How the Meaning of the Presidential Challenge Coin Changed Over the Years

How the Meaning of the Presidential Challenge Coin Changed Over the Years

The presidential challenge coin was, and still is, one of the most coveted challenge coins ever made. Read this to learn why, and how it changed over the years.

Presidential challenge coins have sparked much attention in recent years.

In the recognizable form, they date back to the Clinton’s Presidency. Since then, all presidents issued coins to various guests and military service members.

But, what many don’t know is the story of challenge coins starts way before this.

The first known pieces originate from ancient times. Fabled Roman soldiers received them on a regular basis. The coins signified different military affiliations and branches. In U.S. modern history, challenge pieces have a similar purpose. They represent specially-designed coins given to military personnel. The pieces bear presidential/national insignia, motto, and emblems. This may seem like a no-brainer, but there are some caveats.

So, let’s analyze the meaning behind it all.

Foundations of Military Tradition

Challenge coins are the crown jewels of a longstanding military tradition.

It all started with officers distributing military coins to troops as signs of exemplary service. These coins held division insignia or emblems of units and teams.

Monetary value is of secondary importance here.

Namely, coins serve as proof of membership and means of boosting morale.  It’s a great honor to receive one and the very act of exchange commands respect.

Also, note that challenge coins are named after actual challenges. They revolve around service members tempting each other to produce coins at a moment’s notice. Failure to do so would result in losers buying rounds of drinks.

Not such a terrible price to pay that is.

Presidential Challenge Coin: The New Milestone

When President Clinton came around, he opened a new chapter in the challenge tradition.

He started doling them out as personal mementos. Eagerly showcasing multiple racks of them, he also proved to be a passionate collector himself.

We can also see coins in the background of his presidential portrait, which hangs in the White House.

From that point on, presidents would have their own special coins. We need to distinguish these items from non-presidential coins. The latter involves various emergency first-responders, such as police and fire departments.

Hand in Hand

Coin design choices vary across the years, but the essence stays the same.

When handing out coins, the President of the U.S. acts as a Commander in Chief. He is the embodiment of patriotism and military prowess, values that coins ooze.

The custom is to give coins by way of a secret handshake. It’s a subtle and discreet guest of friendship, trust, and recognition. And it works because coins fit in the palm of the hand.

Beyond that, the presidents can also choose to hand coins to foreign guests visiting the U.S. That’s the way to show our welcoming spirit and symbolize honorary membership.

In this context, coins are gifts of choice for meaningful occasions.

Two Sides of the Coin

Presidential challenge coins are supposed to highlight shared values and ideals.

Not surprisingly, most of them went to those guarding Marine One and Air Force One. President Barack Obama handed coins to service members and even left them on the graves of deceased soldiers.

President George W. Bush made similar gestures of appreciation. He awarded coins to family members of soldiers killed in action.

At other times, the presidential challenge works the other way around.

Yes, in the past, presidents have received challenge coins from U.S. service members. These tokens usually include battalion logos of respective military personnel.

President Gorge W. Bush got one from Marine combat patrol while visiting Iraq. Trump received one from a vice-admiral in 2016, as President-elect. These are just a few instances that put an interesting twist on tradition.

In the Spotlight

For a time, the design of the coins remained a mystery.

This was on the account of the secret nature of the exchange. But, Presidents Bush and Obama, being avid fans of these coins, allowed us to take a closer look.

Bush’s coin had a presidential seal and the White House etched in. On the front, there was also an inscription stating the president’s name and title as Commander in Chief.

HANDOUT PHOTO: Former President George W. Bush’s “challenge coin.” (Photo by John Wertman)

A national motto occupied a prominent place. We’re talking about “E Pluribus Unum”, which means “out of many, one”. Besides that, the presidential seal was an integral part of the design, which is only fitting.

Photos of Obama’s coin revealed a 3D representation of the White House and the president’s signature. There was also a gold text against a blue background. It said “Barack Obama, 44th President of the United States.

Disruptive Forces

Well, Trump’s Presidency marks a deviation from tradition.

He removed the presidential seal, Latin motto, and thirteen arrows representing original colonies.

In place of these coveted symbols, he put his campaign slogan “Make America Great Again”.  It dominates both sides of the coin.

The new element is the eagle perched behind the shield and carrying Trump’s signature. President’s name appears three times, which is unusual, to say the least.  The coin is also two times thicker than pieces made for previous presidents.

It’s not even clear who’s paying for the coin. The administration is yet to set the record straight on that.

At this point, it’s hard to extract meaning and we have to state the obvious. Eagle is a national symbol, but that cannot be said about some other additions.

In fact, the campaign slogan jeopardizes the separation of military and politics. It casts a shadow of doubt and suspicion over the beloved coins.

Challenge Accepted

Presidential challenge coin honors the tradition of a challenge and military servitude.  

It strengthens the bonds between Commanders in Chief and military personnel. In other words, they remind us of the ties between the army and the supreme commander are ever-vital and lasting.

