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The History (and Future) of Military Challenge Coins

September 04, 2016

The History (and Future) of Military Challenge Coins

Military challenge coins have been around for 2000 years...

With roots dating back to Ancient Rome, practice of giving Military Challenge Coins is now gaining broader popularity amongst business leaders, first responders, educators, and coaches as a personal, meaningful way to honor service, mark achievements, and denote membership in a club or group. 

What Exactly Is A Challenge Coin?

These custom-made coins are usually crafted from metals like copper, nickel, or pewter, and they sometimes have colored, gold or silver accents. Measuring about 1.5 - 2 inches in diameter they're usually round, although variations include shapes such as dog tags, shields, and ovals. Generally speaking, both sides of a challenge coin are stamped with a unique symbol, image, or text that reflects both the organization that the coin represents and the significance of that specific coin. 

The 2000 Year Old Tradition:

The first known use of challenge coins can be traced back to the non-stop battles of Ancient Rome, when soldiers were paid daily. Commanding officers would give a special bonus coin to enlisted men who performed well during the day's battle.

Rather than spend these unique coins that were often marked with a symbol denoting membership in a particular unit, the soldiers would carry these coins in a small leather pouch worn around their necks as both a memento of their performance and proof of membership in a unique class of combatants. 

Since that time, variations of the military challenge coin have been used by armed forces around the world, and throughout the 20th century, these medallions re-emerged in the U.S. military.

The modern challenge coin is reputed to trace its roots back to World War 1 when a flying ace was shot down over Germany and allegedly used a unit medallion to prove his allied status to French soldiers.

In the Korean War, military challenge coins much like the ones in use today made their way into the military apparently starting with Colonel "Buffalo Bill" Quinn of the 17th Infantry Regiment. These coins had holes in them so that they could be worn around the neck.

Often Presented With A Handshake:

Until recently, the practice of earning, and carrying, a challenge coin was a complete unknown to those in the civilian world. Only members of the armed forces understood the deep-seated significance of being presented with a challenge coin by a colleague or commanding officer.

Unlike typical medals and awards, there's usually no fanfare or public display when one is presented - the presenter often 'palms' the challenge coin, passing it to the recipient during a handshake. 

Robert Gates, then Secretary of State, is known to have distributed coins secretly by handshake in 2011 to appreciative troops stationed in Afghanistan.

Challenge Coins In The Digital Age:

There's something about the "high touch, low tech" nature of challenge coins that makes them more appealing than ever in today's digital world. The use of these coins will continue to gain broader use in and beyond the military. That's why we've created AttaCoin Tokens - a new take on the challenge coin for corporate audiences.

In addition, we expect that challenge coins will evolve like everything else. In the near term, technologies like NFC (near field communication) now in use in digital wallets and other applications will enable coins to be digitally enabled. Coins will hold messages and even monetary rewards like gift cards, all of which can be activated using the owner's smartphone.

Taking this a step further, future coins could host miniaturized video screens allowing the coin to change graphics dynamically and to display footage, for example, from the unit's battle history or from the general's address to the troops. GPS enabled coins could "upgrade" themselves as the owner visits different bases or historic sites.

While no one knows for sure how this will play out, we do know that the challenge coin continues to be a powerful tool for employee motivation. As managers continue to discover their value, employees will benefit.

To get started with challenge coins, we suggest the "Team Leader" pack - it's got 5 varieties at a low introductory pack. We know you'll love them! Come see the full selection of employee appreciation tools at

Make the allure of military challenge coins work for you!

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