What Is a Challenge Coin?
While challenge coins have been a military tradition for decades, many collectors are still unaware of exactly what they are. Simply put, they are small coins or medallions stamped with an insignia commemorating an organization or event. They are typically presented by unit commanders to members of their unit in recognition of recognition of an achievement or challenge overcome. Occasionally they are also presented to or exchanged with visitors to the unit.
History of Military Challenge Coins
The origin of military challenge coins is not entirely clear. There is quite a profusion of stories about how exactly they came about. Most of these stories agree that challenge coins first came into use sometime during the first World War. The most likely origin point was that unit leaders were not permitted to present medals to their troops themselves, so when a soldier did something worthy of high praise and recognition, the leader would cut a medal off of one of his own ribbons to present to the soldier as a token of esteem. With the influx of wealthier recruits into air squadrons in particular, this procedure gradually turned into the commanders unofficially having bronze medallions struck to be given to squadron members as rewards or mementos.
One famous story that takes place around this time is that of a pilot in France in World War I. The man’s plane was forced down behind German lines. After the crash, he disguised himself in civilian clothing from a nearby clothesline in order to seek help. By sheer luck he wandered into a French outpost, but instead of recognizing him as an American pilot, they thought he was a German and were planning on shooting him. Fortunately, the pilot was wearing his unit’s challenge coin in a leather bag around his neck. When he showed the coin to the outpost’s commander, the commander recognized the insignia, believed his story, and helped him return to his unit. The story goes that since the coin saved that pilot’s life, it became the norm for every pilot to carry his challenge coin at all times.
During the second World War, the use of challenge coins spread beyond the air squadrons. They were particularly popular among spies as proof of identity. The Office of Strategic Service frequently gave them to personnel who were behind lines in Nazi-occupied France. While they had already been using codewords and secret meeting places, these were occasionally discovered and infiltrated, so the use of a physical token was helpful to reduce the threat of discovery. The coins were also used in the Philippines to aid in rendezvousing with Philippine geurrillas as proof that the coin-bearer was the correct contact person for missions against the Japanese.
There are fewer stories about the challenge coins in later wars, but they gradually came into popular usage among all of the branches of the American military. They were used in special forces units in Vietnam, but the first Persian Gulf War in 1990 and 1991 is generally considered the tipping point. Before 1990, they were still relatively obscure; after the Persian Gulf War, they were a well-known tradition throughout the military. Through American influence, even the Canadian and Swiss militaries have begun to use challenge coins.
Modern Usage of Challenge Coins
In modern times, the Air Force retains a strong tradition of challenge coins as a link to its predecessors in the first half of the twentieth century. Each airman or officer is given an Airman’s Coin after completion of basic training or officer training, and they are required to carry it throughout their early years as a reminder of their heritage. The original version (now somewhat rare) of the Airman’s Coin features an eagle clawing its way out of the coin with the words ‘Aerospace Power’ underneath. The coin has recently been made simpler, though, and the current version simply has the United States Air Force logo on it in dark blue with their slogan in a circle around it: Integrity First, Service Before Self, Excellence In All We Do.
In addition to being standard issue in the Air Force, other branches use them routinely as rewards for achievements that are worthy of formal recognition but not quite grand enough to receive an official medal. They are also frequently given to illustrious visitors as mementos. President George W. Bush, for example, was given a coin by a Marine combat patrol unit during his unannounced visit to Al-Asad Airbase in Anbar province, Iraq, shortly after 9/11. In these situations, the coin is traditionally passed from the giver to the recipient in a handshake, right hand to right hand.
In addition to the widespread use of challenge coins among military units, many higher-ranking personnel have their own personal coins. These are typically of a fairly generic design, just one color and perhaps the emblem of the branch with the person’s name stamped around the edge, but some have more intricate designs. In the Navy, for example, it is not uncommon for personal challenge coins to take the shape of an anchor. These personal challenge coins are given out both as a reward for an achievement, as with the normal military challenge coins, and also sometimes as a sort of souvenir when meeting.
Nonmilitary organizations have begun to adopt the challenge coin as well. A number of government branches have their own. The Department of Homeland Security has one, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation puts out commemorative challenge coins on a regular basis as well. Certain congressmen also have them made to give to constituents. They are even coming into use by organizations that are not affiliated with the government and are particularly popular among motorcycle groups.
While challenge coins have historically been primarily a military tradition, they are now being collected by civilians in growing numbers. Some include them as part of a general coin collection, while others take a specific interest in military challenge coins. Collecting these coins has even become something of a presidential tradition. Bill Clinton, for example, famously kept a large display of his collected challenge coins behind his desk in the Oval Office. He even had several racks of them included in his official presidential portrait. They’ve been on display in the Clinton Library in Little Rock, Arkansas, since the end of his administration.
Clinton, of course, primarily collected challenge coins that he had been given as mementos while touring military bases. Among less famous collectors, though, there are multiple reasons for collecting these coins. Many people have their own favorite military units, generally either local units or ones that have a specific family connection. Others like to collect challenge coins from teams that they’ve seen on the news – the currently famous SEAL Team Six, for example.
In addition to those who collect for sentimental reasons, there are also many who collect challenge coins as an investment. Since the coins have the intrinsic value of the metals in addition to their worth as collectors’ pieces, many see them as likely to rise in value in the future. This holds especially true for more unusual coins that will only become more rare as time goes on.
There are a number of coins that are typically considered the most valuable or interesting. Historically rare coins are generally at the top of this list. The Bull Dog challenge coin is a top example. This coin was named after the gunner’s official mascot due to its strength and courage, and it was only presented to enlisted B-52 tail gunners in the Air Force. Due to the relative scarcity of that position, these coins were rare to begin with, but when the position was phased out in 1991, they became very rare.
Another type of coin to look out for are those that are deliberately only made for a short period of time. Presidential coins typically hold their value well since they are only made during one president’s administration. Oddly enough, Vice Presidential coins are frequently even more valuable, since they are less popular and less common to begin with. Dick Cheney’s coin is particularly rare. Other types of limited duration coins are special edition or defective coins such as the FBI’s 2003 Counterintelligence coin, which was issued to troops in Iraq with an error: an extra space in the word ‘investigation’ on the very front of the coin.
Navy SEAL Challenge Coin
A third type of challenge coin to look out for are those made for special forces units, particularly the Navy SEALs. The prestige of the Navy SEALs means that their coins have a great combination of rarity and popularity that speaks well of their future as an investment item and conversation piece. The most common of these coins is the Sea-Air-Land coin featuring the SEAL’s eagle with gun and trident on a blue background with the Sea – Air – Land slogan on the back. Beyond that, many units have their own challenge coin, and while these can be hard to find, they are certainly worth the effort.
Another very sought after Navy SEAL Challenge Coin is the coin given to Operators once they graduate BUD/S training and earn their Trident. This type of Navy SEAL challenge coin is hard to come by because of the rarity of how many are made and the fact that once they’re earned, they’re rarely given away. These coins usually have the class number, SEAL motto and an image of the class’s contribution gift to the Naval Special Warfare Center. It’s an unwritten tradition that each class will donate a “gift” to the center with the graduating class number. These gifts are then displayed around the Naval Special Warfare Center where BUD/S training takes place or on San Clemente Island, CA where third phase of BUD/S takes place.
If you haven’t heard about military challenge coins before, use this information as the perfect reason to take a closer look. Whether you’d like to collect them for sentimental reasons, as an investment, or just for a nice conversation piece, you can’t go wrong with these finely-crafted pieces of military history.