Not all of the branches of the military are into the drinking game, but those who play are in it to win it. Some have their coin on them at all times, even when they’re sleeping, running, or showering. You just never know when you could get “checked”.  As far as the history of challenge coins  goes, there’s a sort of apocryphal story that traces them back to World War I. According to the story, an American army officer had some special coins minted for his men on a whim.  Later one of these men was captured by French soldiers and he used his coin to prove he was an American and not a German. But that’s just one version of the origin story.

However they came about, the coins have always been about identity. Each unit designs their coin to tell a story about how they want to be perceived. Since identity in the military has a lot to do with hierarchy, there is also a hierarchy with challenge coins. As you move up through the ranks, challenge coins become more essentially valuable because they’re harder to get. It’s difficult to get a Chief of Naval Operations coin. It’s exceptionally rare to find a presidential coin—but they do exist.

The military isn’t the only institution to use challenge coins, although they were the first. Now some police and fire departments make coins, along with NASA, sports teams, and even performers and musicians who tend to perform for soldiers on USO tours.

Really anyone can design a coin and then just go online and order it. That’s basically what the military does, since these coins are manufactured by private mints with private funds.

Because the coins are not in any sort of budget, there’s no set procedure or rules for making them.  This means the design process is very informal. Usually, after a unit raises the fund to order some coins, they find a design by just sitting down and talking about what they want on their coin. Then someone in the group will make a sketch or a rough mock-up, which they then send to the manufacturer.

The individual coins take on a whole new meaning when a whole collection is displayed together. A lot of active and former military members have displays (or even build custom furniture) to show off the coins they’ve acquired over the years.

Actually, in Bill Clinton’s presidential portrait, he’s posing in front of his collection of challenge coins.


But these coin displays are not a flashy show of achievement.

Quite the opposite. The coins are physical proof of hard fought relationships.

challenge coin