History of Challenge Coins and Military Coins

The Birth of the Challenge Coin

Just about every new author to take on this subject adds a new take to “The History of Challenge coins”. Indeed many articles have been written on the subject. Here’s what we know of Military Coins and Challenge coins.

The use of metal tokens to commemorate special events dates back many centuries. From Military Medals to locally produced tokens the practice is as old as metal work itself.

Roman Legionary Coins

I have yet to see a history of military coins that gives credit to the Romans though they undoubtedly struck coins commemorating their various Roman Legions.  It appears that the Legio X Fretensis for example, was given imperial permission to extend the life of roman colonial coins which they did by re-striking them to commemorate their various battles and victories.  There is one, for example, that commemorates a battle at sea in 36 BCE.  Do we count these coins in the history of military coins?  I believe we should at least mention them.  Though made of precious metals and therefor having monetary value they are still clear examples of a military unit using a commemorative coin.  There are numerous examples of Roman commemorative coins, many of them military coins.  So that gives us a 2000+ year history to build upon.

Army Military Coin Navy Military Coins Air Force Military Coin Marine Military Coins Coast Guard Military Coins Miscellaneous Challenge Coins
Air Force Coins Marine
Coast Guard

As a practical matter we can see the use of custom coins in the USA dating back at least as far as 1824. There are Campaign Coins from the 1824 election supporting Andrew Jackson for President. It is fair to assume that this practice didn’t originate in that year so custom coins may date back even further.

Many organizations produced custom coins from very early in our history. There are Masonic Coins sometimes called Masonic Tokens dating back to the 19th century. Some Lodges are currently minting Masonic Coins so the tradition continues.

Often a distinction is made between Military Tokens and Military coins. Certainly some custom coins were minted to replace US currency that was in short supply during the Civil War. There are, however, presentation coins dating from the civil war. There is a coin that has the flag of the US on one side and the saying “If anyone tries to tear it down, shoot him on the spot” dating from 1863. Could one fairly say that this is the “first real Challenge Coin”?  The flag has the Phrygian cap (often called the Cap of Liberty) atop the staff. This symbol is incorporated into the current US Army Seal. There are, in fact, over 11,000 known Civil war Military Coins and tokens. These were divided into two basic types. As we have mentioned some were minted to replace US currency that was being horded. Suttlers (contract suppliers)  to the Union and Confederate armies would issue tokens sponsored by their stores and redeemable for merchandise. In addition to this there are Military Coins that clearly share the same purpose as today’s coins. In addition to the above coin that interestingly bears the name “Dix” (Camp Dix” didn’t open until 1917). The post was named for Major General John Adams Dix who served both in the war of 1812 and the Civil War. Is this coin a reference to him? If so it could be quite a unique find indeed. There is a military coin bearing the date 1863 that commemorates the USS Monitor sunk in that year, and bearing the inscription “Our Monitor”.
The above, based upon the most superficial research clearly establishes the use of Campaign Coins to at least 1824 and Military Coins to at least the civil war. This seems to refute both commonly held “origin” stories, the first dating the use of Military Coins to world war one flying units and the second dating them to the Vietnam Conflict. Either of these stories may account for the use of Military Coins or Unit Coins as “Challenge coins“. The practice of challenging a unit member to produce his coin or “buy a round of drinks” is probably fairly recent. Even so the tradition of “Challenge Coins” has become an integral part of the military lexicon of today.
There is another unique aspect of military coin use.  That relates to the practice of having coins or medallions minted from metal parts of ships.  This has been done with the copper bottoms of USS Constitution and HMS Victory.  When the protective copper sheeting is removed for replacement these military medallions or coins are struck from the copper.  Usually these are sold as fundraisers for restoration and the like.  There is actually a coin reported to have been made from a gun taken from USS Constitution but I have been unable to confirm this.
So as we can  see there is no easy solution to what seems to be an easy question.
I enjoy this subject and am more than willing to take calls to discuss it.  If you have information to add, please let me know.  We want to keep this post as accurate as possible.

Rick McCallum (520) 399-1527
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