After years and nomenclatures rolling by, presidents still distribute pieces of greatness. People who get them understand their importance and significance.

Alas, the recent makeover is a breakaway from the tradition that raises eyebrows. Clouds of uncertainty loom over presidential coins and their future. Time will tell if the coins will survive or perish trying.

Our military personnel across the globe deserve better odds than that. We mustn’t fail to commemorate their special feats and accomplishments.

Feel free to browse our gallery to get inspired and find a coin for yourself.

6 Facts About Military Challenge Coins You Didn’t Know

Military challenge coins have an interesting history and can be used as reminders of special events or friends. Here are some facts you need to know about them.

A majority of military veterans report missing the camaraderie and special social network that enlisted service members leave behind after their tour. One of the special ways that veterans and active members connect with one another is through challenge coins.Military challenge coins play a unique role in the social aspect of service duty after veterans return.

Challenge coins can be offered by superior officers to members who are participating in a specific program or mission. These medallions are typically two inches wide and made of metal. It’s not uncommon for them to be traded between personnel and have seen an increasing popularity to commemorate events outside of the military.

If you’re new to the concept of challenge coins or if you’ve just received your first one, you should get to know what they’re all about. Here are six facts about military challenge coins that you probably didn’t know.

1. Military Challenge Coins Are Collector’s Items

Go to any flea market or military supply show and you’re sure to come across a few display cases worth of challenge coins. Every coin has its own story and they are often tied to the history of a particular mission, unit, or organization. Because they’re fairly easy to produce, offices can produce enough to distribute to every member.

While there are rare coins are made of solid gold, while others are made of cheaper brass or zinc.

Some coins will be rarer than others. This is fairly easy to discern from the content of the coin itself. If the coin commemorates an event or a unit you’ve never heard of, there might have been only a few produced.

Coins that are rarer will yield a higher value and carry a special premium to any collector who receives one.

If you know of anyone who was in the military, they might have a coin or two that are sitting and collecting dust under the bed. Ask around so you can start building your collection.

2. History Buffs Love Challenge Coins

If you or anyone you know has a deep love of history and military campaigns, challenge coins can be great centerpieces for conversation.

History buffs might know that military challenge coins were given out in ancient Rome after a soldier returned from a particularly serious battle. They were replaced with other symbols until the first World War where one rich lieutenant made them for his own unit.

During that war, one soldier rescued by American allies was assumed to be German or to be a spy. The only piece of identification he had was the bronze coin his lieutenant had offered him.

By presenting his coin, he was supposedly spared from death at the hands of his own country’s allies. This is what gave them the name “challenge coins” and made them a practical and powerful instrument in the fog of war.

3. They Are Expected To Be Presented

The instances of being presented with a challenge where you have to show your coin are rare and specific. To increase morale, troops decided to find other reasons to have to present them. One is a game where the last person to put down their military challenge coin on the table needs to buy the next round of drinks.

This comes from a German drinking tradition where one person calls for everyone to put a penny or pfennig on the table.

While there were still some instances where the coins would need to be used for identification, over time it became more of a morale booster. You could be a bar and suddenly hear a cacophony of slams and realize it’s time to slam your own on the table.

4. Coins Can Be A Recruiting Tool

Inside and outside of the military, challenge coins can be used to recruit new members. They are passed during a handshake to tell new members that they are one of the in-crowd.

They provide a symbolic representation of achievements and alliances to be made by joining a group. It could be something as clandestine as a secret society or something as important as a fire department.

Even though they were created to acknowledge the service of military staff, they are now used in civilian life for all kinds of recruitment efforts.

5. They Commemorate Civilian Events

Military challenge coins no longer need to be tied to war and conflict. They can be used by companies to recognize the achievements of their best sales staff. As the price to produce them has decreased, they can even be used for something like commemorating a stag trip or family reunion.

Even within the military, the exchange of coins is more tied to camaraderie and social networking than for their identifying purpose. You will still find some groups keeping up the tradition of the drink-buying challenge.

You now find interesting custom logos from organizations, corporations, and social clubs all throughout the challenge coin world. They can now be found honoring people who reach a special executive or cultural achievement as often as they’ll be given out within the military.

6. Most Presidents Have a Special One

Since the 1990s, presidents have been creating and handing out their own challenge coins. They will make one version available in gift shops and for the general public. A special version is reserved to honor the achievements of some civilians.

The last few vice presidents have also produced their own challenge coins to hand out in honor of some civilians.

If you ever get recognized by the president for your contributions to the country, expect to be handed one directly from them.

Military Challenge Coins Create History

When someone commissions a challenge coin for their company, association, or military group, they are creating a marker of history. Each person who receives one is known to have a special connection to the event or the organization depicted on the coin. This makes everyone involved feel uniquely tied to an elite group of people.

If you’re interested in learning more about military challenge coins, contact us for even more history and facts.