The Airman’s Coin: 8 Interesting Facts About the Air Force Challenge Coin

The airman’s coin has a rich history. Given to airmen at their Air Force graduation, it signifies their accomplishments. Learn more here.

Military challenge coins are an object of honor and tradition. To receive a challenge coin is a recognition for the merit of something you’ve done.

From military to civilian organizations, a typical challenge coin has an organization’s insignia. Leaders or commanders present a challenge coin to a member of the unit or organization in recognition of special achievement or honor.

The Airman’s Coin is no exception to a deep tradition of history and honor. Here’s a look at eight interesting facts about the Airmen’s coin and the tradition of military challenge coins. 

1. From Trainee to Airman

Air Force trainees receive the Airman’s coin at the time they complete basic military training. Trainees receive their coins during the coin ceremony. 

This coin is the first and most significant coin of an airman’s career. It’s typically given by the Wing Commander or Command Chief Master Sergeant. Once a trainee receives the Airman’s coin, they are no longer referred to as “trainee.” 

They are officially known as “Airmen.”  

2. The Origin of Challenge Coins

There are several versions of the origin of the challenge coin. The most widely accepted story took place during World War I.

A lieutenant had bronze unit medallions created for his squadron. He gave one medallion to each member in the squadron. 

The French captured one of the squadron pilots after his damaged plane landed behind German lines. The French believed he was a spy. The pilot faced execution.

The only thing the pilot had with him was his squadron medallion. The French saw that he was an American and rewarded him with a bottle of wine–instead of death. 

From this story (or a similar story) the idea of challenge coins grew across all branches of the military, including the Air Force and the Airman’s coin. 

3. There’s a Technique to Giving a Coin

The USAF challenge coin tradition follows the traditional challenge coin protocol.

Awarding a coin is more than handing over a coin. You don’t mail a coin or slide it across a table.

The airman coin passes from the giver to the receiver during a strong handshake. The coin sits in the palm of the commander’s hand. During the handshake, the coin transfers to the recipient’s hand. 

4. Versions of the Airman’s Coin

The Air Force challenge coin is different today than the original version. 

The first version of the Airman’s coin featured an eagle on the coin’s front. The eagle claws its way out of the coin. The words “Aerospace Power” sit underneath the eagle.

The reverse side of the coin includes a white star with a red dot in the center. This is the Hap Arnold star. On the coin, a pair of wings flanks the.  

Around the edge of the coin are the words of the USAF Core Values: Integrity First, Service Before Self, Excellence In All We Do.

For the Air Force’s 60th anniversary in 2007, the Airmen’s coin featured a special anniversary design. 

The latest version of the coin uses the new Air Force symbol instead of the eagle.

5. What Are Challenges?

Once an airman receives a coin, they must keep with them at all times. They never know when a challenge could happen.

During a “challenge” (or “coin check”), anyone in can request all other members to produce their coins. 

Any member who can’t immediately show their coin has to buy the challenger a drink. While the losing task can be anything, it’s most often buying drinks for other members.

If everyone has their coins, the challenge has to buy a round of drinks for the unit.

6. Earning Additional Coins

Aside from the Airmen’s coin, Airmen can receive other coins throughout their military careers.

Coins include those presented to them by a first sergeant or by the president for any service deemed meritorious. A collection of coins often tells the story of an airman’s career. 

7. Personal Coin Designs

One of the perks of becoming a commander in the Air Force is creating your own coins. Officers typically have a personal budget for coins. They can create coins to represent why they choose to give coins to other airmen. 

Coins should represent excellence and significance. The design should recognize airmen who go above and beyond to serve their unit and their country. 

One coin is the “first salute” coin. It’s often presented to the first enlisted member to salute a newly-commissioned officer. 

8. The Coin Has Rules to Follow

As with many traditions, the Airman’s coin comes with the rules of challenge coins

Some of these rules include:

  • Explaining the rules when giving a coin. 
  • You must carry your coins at all times.
  • Do not ever give someone else a coin in response to a challenge. 
  • You are responsible for replacing a lost coin as soon as possible. 
  • There are no exceptions to the rules. 
  • A challenge coin is not a belt buckle or jewelry. Carry it, don’t wear it. 

Receiving an Airman’s coin or other Air Force challenge coin is a great honor. It’s also a great responsibility. 

Airmen who carry their coins within the rules show they understand the gravity of the honor. 

The Airman’s Coin is an Important Tradition

The Airman’s coin is an important USAF tradition following the tradition of military challenge coins. 

Airmen work hard to receive the Airman’s coin. The coin ceremony ushers them from trainee to airmen.

The Airman’s coin shows that the former trainee now understands the full range of air and space power capabilities. They have finished training to employ or support some aspect of these capabilities.

As airmen rise in ranks, Custom Challenge Coins takes great pride in helping commanders choose the perfect design for their coins. We understand the importance of what challenge coins represent. We enjoy creating the perfect coin to recognize your own airmen. 

Our team represents families with members from all branches of the military. Contact us to let our team help your design and produce the perfect challenge coins to represent outstanding service to our country.