What It Means To Be Gifted A Custom Challenge Coin

What is the history of custom challenge coins and what does it mean to be gifted one? Read up and find out.

Throughout the ages, members of exclusive groups and units have found ways to honor each other and prove their allegiance and membership. Whether it is through songs, sayings, tattoos, or other markers, these groups recognize the importance of their bond and their allegiance to the same group.

Challenge coins are one of the ways these groups celebrate their membership and their bond. From US Presidents to police officers to soldiers, many groups and units use challenge coins to build morale and fellowship and honor others. And while you may have never heard of challenge coins, they have a long and celebrated history.

In this article, we’ll go over the use of custom challenge coins, including their history and what it means to be gifted one.

Custom Challenge Coins: What Are They?

A challenge coin is a coin or medallion created by a group that is given to the members of that group. Challenge coins typically bear the seal or insignia of a group along with their motto or other identifying images or words. They are typically used by different groups in the military and law enforcement to signify that they belong to a unit or group.

But how did these unique gifts get their start? Challenge coins have been used throughout history, and have even played a role in saving soldiers lives!

Challenge Coins: How They Got Their Start

The first use of challenge coins in human history was by the Ancient Romans. The Romans had one of the greatest armies in history that conquered huge swaths of territory in a short amount of time.

Commanders in the Roman army witnessed the greatness of their soldiers in battle and wanted to recognize them for their acts of bravery and courage. They had custom coins made for these brave soldiers that depicted their name, unit, and their accomplishments in battle. This helped raise troop morale and commemorated these soldier’s finest moments.

But challenge coins weren’t just used by Roman soldiers. They were also used by powerful families during the Renaissance. Upper-class families would frequently give their friends and family members “portrait coins”. These portrait coins usually had the portrait or likeness of the recipient on one side and their family seal or insignia on the other.

These coins were usually given when someone had accomplished a great feat. They were also given to commemorate special events like marriages, birthdays, and deaths.

A Downed Pilot Starts A Great Tradition

While challenge coins were used long before the 1900s, their use in the modern world stemmed from World War I.

Due to the large scale of the conflict, many young, upper-class men volunteered to join the military at the start of WWI. One of these upper-class men was a lieutenant in charge of an air squadron in the Air Force.

To raise troop morale and honor his men, he had bronze coins made with their squadron insignia on them. He gave one coin to each man as a gift. One young pilot wore his coin in a leather pouch around his neck, keeping it with him at all times.

Unfortunately, this young pilot got shot down shortly after. Although he survived the crash, he was quickly captured by German forces and taken prisoner. He was stripped of his uniform and equipment, except for his leather pouch around his neck. During an attack on the base where he was held, the pilot managed to escape the Germans.

After getting civilian clothes, the pilot managed to make his way to the frontlines. Just before crossing the front line, he was captured by French soldiers on patrol. Due to the frequent presence of spies in civilian clothes, the soldiers believed him a spy and ordered his execution.

Before they could carry out the sentence, he showed them his coin, which a French soldier recognized. They suspended his execution and were able to verify his identity as an American pilot. Once his identity was verified, they gave him a bottle of wine instead of a bullet!

The Birth of the Challenge Coin

After the safe return of the pilot, he told his story to his fellow pilots and they all began to keep their coins on them at all times. They even invented a game to ensure each pilot had their coin on them. When the pilots were at a bar, one of the members of the squadron would take out their coin and “challenge” another member to show theirs.

If that member didn’t have their coin, they would have to buy a round of drinks for every person who had their coin with them. If the challenged member had their coin with them, the challenging member would have to buy that member a drink.

Although this isn’t standard practice for groups with challenge coins, many of them still follow this tradition.

What Does It Mean to Be Given a Challenge Coin?

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.

Create a Custom Challenge Coin for Your Group

Now that you know more about the history of custom challenge coins and what it means to be given one, you can start designing a custom coin for your group.

If you have any more questions about challenge coins or how to create one for your group, please visit our blog.

9 Reasons We Love Air Force Challenge Coins

Have you ever heard of an air force challenge coin?

Although challenge coins are not common knowledge among the general public, air force challenge coins are a longstanding and deeply respected tradition in the Air Force. 

Check out some reasons why we love challenge coins and everything they stand for! 

The history of challenge coins and the ways that the coins are used today have cemented the challenge coins in our hearts. Here are our top reasons that we love Air Force challenge coins. 

1.  Air Force Challenge 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. 

Eventually, the idea of challenge coins 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 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 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 tradition involves a secret handshake. This one is no different. There is pomp and circumstance involved in giving a coin. 

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

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

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

No other form of coin transfer is acceptable.  

4. It’s a Challenge

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

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

Any Airman that can’t immediately produce their 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 Coins tell Your History 

The Airman’s coin is your first coin earned, but it’s not the last. Airmen earn 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

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

Some of these rules include:

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

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 coin on your person. 

At the time of the challenge, an Airman is permitted one step and an arm’s reach to procure their coin. If the challenged Airman cannot produce the coin, 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” coin is awarded to the first enlisted member who salutes a newly-commissioned officer. 

9. The Coin Has Evolved

The Air Force challenge coin 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 coin, the words “Integrity First, Service Before Self, Excellence In All We Do” are 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. 

Get Your Personalized Challenge Coin Today!

Now that you are familiar with Air Force challenge coins, you’ll probably start to hear about other types of challenge coins. 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 the challenge coin? Check out this article about the history of challenge coins. 

Contact us today with any questions or inquiries.