You were at a bar, and you heard someone yell, “coin check!” You saw one guy frantically checking his pockets but couldn’t find what he was looking for. “Sorry, bud, but drinks are on you tonight,” and the unfortunate guy had to spring for the group’s bar tab.
What just happened?
That, my friend, is the challenge coin tradition. If a “coin check” is initiated, the person who fails to present their coin loses the challenge. They’ll have to pay for drinks or whatever penalty agreed upon by the group.
The challenge coin history started in the military. Military challenge coins are a symbol of camaraderie, given to select individuals to boost morale and instill a sense of pride in the unit.
How did it all start? Below are some interesting facts about the history of challenge coins.
1. The Challenge Coin History May Have Started in Ancient Rome
The wages of Roman soldiers were in the form of “denarii,” which were standard Roman silver coins. But sometimes, soldiers with exemplary performance on the battlefield are given bonus coins. These weren’t your standard denarii but a unique mint with the mark of their legion.
Instead of spending these coins, the soldiers kept them as a memento. These ancient coins may very well be the first challenge coins.
2. The Pilot’s Story
The most famous story about the origin of challenge coins in the military is about a World War I pilot. His plane went down behind enemy lines. The Germans captured the pilot, but he managed to escape to France.
He lost his belongings to the Germans except for a leather pouch with a curious medallion inside, given to all squadron members. When the French captured him, they thought he was a spy.
The French were about to execute him, but the pilot remembered the “coin” inside the pouch and showed it to his captors. They confirmed the pilot’s identity through the coin and returned him safely to his squadron.
3. The Oldest Challenge Coin
The oldest and one of the most valuable challenge coins belong to the 17th Infantry Regiment. The unit served in the Korean War, led by Colonel William Wilson “Buffalo Bill” Quinn.
On one side of the coin is an image of a buffalo and 1812, the year of the 17th Infantry’s formation. On the other side is the insignia of the 17th Infantry with the dates 1950 to 1951 and the word “Korea.”
4. The Origin of the Challenge Game
What about the coin check tradition? Some say that it started during the Vietnam War. An Army Infantry unit that operated a bar wanted to keep the bar exclusive to military members.
Before anyone could get service from the bar, they had to present proof that they’d been in combat. If they couldn’t come up with one, they had to buy drinks for the whole bar.
The “proof” started with enemy bullets but, over time, became more outrageous. Soldiers tried to one-up each other with grenades, mortar, and unexploded ordnance. To avoid blowing up the bar, they began to accept custom challenge coins with the unit’s insignia as proof.
Challenge Coins Today
The challenge coin history and tradition continue to the present day, not just in the military but also in civilian organizations.
If someone gives you a challenge coin, consider it a great honor. But don’t get caught empty-handed during a coin check!
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