Whether you’re in the military yourself, have a relative who is, or you’re just interested in collecting military paraphernalia, the use of challenge coins is perhaps one of the most interesting customs – and the coins themselves, in an amazing array of variations for different units and purposes, are great keepsakes.
While used in all branches of the service, no one seems to love challenge coins as much as the U.S. Marine Corps. There are probably more variations of Marine Corps challenge coins than any other branch has, and they are still in active use for “challenges” by Marines today.
But where do challenge coins come from?
The truth is no one knows the exact origin of challenge coins, but there are several plausible legends. The earliest of them starts in World War I, “the Great War”. As volunteer American pilots flocked to Europe to join the French air corps, it’s said that a unit commander honored their bravery and selflessness by having solid bronze coins struck with their unit insignia and giving one to each man. One of these pilots was later shot down behind German lines. He was able to escape by stealing civilian clothes to wear, but when he reached French lines they suspected he was a spy or saboteur. They were about to execute him when he showed them his coin, and recognizing the unit insignia they spared him. If true, this was the first “challenge” and the lucky airman was returned to active duty.
Other legends place the origin of challenge coins in World War II, the Korean War, the Philippines or later. Unlike the WWI story, all of these variants have the coins made deliberately to identify undercover members of a unit: sometimes the coins were stamped with the insignia, other times they were normal coins but the agent was told to bring a specific denomination from a specific year. Only by showing this coin could he prove who he was.
How to Challenge
In the Marine Corps the rules of the challenge have become almost sacrosanct. Every member of a unit should carry their Marine Corps Challenge Coin at all times, and if they neglect to do so they could lose the challenge. Any Marine can pull out his challenge coin and tap or slam it on the table in front of any other member of his unit, “challenging” them. If they can immediately display their own coin, he owes them a drink; if they can’t, they owe him one. Some units have their own variant rules.
Nowadays, Marine Corps challenge coins are not only carried as a sign of membership in a unit, they are also given as awards by commanders.
Do you have any Marine Corps challenge coins? We have an array you can add to your collection.