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Challenge coins are coins which exemplify solidarity among military personnel. However, the long-standing practice of carrying these coins has extended to other departments and different organizations as well. The size of these significant tokens usually range from as narrow as 1.5 inches to as wide as 3 inches. The materials used to create these coins differ greatly; nickel, copper, and bronze are some of the most commonly utilized. The definite origins of such coins are generally unknown, but there are various stories as to how they came about. Here is a brief history of how these coins began from the time they were used way back during the Roman Empire to contemporary times.

challenge coins

Roman Empire

Challenge coins can be traced back to the Roman Empire. You might know from history that the Roman Empire is one of the largest civilization in the West. In the midst of its reign, the campaign history of the Roman military continuously grew through various conquests until it became one of the most extensive and expansive empire that ever existed. In order to encourage the soldiers of the Imperial Roman army, they were awarded monetary payment, as well as special coins, as rewards for their gallant efforts. These coins, typically minted in silver or gold and marked by the military, signify valor and serve as recognition of soldiers’ achievements.

World War I

During the First World War, there were accounts of soldiers putting coins in their pockets and keeping them there when they went to battles. After the conflict, they would bring these coins with them back to their homes and display them as mementos of their experiences in the war.

One famous story about these coins was about a particular lieutenant who, using his wealth, ordered solid bronze medallions embossed with a certain insignia for his flying squadron. During that time, many Americans, mostly students from rich families who were attending prestigious universities, volunteered to form multiple flights. A pilot who obtained one of the said medallions from the wealthy officer was captured by the enemies when his aircraft was shot down and got severely damaged. The Germans who were on patrol that time took everything from him, including all the things that could be used for his identification, except for the leather pouch which contained his medallion. Because of the attacks that occurred in the French town they were staying at, the pilot was able to escape from the German patrols by avoiding them and by wearing a civilian outfit.

The pilot was able to reach a French outpost; however, because he could not be identified, he was accused of being a spy. The French decided to execute him, so to prove his allegiance, he showed them his medallion. One of the soldiers was able to recognize the insignia on the medallion, so the execution was delayed. After they confirmed his identity, the pilot was guided back to his squadron. From then on, it became a common practice for squadron members to carry medallions or coins with them.

Pfennig Checks

A well-established practice among American troops in Germany was primarily considered to be the reason why military coins were called “challenge coins”. To make sure that all squadron members always carry their coins with them, they started out a tradition of challenging all members to show their coins. The term “pfennig check” was used to refer to this tradition – it came from the word pfennig, a former German coin for the lowest currency.

custom coins

In this tradition, a challenger calls for a pfennig check, and all challenged members must present their coins usually by smashing the bar table with their coins. If a challenged member could not present his coin, he would have to buy drinks for all the members who presented theirs, including the challenger. However, if all the challenged members were able to present theirs instead, the challenger would have to be the one to buy drinks for all his fellow members.


The tradition of giving out coins to soldiers continue up until now. For instance, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates went to military bases and combat areas in Afghanistan in 2011. During his tour, he shook hands with a lot of people. But it wasn’t just a simple handshake; he gave out special coins to everyone as a memento.

However, the use of special coins is not limited to military personnel; even police and fire departments, as well as fraternal organizations, use coins to signify genuine membership and to recognize members’ achievements. So if you’re looking for the best source of custom coins for your organization, Challenge Coins 4 Less is definitely the right place to go.

June 11, 2016 / Janet Richmond