Challenge Coins, a Little Piece of History

Most stories put the origin of challenge coins at World War I. WWI was the first war with aerial combat and pilots were scarce. Often the only people who were capable of flying before the war were from relatively rich families, so many of the pilots at that time were volunteers from Ivy League schools. One of the facets of such schools at the time were various "secret societies." In some such groups, it was common to have a medallion of some sort to identify their members.

So in one squadron during the war, a wealthy lieutenant had medallions made for the men in his unit. As the story goes, not long after, one of these pilots was shot down and captured by the Germans. To deter escape, the Germans took all identifying papers from the pilot, but he still had his medallion in a small pouch he wore around his neck. Eventually the pilot escaped and made his way to a French outpost in Northern France. At that time in the war, spies sometimes were caught making their way into France, and it was common practice to execute anyone without proper documents and papers. The pilot had no identifying papers, and the soldiers didn't recognize his American accent, and so he was to be executed. However, as a last effort to prove who he was, the soldier showed his medallion. One French soldier seemed to recognize the squadron's insignia and stayed his execution. The story goes that once the French soldiers confirmed the pilots identity, they gave him a bottle of wine and sent him home.
It eventually became tradition that special military units often had their own medallion, or coin, made with their insignia. Further, it became tradition that members of that unit had to carry their coin with them wherever they went. Where does the name "challenge coin" come from? That too is a tradition. A coin holder may "challenge" another, usually by slamming their coin down on the bar or table; it makes a very distinct noise. If the challenged is able to present their own coin, the challenger must then buy a drink for the challenged. If the challenged person is unable to present their own coin, they must buy a drink for the challenger.

This practice moved gradually from military units to paramilitary units. S.W.A.T. teams, Bomb Squads, Police Departments, even some Fire Departments and EMS squads have embraced the tradition. I earned my first challenge coin when I became an instructor in Krav Maga’s Force Training Division (the Law Enforcement and Military training branch of Krav Maga.) Although some coins can be bought, for most units, it is a special honor to give a coin to someone who they identify as “one of their own.” For example, the Norwood Police Department as a particularly moving memorial, presented Rachel’s father, James “Bucky” Tincher, with their challenge coin.

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