One of the many custom items designed and produced by C. Forbes, Inc. is often referred to as a “challenge coin.” While the term is especially familiar to those associated with the military, its presence has broadened into mainstream culture and is increasingly found outside the military as a means of acknowledging support of an organization, event, or cause.

What is a Challenge Coin?

Typically a small coin or medallion, a “challenge coin” bears an organization’s insignia or emblem, and is carried by the organization’s members as proof of membership when challenged. The coins are normally presented by unit commanders to members in recognition of special achievement, and are also exchanged in recognition of visits to an organization.

Usually 1.5 to 2 inches in size, the coins vary widely in appearance. While there are only a few base metals used, the patina (finish) of the coin can range from gold, silver, nickel, brass, copper or bronze, plus antiqued variations. Enamel inlay may be used to add color. Fabrication of the coins is by one of two processes: die-cast or die-struck, where the dies must be sculpted by an artist and have varying degrees of complexity. Our preference, at C. Forbes, Inc., is die-struck due to the superior quality and detail.   

How the Tradition Began

There is no definitive “beginning” of the challenge coin tradition. It is known that the Roman Empire rewarded soldiers for their valor by presenting them with coins. If a soldier performed well in battle, he would receive his typical day’s pay and a separate coin as a bonus. Some accounts indicate that the coin was custom minted with the mark of the legion it came from, prompting soldiers to keep the coin as a memento, rather than spending it.

One of the more common stories about challenge coins dates back to 1917, before the U.S.officially entered World War I. American volunteers, many from families attending Ivy League schools, filled newly formed flying squadrons. In one case, a lieutenant had bronze medallions struck with the squadron’s insignia and presented them to his unit. One young pilot placed the medallion in a leather pouch and wore it around his neck. Shortly after, he was shot down over Germany and captured, having all of his possessions taken except for the leather pouch containing the medallion. The pilot escaped to France, where he was assumed to be a spy and sentenced to death. With no identification other than his medallion, he presented it to his French captors, one of whom recognized the squadron insignia, and delayed the execution. The pilot’s identity was confirmed and his life was spared.

Back at his squadron, it became tradition to ensure that all members carry their medallion or coin at all times. This was accomplished through challenge in the following manner: a challenger would ask to see the medallion. If the member challenged could not produce one, they were required to buy a drink for the member who challenged them. If the challenged member produced a medallion, the challenger was required to pay for the drink. This tradition continued throughout the war, and for many years after, among surviving members of the squadron.

Examples abound of challenge coins used during the subsequent conflicts of World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam War, Afghanistan and Iraq. All branches of the military have their own unique challenge coin and presentation protocol.

Presidential Challenge Coins

Bill Clinton was the first U.S. president to have a Commander-in-Chief challenge coin. There are a few different presidential coins – one for the inauguration, one that commemorates the president’s administration, and one available to the general public. But there is one unique, and the rarest, coin that can only be received with a handshake from the president. It is at his discretion to present the coins, but they are usually reserved for special occasions, military personnel, or foreign dignitaries.

Examples of presidential uses include multiple display racks of challenge coins from U.S. service members, kept on the credenza behind President Clinton’s Oval Office desk; President George W. Bush largely reserved his for injured soldiers returning from the Middle East; President Obama is known to give them out to soldiers that man the stairs on Air Force One and placed coins on the memorials of soldiers killed in the 2009 Fort Hood shooting.

Beyond the Military

Organizations such as the U.S. Congress, Secret Service, and White House staff have challenge coins. Other groups known for having their own coins now include police and fire departments, NFL teams, NASCAR, motorcycle riders clubs, public schools, universities, and non-profits. Even the shape has evolved beyond the typical round coin; White House Military Aides carry one of the more unique designs, which is in the shape of a football.

C. Forbes, Inc. and Challenge Coins – A Continuing Tradition

Since 1998, C. Forbes, Inc. has been honored to design and produce custom challenge coins for hundreds of entities, highlighted by our Client roster. In short, what started as a military tradition, has become a tangible way to instill pride, reward achievement, build morale, honor sacrifice, denote membership, recognize donors, commemorate anniversaries and represent a unique symbol of allegiance.
Please contact us for more information about our products and customization process. Our mission is to design, produce and present quality, custom items that tell your story. We welcome the opportunity to combine your goals with our expertise to properly commemorate your unique anniversary, event or organization.  

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