The origin of the challenge coins are still unknown there are several versions of the story on where did the coin originated.
It was said that the Romans were the first one to use challenge coins. Custom coins were made back then to indicate the name of the soldier, the battalion or squad he was in, and the battle or victory where he participated. These coins are rewarded to them for their achievements and are kept for their pride and honor rather than being used to buy food or spent on women.
World War I
World War I has been considered as the start of using challenge coins in the military. The most popular story of its origin is when an American pilot was saved by the challenge coin he owns. He was part of the flying squadron created from the volunteers during the war. One of his lieutenants ordered custom coins made of bronze and gives it away to their unit as a memento. When his airplane crushed behind enemy lines he was captured by the Germans and stripped off of his belongings except for the pouch that contains his coin.
When the British bombarded the German army camp he managed to escape and change into civilian clothing to avoid being identified only to be captured by the French Military. They were already preparing him for execution when he showed his medallion to one of the soldiers who recognizes the insignia on his coin that symbolizes their alliances. The French Military gave him time to prove that he was indeed an American. When his identity was identified he was sent back to his squadron and an order was given to them to always bring their coins. It also started the challenge coin games.
World War II
During the World War II challenge coins were first used by the personnel’s of the Office of Strategic Service deployed in Nazi held France. These custom coins contain certain information to avoid getting their ranks infiltrated by Nazi spies. The type of coin, date when the coin is made and other aspects are checked during meetings.
It was said that the only unit that uses challenge coins prior to 1980’s are the Army Special Force or the “green berets”.
In the Vietnam War era the first challenge coins were made by the 10th or 11th Army’s Special Force. A “bullet club” was formed to pass time during this era. It is when soldiers will bring bullets in their pockets to be used on themselves when they are captured. In bars soldiers will challenge fellow soldiers to present their bullets and if they won’t be able to produce it they will pay for the drinks that night. Custom coins were produced in replacement of the bullets but the rules of the game remain the same.
Colonel “Buffalo Bill” Quinn of the 17th Infantry Regiment ordered custom challenge coins for the member of his unit in 1950 to 1951. The design of the coin contains a buffalo as a tribute to the Colonel, the date when the unit is formed (1982) on one side and on the other side the patch of the 17th Infantry was placed together with the date 1950-1951, the word Korea to represent the tour, a fort icon and cross to represent the units origin in Cuba during the Civil War and a hole was placed so it can be worn around the neck instead of being placed on leather pouches. It is one of the most valuable and oldest challenge coins.
It was said that the Romans were the first one to use challenge coins.