Although they’re a popular collector’s item in certain circles, most people don’t actually know what challenge coins are. The short answer is that they’re small, usually coin-shaped pieces of metal given as commemorative gifts to individuals for their service to a particular organization. In most cases, the coin is emblazoned with the insignia of the organization that issued it. But this quick definition doesn’t come close to addressing all the intricacies of challenge coin minting, distribution and collecting. Here are five key facts to know about challenge coins.
1. They’re Military in Origin
The first challenge coins were issued by the U.S. military to early combat pilots as a means of identifying dead pilots whose planes were shot down. Over the years, the idea caught on with the rest of the military and became a kind of award given to servicemen and women for exceptional service. Modern military challenge coins usually bear the insignia of the Army, Navy or Air Force.
2. The Tradition Has Spread to Other Spheres
From its origin as military regalia, the challenge coin’s spread to police and fire departments was a logical next step, but today dozens of non-service organizations also award them to dedicated members. Challenge coins are commonly given out by fraternal organizations such as the Freemasons, and businesses have also been known to give them to senior members. In addition, several professional sports teams have given challenge coins to retiring stars.
3. They’ve Become a Suicide Prevention Symbol
In recent years, special edition challenge coins bearing the yellow ribbon of suicide prevention efforts have been minted. These coins are meant to spread awareness of a grave issue, one that’s especially prevalent among veterans. In fact, showing a trusted friend a yellow-ribbon challenge coins has become a subtle way for veterans to ask for help.
4. Other Countries Now Issue Challenge Coins
The tradition of giving challenge coins has also spread across international borders in recent decades. Britain, Canada, Switzerland, Australia and New Zealand have all been known to award challenge coins to service members or political leaders, and smaller organizations in other nations have probably used them as well.
5. They’re Not Always Coins
Challenge Coins don’t necessarily have to be coin-shaped. Several coins with holes in the center have been printed, as have ‘coins’ with shapes other than a circle. Some organizations have even been known to give out ‘coins’ that function as bottle openers.
Given the rich history and symbolic significance of challenge coins, it’s no surprise that there are collectors out there willing to pay top dollar for rarer coins. But challenge coins will always be sentimental keepsakes first and foremost. If you know anyone who owns a challenge coin–especially if they served in the military–chances are it’s one of their most prized possessions.