

Some of these rules include:

  • You must explain all the rules to new Airmen when you give them coins  
  • You must carry your coins on you at all times
  • You cannot lend/give your coins to someone during a challenge
  • If you lose or misplace your coins, it is your responsibility to replace it as soon as humanly possible
  • You must carry challenge coins; you cannot wear it. Don't attach it to a necklace or belt

Airmen who carry their coins within the rules are honoring a tradition and demonstrating that they understand the history that comes along with coins.  

7. There Are No Exceptions to the Rules

There are zero exceptions to the rules. The rules listed in #6 apply at all times to all Airmen.

They apply whether you are in uniform or not. They apply whether you're clothed or not. They apply first thing in the morning and last thing at night. 

There is no excuse for not having your coins on your person. 

At the time of the challenge, an Airman is permitted one step and an arm's reach to procure their coins. If the challenged Airman cannot produce their coins, they lose and owe the challenger a drink.

8. The Commander Designs the Coin

Commanders in the Air Force create their own coins. There is a designated budget for officers to create personal coins. These coins are designed for specific reasons and to commemorate specific events. 

For instance, the "First Salute" challenge coin is awarded to the first enlisted member who salutes a newly-commissioned officer. 

9. The Coin Has Evolved

The Air Force coins looks different from the original coins.

The first official version of the Airman’s coin showcased an eagle on one side. The inscription "Aerospace Power" was featured beneath the eagle. The opposite side featured a white star with a red dot in the center.

This is the Hap Arnold star. Around the edge of the challenge coin, the words "Integrity First, Service Before Self, Excellence In All We Do" is engraved. 

For the Air Force’s 60th anniversary in 2007, the Airmen’s coin was updated to feature an anniversary design. The most recent version of the Airmen coin shows the Air Force symbol instead of the eagle. 

Beyond the Air Force: The Universal Appeal of Military Challenge Coins

As the coins continues to evolve, reflecting significant achievement and milestones, it becomes more than just memorabilia; it's a symbol of pride and history. Compare this transformation with the distinctive Marine Corps coins, and you'll see how each branch will add its unique touch. From the intricate designs signifying force rank to the storied past of each challenge coin, these tokens are a powerful way to celebrate military excellence and unity.

It's impossible to overlook the unique challenge coins from the Coast Guard and Marine Corps. The Coast Guard, with its rich heritage, has embraced the tradition of challenge coins, crafting pieces that capture their seafaring spirit. Each Coast Guard coin, infused with the essence of maritime prowess, adds a distinctive touch to any collection. Similarly, the Marine Corps coins stand as symbols of unwavering valor and commitment, each design reflecting the core principles of the Marines. As we add these coins to our array, we see a vivid tapestry of military history unfolding, where the Air Force, with its sky-bound legacy, joins forces with the Marine Corps and Coast Guard to present a comprehensive picture of armed forces' bravery and honor. The synergy of these coins not only add depth to collections but also bridges the gaps between different branches, celebrating their unique contributions while underlining a unified commitment to service and excellence.

Get Your Personalized Custom Air Force Coin Today!

It is a tradition that has been adopted across all branches of the military and right down to civilian corporations looking to boost morale. 

Want to learn more about these special coins? Check out this article about the history of the challenge coin. 

Contact us today with any questions or inquiries. 


Heather studied business and technology at Texas State University and has been with Custom Challenge Coins for over 4 years and counting. :) When she is not managing the technical sides of Custom Challenge Coins she is writing informational articles and posting cool pictures of our coins. If you would like your coin order that we manufactured to be featured on our website please reach out to

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