The Legend of Challenge Coins
Like the luck and inspiration they bring, Challenge Coins have a rich history, touched at times by magic. Who would have known that their origin in saving an American soldier of the Great War would lead to their critical role in a drinking game and their use now as a mark of high honor, loyalty, courage and camaraderie?
And who would have imagined that these commemorative coins would also be a shared keepsake of the three most recent U.S. Presidents: Bill Clinton, “W,” and Obama?
Uniting differences by recognizing common strengths is a mark of the Challenge Coins’ versatility, longevity and lore.
It All Started in World War I
The first challenge coins appeared during the Great War, when an American lieutenant, who had been a wealthy college student before he signed up for service, hoped to encourage and reward the pilots serving in his unit to commemorate their loyalty to the ongoing war effort.
He came upon an idea, which he had the means to act on. At his behest, gold-plated coins were specially minted, which bore the squadron’s insignia. The lieutenant gave these coins to each of his men. Later, one of his pilots, wearing his coin in a small sac around his neck, was captured by Germans, who then stripped him of all of his personal effects. But they didn’t see the small sac.
During a skirmish, the captured pilot made a run for it, changing into civilian clothes to make his escape across enemy lines into French territory. However, the French didn’t trust the pilot’s story, as in the mayhem of the fighting, many Germans also would don civilian clothes to make their escape.
So as a last resort, as the pilot was about to be executed, he pulled out the coin from his leather pouch and showed it to his French captors. One of the Frenchmen recognized the unit insignia on the coin and delayed the execution long enough to confirm the pilot's identity, thus saving the American’s life.
Once the pilot safely returned to his squadron, his story inspired the other members in his unit to carry their coins with them always.
How The Drinking Games Started
To ensure that each member of the unit was indeed carrying his coin, the pilots would challenge each other to produce the coin. If the person challenged couldn’t produce the coin, he had to buy the next round of drinks for the challenger; but if the person challenged could show the coin, his challenger would pick up the tab.
Various other versions of the drinking challenge also are told:
Post War Germany
Just after World War II, when U.S. military were posted in Germany, one West German Pfennig coin was worth only a fraction of a U.S. cent, so the Pfennig was basically considered worthless - unless one was completely broke. At any place where servicemen would gather for a beer, if a soldier called out "Pfennig Check," everyone had to empty their pockets to show if they were saving any Pfennigs. If a soldier had a Pfennig, it meant that he was nearly broke. Likewise, if a soldier could not produce a Pfennig (meaning he had enough money to not bother saving them), he had to buy the next round.
The Vietnam War
Coin giving also dates back to Vietnam, when soldiers would carry a piece of "lucky" ordnance that had helped them or narrowly missed them. It started as small arms ammunition, but then grew to bigger and more dangerous metals, which became a life-threatening hazard, so commanders banned it, and instead gave away metal coins emblazoned with the unit crest or something similar.
The main purpose of carrying the ordnance had been to carry it into a bar, because without it, you had to buy drinks for all those who carried theirs. So the coins worked much better because they were smaller and not as lethal.
Another story is told about an American soldier in World War II, who was to meet with Philippine guerrillas. He carried a Philippine solid silver coin as an assurance of his identity, as his was stamped on one side with the unit insignia -- thus verifying to the guerrillas that the soldier was their valid contact for the mission against the Japanese.
Challenge Coin Rules of the Drinking Game:
The challenge can be made at any time and begins with the challenger drawing his/her coin, and slapping it on the table or bar. (Accidentally dropping a challenge coin is considered to be a deliberate challenge to all present.)
Everyone being challenged must immediately produce the coin for their organization and anyone failing to do so must buy a round of drinks for the challenger and everyone else who has their challenge coin.
However, if the person who is challenged can come up with their coin, the challenger must buy a round of drinks for the group.
Most holders of challenge coins usually carry them in their pockets or in some other readily accessible place, but most versions of the rules allow the person who is challenged to "a step and a reach" (particularly useful if one is challenged in the shower, a tradition in the Navy).
Variations of the Rules:
- If someone is able to steal a challenge coin, everyone in the group must buy a drink for that person.
- During a challenge, everyone in the group must buy a drink for the holder of the highest-ranking coin.
- Some units provide strict time limits to respond to a challenge.
Back to the Future
The use of challenge coins is no longer exclusive to the armed services. Now challenge coins are also used as tokens of appreciation, achievement and camaraderie by schools and universities, sports and academic teams, businesses and organizations such as charities, Chambers of Commerce, scouting clubs, fraternities and sororities. A symbol of strength and commitment, custom challenge coins can be effective for building lasting relationships among colleagues, teams and friends.
makecoins.com, Inc. carries on this tradition with its full-service business, specializing in the creation and production of custom, hand-crafted challenge coins. Our emphasis on customer service and satisfaction is geared to find the right fit for your particular needs, staying true to the heritage of the First World War I lieutenant who sought something special and unique to honor and bond his pilots in battle.
Our experienced designers work closely with customers to fulfill personalized specifications, starting with the creation of the coin artwork. Qualified craftspeople carve molds to create dies using the die-struck method and then stamp the coins – all in a timely and cost-efficient manner.
For almost a century, custom challenge coins have been used to promote friendships, as well as to honor and support colleagues at important or critical times in their personal and professional lives.
We are proud to serve as a standard bearer of this August tradition.