The yearning for camaraderie and unity exists in humans as naturally as hunger for food. It’s truly an emotional craving that drives us to want connection with others of like-minds and souls. We also have a need to want to express that connection, a physical manifestation of that alliance. We see many expressions in the form of things like bumper stickers, tattoos, haircuts, flags, rings, t-shirts, hats, and other clothing. And now in the past few decades, challenge coins have sprung their way into popularity for depicting solidarity and brotherhood.
Typically superiors delve out challenge coins for a job well done – “atta-boy coins” as some dub them. Once given a coin in this manner, you have been “coined.” And only those who have been coined qualify in a “coin check.” The challenge begins when a coin-holder whoops, “Coin check!” Rules and repercussions vary widely. Generally though, those without their coin at the time of the check must carry out the penalty designated by the challenger - like buying the next round of drinks. If everyone produces their coin, the challenger is on the hook for the next round.
But where did this tradition begin? The answer to that swells with varying stories and opinions - depends on what you’ve read who you talk to. One theory points back to soldiers of ancient Rome. Roman soldiers sometimes received a bonus coin in addition to their daily pay for exceptional service. Reportedly, these coins bore the mark of the soldier’s unit or legion. Rather than squandering the coins, the soldiers retained them as mementos of conquest and praise.
An oft-repeated story of more recent history takes us to World War I. An Army Air Force Service officer gifted his men bronze coins bearing their squadron’s insignia before their first mission. Forced to land after taking enemy fire, one pilot unluckily fell into German hands. They stripped him of all personal belongings except for a leather pouch he wore around his neck, which carried his medallion.
Somehow the pilot escaped and dressed in civilian attire to slip pass German forces. But once he reached French territory he was captured and detained for being a spy – spies were said to masquerade as civilians. His execution was ordered. However, a French soldier recognized the pilot’s coin, which he presented in an attempt to prove his innocence and identity. The French released him after confirming his identity and saw his return to his squadron. Once safely reunited with his squadron, he told his tale. From that moment on, no squadron member was never without his medallion.
Since that legend of fortune, unit insignia coins have slowly tip-toed into military tradition. Yet, the customary challenge associated with the coins reportedly didn’t come into play until World War II. American soldiers stationed in a small German town during the war brought the challenge to U.S. shores with a local German tradition called “pfenning checks” - pfennigs being the lowest German coin denomination, much like the U.S. penny.
During a tour at the neighborhood pub, a patron would call out “pfennig check!” Whoever his party woefully found themselves without a pfennig bought the next round of drinks. The American soldiers adopted this jovial practice, substituting their unit’s coin for the currency.
The camaraderie and pride the challenge typified had netted the whole of the U.S. military by the 1980s. Though the challenges are now dared for more than pub-bought drinks. Rules and details very from one division or unit to the next, but generally, the accepted rules state that a challenge may be declared anytime, anywhere – even the shower. Excuses are not accepted for being without your coin. The penalties, of course vary as well. The challenger holds reign to throw down any punishment he chooses.
Today, the challenge has snaked outside of the military into law enforcement, fire departments, government, and even into the private sector such as motorcycle clubs, the Boy Scouts, companies, organizations – the list goes on.
When you hold a coin minted with a symbol of your unit, division, ship, base, battle, etc., you are holding a physical piece of solidarity and support that feeds the human soul.
General Challenge Coin Rules
1. Rules must be divulged to all new coin holders.
2. The coin must be carried at all times. A challenge may be declared anywhere, at any time. You must produce the coin without taking more than one step to retrieve it.
3. There are no exceptions to the rules and apply to Uniformed or Non-uniformed individuals.
4. The challenger must state the repercussion for not having your coin – such as an entire round of drinks.
5. Failure to produce said coin results in performing whatever punishment the challenger chooses (within reason--of course). Possible challenges include drinks, shining another persons boots, singing a song, etc. Once the offender has carried out the action, they can't be challenged again that day.
6. If all present produce their coins, the challenger loses and is stuck fulfilling the penalty he chose.
7. No one is permitted to hand a coin to another in response to a challenge. If someone gives away their coin, the recipient is now the new owner.
8. An individual is responsible for the replacement of a lost coin. Replacing a coin as soon as possible is always in your best interest - losing a coin doesn't relieve a member of his responsibilities. And no doubt a lost coin will be exploited by fellow members.
9. Belt buckles, key chains, bottle openers, knives, dog tags, necklaces, facsimiles or (thank you Curtis) virtual coins are not permitted replacements. Coins worn around the neck without a hole in the coin are valid.
10. No holes may be drilled in a coin.
11. The coin should be controlled at all times. It is an honor to be given a coin.
12. Challenge coins used in a challenge, must have been given to the individual being challenged. A self purchased coin cannot be used. If a new person is challenged and does not have a coin that has been given to him, he is not to be penalized. A considerate gesture is to give the new person a coin in which case they are thereafter responsible for having it in their possession. If they are not given a coin by the challenger, any other member may choose to give the new person one and they are absolved from penalty. It is not unreasonable to expect the new person to complete an act that will "earn" them the coin. From then on the new person is expected to produce an acceptable coin when challenged.
The Handshake Delivery
You’re back from a job well done. Bravo Zulu! You performed beyond expectations. Someone reaches out to give you a congratulatory handshake. Your hands connect…you feel metal chill your palm. You‘ve been “coined.”
The giver chooses whatever method he prefers to deliver a coin, but typically the “handshake” is the vehicle. Considered the true method of “coining,” it’s smooth, dignified, and clandestine. Speculation and mystery shine on the origins of the challenge coin tradition, including the secret handshake. No one knows where it really began.
One story points to the Brits in the late 1800s when they went to war in South Africa. Many of the ranks were not British military but rather contracted civilians. And non-military were exempt from receiving military service awards for acts of valor. To award their civilian soldiers, officers often slipped them sixpence – by way of the furtive handshake.
Wherever it began, the hand shake today is a respected and dignified coin delivery – but only if it’s clean. Rare though it may be, shame comes upon the offender who drops the coin during the exchange. But during a slick, successful coining, bystanders may not realize they’re witnessing a coining. It’s often a secret between the two connecting palms.
The coiner palms the coin in his right hand and shakes hands conventionally turning his palm counterclockwise during the handshake and transferring the coin to the coinee.
Next time you see persons shaking hands, you may be seeing a "coining" in action.