A challenge coin is a small coin or medallion (usually military), bearing an organization’s insignia or emblem and is carried by the organization’s members. They are given to prove membership when challenged and to enhance morale.
Air warfare was a new phenomenon during World War I. When the army created flying squadrons they were manned with volunteer pilots from every walk of civilian life. While some of the early pilots came from working class or rural backgrounds, many were wealthy Ivy League students who withdrew from classes in the middle of the year, drawn by the adventure and romance of the new form of warfare.
As the legend goes, one such Ivy Leaguer, a wealthy lieutenant, ordered small, solid-bronze medallions (or coins) struck, which he then presented to the other pilots in his squadron as mementos of their service together. The coin was gold-plated, bore the squadron’s insignia, and was quite valuable. One of the pilots in the squadron, who had never owned anything like the coin, placed it in a leather pouch he wore around his neck for safekeeping. A short while later, this pilot’s aircraft was heavily damaged by ground fire (other sources claim it was an aerial dogfight), forcing him to land behind enemy lines and allowing him to be captured by the Germans. The Germans confiscated the personal belongings from his pockets, but they didn’t catch the leather pouch around his neck. On his way to a permanent prisoner of war facility, he was held overnight in a small German-held French village near the front. During the night, the town was bombarded by the British, creating enough confusion to allow the pilot to escape.
The pilot avoided German patrols by donning civilian attire, but all of his identification had been confiscated so he had no way to prove his identity. With great difficulty, he sneaked across no-man’s land and made contact with a French patrol. Unfortunately for him, the French had been on the lookout for German saboteurs dressed as civilians. The French mistook the American pilot for a German saboteur and immediately prepared to execute him.
Desperate to prove his allegiance and without any identification, the pilot pulled out the coin from his leather pouch and showed it to his French captors. One of the Frenchmen recognized the unit insignia on the coin and delayed the execution long enough to confirm the pilot’s identity.
Once the pilot safely returned to his squadron, it became a tradition for all members to carry their coin at all times. To ensure compliance, the pilots would challenge each other to produce the coin. If the challenged couldn’t produce the coin, he was required to buy a drink of choice for the challenger; if the challenged could produce the coin, the challenger would purchase the drink.
Another tradition dates to US Military personnel assigned to occupy post World War Two Germany. With the exchange rate, the West German One Pfennig coin was worth only a fraction of a U.S. cent, and they were thus generally considered not having enough value to be worth keeping - unless one was broke. At any place where servicemen would gather for a beer, if a soldier called out "Pfennig Check" everyone had to empty their pockets to show if they were saving any West German Pfennigs. If a soldier could produce a Pfennig, - it meant that he was nearly broke, … and if a soldier could not produce a Pfennig, it meant that he had enough money to not bother saving them, - and thus enough money to buy the next round.
A version of this story dating from the Vietnam war goes like this, "The tradition of the coin giving dates back to Vietnam actually when soldiers would tote along a piece of "lucky" ordnance that had helped them or narrowly missed them. At first it was small arms ammunition, but this practice grew to much bigger and more dangerous ordnance as time wound on. It became then actually a dangerous practice because of the size and power of the ordnance being carried, so commanders banned it, and instead gave away metal coins emblazoned with the unit crest or something similar. The main purpose of the ordnance had been when going into a bar, you had to have your lucky piece or you had to buy drinks for all who did have it. The coins worked far better in this regard as they were smaller and not as lethal! So, if you go to a military bar, whip out a challenge coin and slam it down on the bar, those who lack one buy drinks! Obviously you have to be careful about this tradition... However, Commanders and units give out coins for this and as mementos for services rendered or special occasions. This tradition spread to other military units in all branches of service and even to non military organizations. Today, challenge coins are given to members upon joining an organization, as an award to improve morale, and sold to commemorate special occasions or as fundraisers.
President Bill Clinton displayed several racks of challenge coins, which had been given to him by U.S. servicemembers, on the credenza behind his Oval Office desk. These coins are currently on display at the Clinton Library. The challenge coins appear in the background of his Clinton.jpg, now hanging in the White House.
President George W. Bush received a challenge coin from a Marine combat patrol unit during his short but unexpected visit to Al-Asad Airbase in Anbar province, Iraq, Monday, Sept. 3, 2007.
In 2008, Leatherneck Magazine gives a 90th Anniversary Leatherneck Challenge Coin to a select few readers who send in letters to their Sound Off section which the editors particularly like. There is another story about an American soldier scheduled to rendezvous with Philippine guerrillas during WWII and with him he carried a Philippine solid silver coin stamped with the unit insignia on one side and the coin verified to the guerrillas that he was their valid contact for the mission against the Japanese. http://www.airmilitaire.com/default.asp?S=E3&Document=Challenge_coin&NID=4522866
The tradition of a challenge is the most common way to ensure that members are carrying their unit's coin. Unfortunately, the rules of a challenge are not always formalized for a unit, and may vary between organizations. This may lead to some controversy when challenges are initiated between members of different organizations.
The challenge, which can be made at any time, begins with the challenger drawing his/her coin, and slapping or placing the coin on the table or bar. In noisy environs, continuously rapping the challenge coin on a surface may initiate the challenge. (Accidentally dropping a challenge coin is considered to be a deliberate challenge to all present.) Everyone being challenged must immediately produce the coin for their organization and anyone failing to do so must buy a round of drinks for the challenger and everyone else who has their challenge coin. However, should everyone challenged be able to produce their coin, the challenger must buy a round of drinks for the group.
While most holders of challenge coins usually carry them in their pockets or in some other readily accessible place on their persons, most versions of the rules permit a challenged person "a step and a reach" (particularly useful if one is challenged in the shower).
