Coin check! The phrase may mean nothing to you, but to members of the military and other organizations this is a challenge. And when challenged, you must present your challenge coin. So what exactly is a challenge coin? Where did they come from and what is their significance?
Though the tradition may seem mysterious to you, its origins can be traced all the way back to the Roman Empire. Evidence shows soldiers conscripted to the Roman military had their own sort of challenge coin, medallions awarded to honor Rome’s best soldiers and their achievements. Later during the Renaissance, portrait medals were used to recognize the nobles and upper crust of society for their great deeds. As a portrait coin, the medal would typically feature the likeness of its owner.
Depending on who you believe, the modern history of the challenge coin begins with World War I. A fighter pilot shot down over enemy territory was captured by German soldiers and stripped of all identifying materials—except the bronze medallion concealed in a pouch around his neck. He made a miraculous escape from the Germans, soon reaching France. The French were skeptical of his story, thinking he may be a spy. It was the bronze medal, gifted to his squadron by their lieutenant, that identified him and saved him from a looming execution. To avoid another identification mix-up, it was made customary for squad members to “coin check” their mates. Those caught without their coin had to buy a drink for the coin checker.
Still another story places the challenge coin’s origin during World War II. Spies of the Strategic Service used the coins as a reliable way of confirming identity during meetings. This helped weed out any potential foreign intruders. Others point to origins during other conflicts, like the Korean War and Vietnam. However, coins ordered by William Quinn and distributed to his infantrymen offer proof that the idea was at least in place by 1950.
Whatever its true origin, the tradition caught on, spreading from the military to government agencies and eventually civilians. For example, Current and past U.S. presidents have issued to and received challenge coins among leaders the world over. Barack Obama was known to leave coins on the graves of fallen soldiers. Civilians typically issue coins to signify membership in exclusive organizations and fraternal orders.
Challenge coins are plentiful though their use is secretive. Maybe you feel inspired to create challenge coins for your own team or club, but be ready. You never know when you might be coin checked.