What is a challenge coin?

What is a challenge coin?

challenge coin is a small coin or medallion bearing an organization’s insignia or emblem. They are carried by the organization’s members. Traditionally, they might be given to prove membership when asked. They are also collected by service members and law enforcement personnel. Historically, challenge coins were presented by unit commanders in recognition of special achievement by a member of the unit. They could also be exchanged in recognition of visits to an organization.


There are several stories detailing the origins of the challenge coin. Many originate in popular culture based on current events.

  • The Roman Empire rewarded soldiers by presenting them with coins to recognize their achievements.
  • Challenge coins were also known as “Portrait Medals” during the Renaissance. They were used to commemorate specific events involving royalty, nobility, or other types of well-to-do individuals.
  • The first instance of using a coin as a response to an actual challenge may come from the 17th century religious wars in France. Following King Louis XIV’s 1685 revocation of the Edict of Nantes, French Protestants began to suffer persecution by the state for their illegal religion. When challenged while trying to gain entry to Protestant church services the Huguenot would produce a mereau communion coin. This coin shows allegiance with the Protestant church and be admitted entry.
  • According to another story, challenge coins date back to World War II. They were first used by Office of Strategic Service personnel who were deployed in Nazi held France.
  • Others argue the tradition started in Vietnam. An Army infantry-run bar tried to keep non-infantrymen away. Forcing “outsiders” to buy drinks for the whole bar if they couldn’t prove they had been in combat. The “proof” started with enemy bullets, then got a little out of control with grenades, rockets and unexploded ordnance. So a coin-sized item emblazoned with the unit’s insignia became the accepted form of proof. This tradition, now known as a coin check, continues today, hence it being called a “challenge” coin.


The act of challenging is called a “coin check” and is usually loudly announced.

The challenge, which can be made at any time, begins with the challenger drawing his/her coin, and slapping or placing the coin on the table or bar. In noisy environments, continuously rapping the challenge coin on a surface may initiate the challenge. (Accidentally dropping a challenge coin is considered to be a deliberate challenge to all present.) Everyone being challenged must  produce the coin for their organization. Anyone failing to do so must buy a round of drinks for the challenger and everyone else who has their challenge coin. However, should everyone challenged be able to produce their coin, the challenger must buy a round of drinks for the group.


Challenge coins are also exchanged outside the military.

Many non-profits, especially those with connections to the military, give challenge coins to donors to acknowledge their support of the organization.

Today, challenge coins are given to members upon joining an organization, as an award and sold to commemorate special occasions or as fundraisers.