Variants of the rules include the following. If you are able to steal a challenge coin, everyone in the group must buy you a drink. During a challenge, everyone in the group must buy you a drink if you are the holder of the highest ranking coin. Some units provide strict time limits to respond to a challenge.
As of 2007, coins manufactured in China typically cost about US$200 for the die and US$1.00 to US$2.00 per coin. When these coins are purchased from a US Company, the customer's costs will significantly increase.
Many challenge coins are fabricated in South Korea, as the connection to the US military bases there is strong, and costs are cheaper than US made coins.
Besides using coins for challenging, they are also used as rewards or awards. They are used as a tool to build morale. In the context as they are used by the modern U.S. military, the tradition probably began amongst Special Forces units during the Vietnam War. The tradition spread through the Airborne community, and by the early 1980s also into the 75th Infantry "Rangers." As officers were reassigned as their careers progressed, they carried with them the tradition of awarding a unit coin for acts that were worthy of recognition, but yet lacked enough merit to submit the soldiers act for an official medal. Challenge Coins were not very common until the First Persian Gulf War of 1990-1991, and have steadily grown in popularity since. While most soldiers are happy to receive an award of any type, some feel that there are so many coins being given out now that their value has been cheapened.
Some collectors buy them for their numismatic value.
One widely known challenge coin in the United States Air Force was the "Bull Dog" challenge coin 2. that was exclusive to B-52 enlisted tail gunners. Since the B-52 gunner position is no longer in existence, this famous challenge coin has become more rare.
This coin was presented to gunners upon graduation from their Air Force technical training and their entry into the "Gunners Association." In the earlier days of bombers, a bean or a nugget was used. The coin represents the attributes of strength and courage as reflected in the Bulldog, the gunner's official mascot. The coin was also given to certain "honorary gunners," usually commanders and leaders who portrayed the spirit of the bulldog.
The rules for the Bulldog coin (acquired from the Mack Trucking Company) were slightly different than for other coins.
- Bulldog Coins and Beans are equal and interchangeable. i.e. Having a Coin is like having a Bean and having a Bean is like having a Coin.
- Coin or Bean must carried at ALL times. You can be challenged anywhere, at anytime. You must produce Coin or Bean without taking 3 or 4 steps. (Many coin holders have been caught in the shower without their coin.)
- When challenging, the challenger must state whether or not it is for a single drink, or a round of drinks. (Warning- Coin challenges can become very expensive in a crowd of gunners)
- Under no circumstances can the Coin or Bean be handed to another Gunner. If a Gunner hands is Coin or Bean to another Gunner, that Gunner can keep the coin/bean, it's his. However, if the Gunner places the Coin or Bean down and another Gunner picks it up to examine it, that is not considered "giving" and the Gunner is honor bound to place the Coin or Bean back where he got it. He cannot challenge while he holds the other Gunner's Coin or Bean.
- If a Gunner has never been given a Coin or Bean, he cannot be expected to play the game. Rules of the game must be explained to all new Coin/Bean holders.
- Lost Coins or Beans, or failure to produce said Coin or Bean, results in the challenger being bought a drink or round of drinks. This type of transaction could be expensive so hold on to your Coin or Bean. Once the challengee has bought you a drink, you cannot continue to challenge him.
- If a Coin or Bean is lost, replacement cost is up to the individual. A new Coin or Bean should be acquired at the earliest possible date. Losing a Coin or Bean and not replacing it does not relieve the Gunner of his responsibilities. (Usual standard replacement cost is a full keg to be enjoyed by all available Coin or Bean holders, plus the cost of another Coin/Bean.)
- Gunner's Coins or Beans must be controlled at all times -- giving them to just anyone is like opening up the Association to anyone. It is up to the local Association as to who, outside the active members, they want to have the Coin or Bean. It is considered an HONOR to be presented a Coin or Bean. Let's keep it that way.
- No holes will be drilled in the Coin or Bean.
- The above rules pertain and apply to anyone who is worthy to hold the position of Defensive Aerial Gunner, has held the position, or has been selected as an honorary member of the Association.
A true story involving a Gunner's Coin:
"We had a new gunner on his first alert tour, so of course he was the butt of many a joke or prank. One morning we saw him in the showers, his coin nowhere in sight. We approached, and "coined" him on the spot for a round of drinks. He looked us in the eyes, laughed, and pulled his coin out of his mouth! It turns out that his morning routine consisted of first putting his coin into his mouth.
The next morning, he woke up, and had just put his coin into his mouth when the phone rang. As he sat up to answer it, he accidentally swallowed the coin! As you could imagine, he was hard to find over the next few days.
He never did find the coin..."
SrA BBW, 340th Bomb Squadron, Blytheville AFB, AR
Colonel Eli McNulty coins Samantha Liston in E-Ring when she is in the running to be Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and a General is trying to put a stop to it. At one point the General initiates the 'Coin Check' to show that she should not have a senior job as she has not seen combat and, of course, Liston has no challenge coin - thus proving his point.
The popularity of challenge coins are stretching past the military. NASCAR , the NFL and World Series of Poker all have their own challenge coins. They are also becoming extremely popular with Police Departments, Fire Departments and Fraternal organizations. In 2007, the Utah Symphony and Opera gave challenge coins to all of its staff and musicians, making it the first symphony organization in America to embrace the challenge coin tradition. Coins do not have to be given to someone to be called a Challenge Coin, as many non-governmental organizations sell challenge coins to fundraise or promote their products or services.
The challenge coin tradition was introduced into the Swiss Armed Forces by American officers on training missions and other assignments for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, of which Switzerland is a member. Coins are not issued, but rather ordered and paid for by Swiss officers of various branches within the Army.