handing over challenge coin

Why Are Challenge Coins Given? Some Fascinating Facts

Veterans Day in North Charleston” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by North Charleston


It’s a tradition that is deeply rooted in the military and law enforcement. You see them on television every day – individuals are given challenge coins as they leave for deployment or to celebrate their achievements. 

The reason for giving out challenge coins has changed over time. Originally, they were given out to commemorate a special event or achievement in the military and law enforcement communities but now it is more of an informal tradition that can be used as recognition for any type of accomplishment.

The intent of this article is to inform you about what challenge coins are and why they’re given; then provide various traditions or ceremonies in the army, navy, air force, and marines around these items. 

What is the purpose of a challenge coin?

A Challenge Coin is a symbol of belonging to an elite group. It represents pride and accomplishment, as well it’s an award for service rendered to the group or the service that issued them. 

The coin is usually given to those who have completed a service requirement, or for any other event that the group deems worthy of recognition.

Historically, Challenge coins started out as an Identification method. 

Early history shows that during Roman times, similar coins were used as a form of identification for the soldiers.

During world war II, a famous story goes where a U.S. pilot was shot down and was captured by the enemy. He was stripped of everything except the coin round his neck. He was able to escape but was captured by friendly french forces who thought he was a spy. The pilot was able to show them his coin and prove he belonged with the U.S forces, saving himself from being executed as a spy.

Why Are Challenge Coins given?

There are quite a few reasons why these coins are given out. A few of them are:

Challenge coins are awarded to instill a feeling of pride and belonging. 

The tradition of challenge coins is to instill a feeling of pride and sense that the person belongs to a team, whether it be military service, special forces, or law enforcement officers who carry one as part of their uniform like police officer badge (or even civilians). 

Governor Andrew Cuomo awards Challenge Coin in recognition of efforts against COVID-19” (CC BY-ND 2.0) by New York National Guard

Challenge coins are awarded as recognition of excellent performance

Challenge coins are also given as a form of recognition for excellent performance. For example, if a service member does something that is above and beyond, but doesn’t merit a formal award, a challenge coin may be given instead. The coin is often presented at a formal ceremony by the commander or the individual’s supervisor. The act of receiving a coin in such a manner is called “getting coined”. 

Challenge coins are given on achieving professional milestones

The challenge coins can be given in various ways: as an award or token of appreciation; during ceremonies such as at retirement parties and promotion events (such awards may also come with other gifts); when someone has been promoted into another rank.

Challenge coins are also given to recognize the completion of an important milestone, such as graduating from boot camp or completing 20 years in service for example; and they can even represent membership into certain organizations like veteran’s club that have their own set rules about how members should behave when receiving one another. It is not uncommon to make custom challenge coins for these special occasions with the name of the recipient engraved.

Challenge coins are given if a service member is part of a military campaign

Military challenge coins are also given to service members who have participated in a tour of duty, such as Operation Iraqi Freedom. These coins are a sort of chronological record of a service member’s military career. Most soldiers take pride in their coveted collection of coins and these even turn into much-prized family heirlooms.

Challenge coin traditions in Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines

There are various traditions or ceremonies in the army, navy air force, and marines around challenge coins. For example, a service member who has been awarded one will often pass it on to someone else they feel deserves recognition for their accomplishments; some people use them as an icebreaker when meeting new friends from other branches of military services because of each branch.

In the Air Force, cadets and Airmen are formally awarded the USAF Challenge coin on their graduation. It’s common for each unit, squadron, or command to have their own challenge coins which are presented as a going away gift for any departing member.

How do you get challenge coin? (how to get coined?)

The tradition of challenge coins is that they are given to someone by a military member who has been assigned the responsibility for their care. This can be from an officer, non-commissioned or commissioned rank, and even civilians in some cases (such as veterans). 

The person receiving it must then carry this coin with them at all times because if someone challenges them to produce it, they must do so. The tradition is that if the person cannot produce it, they are then required to buy a drink for whoever challenged them.

Commander, Naval Surface Force U.S. Pacific Fleet, left, presents a challenge coin to Boatswain’s Mate” (CC BY-NC 2.0) by U.S. Pacific Fleet

How to give a challenge coin to someone?

There are many ways to give a challenge coin. One way is by giving it as an award for service, or if someone has done something that deserves recognition and praise from their peers in the military (such as another branch). 

The most significant is giving out the coin as a commander to own soldiers. This is a military tradition that has been done for years and it symbolizes the trust they in their leaders have to carry out orders unquestionably.

The commander will place his coin in the palm of his right hand and during the handshake will pass on this coin in one smooth movement. 

Who can give a challenge coin?

The coin can be given by anyone who is a high-ranking member of the military. The senior commanders often have specially coined specially minted for them. They award these to men under command who have done something extraordinary.

The coin can also be given by anyone who is a high-ranking member of law enforcement, such as the chief or sheriff in their jurisdiction and civilians to show appreciation for someone’s service at an organization they are affiliated with (i.e: school). 

What is a coin check?

Coin check is a tradition where the Challenger (the person who initiates the check) loudly calls “coin check”. All those nearby take their challenge coins out and smack them on the table. The sound of the coin clunking can also start this chain reaction of everyone taking out their coins. If someone cannot produce a challenge coin, they must order a round of drinks for the group. But, if everyone produces a coin, then the challenger has to buy the drinks.

Challenge coin Etiquette: General rules 

There are some general rules to follow when handling your challenge coin. Here are a few that anyone carrying needs to know:

  • Never give your coin into another person’s hand, unless you want to pass it on permanently. If someone asks to see your coin, place it on the table and let them pick it up. They can admire it and are gone bound to place it back.
  • Never deface your coin. Do not drill a hole in it, or scratch the surface. It is considered disrespectful and doing so ceases the status of the coin. Such a coin will not be accepted as a challenge coin in case of a coin check.
  • Never stand more than four steps away from your coin. If you’re too far, someone else can claim your coin. Stay close and stand alert.
  • Never disrespect the coin. It stands for something sacred. Playing with it or throwing it around is not a good idea. This act will make you seem unworthy of this honor.
  • Always explain these rules whenever handing someone a coin. If there are some specific ones for your coin, make sure to mention them.
  • Anyone failing to produce a coin during “coin check” should buy a round of drinks for everyone who produces one.

Wrapping It Up

Challenge coins are a beautiful tradition that has a significant value but also a lot of history. They are given to those who have served or sacrificed for their country and they represent the values that we as Americans hold dear. I hope that you’re now much more informed about the tradition of challenge coins and I hope that you’ll take this knowledge with you as a reminder to always be humble and respectful to the heroes of the nation.

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