How Did Challenge Coins Start?

Professor explaining the origin of military challenge coins.

How Did Challenge Coins Start?

In 53 BC a Roman Centurion by the name of Marcus Quintus walked into a tavern in the town of Avaricum in ancient Gaul which is in modern day Belgium. The town had been recently captured in fighting with the Gallic forces and Quintus, who was a member of Legio XI Claudia, badly needed a drink. Other soldiers were in the establishment and had been heavily drinking for quite some time because the boasting was getting more outlandish every minute that went by.

Being short on cash an idea struck Marcus. He had been given a commemorative coin by Caesar himself for heroism in a previous battle and he began to boast loudly of the coin and the story of the gift. Others shouted disbelief and claimed similar gifts and so he responded with a challenge.

“If I have a coin and you do not then you all have to buy my drinks all night, but if I do not have such a coin but you do, then I must buy all of yours! Do you accept the terms of my challenge?”

The crowd in the tavern shouted in agreement believing wholeheartedly that he could not have received such an honor from the hand of Caesar himself. And at that very moment Marcus reached into his pouch and flipped the Challenge Coin out onto the bar. His detractors stared in disbelief as they had no such coin and the rest is history. To this very day there are Challenge Coins for Sale.

So is this the way it happened? Truth be told nobody really knows. Wikipedia has a good synopsis here and there are a number of very plausible accounts.

Some attribute the tradition back to the Roman Army and they were certainly known to love wagering and games of chance. Others say it started in WW I with a pilot who went down behind enemy lines and was saved from the firing squad by a Frenchman who recognized the squadron emblem on the pilots’ coin. Yet others believe the roots trace to wars such as WW II, Korea, and Vietnam.

The rules for conducting a “Coin Challenge” or “Coin Check” vary wildly and today the tradition has become somewhat diluted since it seems that everyone has a coin and everyone and their brother is giving out coins. For that matter you can buy them in the BX/PX, online, and even in foreign countries during TDY. In fact it was always humorous to show up at a “non-disclosed location” only to find that the local merchants already had Challenge Coins for Sale with your unit specifics on them. So much for OPSEC.

But the bottom line is that you don’t want to be caught without one. And really, who wants a lame squadron one that some useless limp-wristed Nonner E-9 designed? Wouldn’t you rather have a one that stood out? One that symbolizes who you are as a maintainer? Of course you would, and Maintainer Nation has Challenge Coins for Sale.

So don’t be the loser at the bar without a coin. 

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.