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United States (US) military coins, generally referred to as challenge coins, are presented to service personnel for a variety of reasons such as proving membership, enhancing morale, for presentation at military events, thanking people for their contribution, and for recognising specific achievements.
What is a Military Challenge Coin?
A military challenge coin is a small coin or medallion, bearing a military organisation’s insignia or emblem and carried by the service person.
It is offered in a semi-official capacity unlike, for example, a military medal.
The Roman military rewarded soldiers by presenting them with coins to recognise their achievements. If a soldier excelled in battle, they would receive their typical wage along with a separate bonus coin. According to some accounts, these bonus coins were specially minted, featuring the marks of the legion the soldier was enlisted with. As a result, some soldiers would keep their coins as mementos rather than spending them on other things.
From a US military context, challenge coins are believed to have started during World War I (Mahoney, 2010; Carter, 2013).
Why is it Called a Challenge Coin?
In contemporary usage, service personnel use challenge coins as identification badges proving that they served in certain units. In practice, a current or ex-member of a unit can ‘challenge’ another service person to prove they serve(d) with a unit by producing their coin. Historically, the price for failing to produce one’s coin was to buy a round of drinks (the challenge is usually proffered in social encounters).
In a civilian context, challenge coins are distributed to the civilian population for publicity purposes or are sold as fundraising tools.
Who can be Awarded Challenge Coins?
Challenge coins are not unique to the US military, with a number of civilian and foreign military organisations offering them.
- The White House Communication Agency has issued challenge coins for foreign heads of state and the military during presidential visits.
- The US Congress has also produced challenge coins for members of Congress to give to constituents.
- Various US police and fire departments.
- Fraternal organisations.
- A number of foreign militaries have (to varying degrees) taken on challenge coins, including the Swiss Armed Forces, Canadian Armed Forces, Australian Defence Forces, New Zealand Armed Forces, and UK Armed Forces.
Challenge Coins by Service
Within the US military, service personnel can receive:
- Navy challenge coins.
- Army challenge coins.
- Air Force challenge coins.
- Marine Corps challenge coins.
- Coast Guard challenge coins.
- Space Force challenge coins.
Coins Also Have Ranks!
Challenge coins are usually presented by a higher rank (officer) to a lower rank (officer or enlisted) – With higher ranking officer coins (e.g. a General) outranking a coin presented by a lower ranking officer (e.g. Major).
Coin holders can also challenge each other with, traditionally, a lower rank coin holder losing to higher rank coin holder(s).
When are Challenge Coins Issued?
Coins given as awards for accomplishments are normally given to the recipient during a handshake, passing from the right hand of the giver to the right hand of the awardee. It is also normal for the giver to offer a brief explanation of the reason for awarding the coin.
In the US Air Force, military training instructors award an airman’s coin to new enlisted personnel upon completion of their US Air Force Basic Military Training and to newly commissioned officers upon completion of the Air Force Officer Training School.
What about Command Coins?
The purpose of a command coin will determine whether it is paid for through appropriated funds (APF), official representation funds (ORF) or private funds:
- APF: A command may utilise APF to purchase command coins only as a means to recognise outstanding performance and as a component of the command’s provision of official courtesies.
- ORF: A command may utilise ORF to purchase command coins (subject to monetary limits) for foreign dignitaries, other prominent citizens (non-DOD personnel), or to prominent visiting DOD personnel.
- Private funds: Coins given as gifts, tokens of appreciation, recognition of routine performance of duty, or to instil unit pride are not awards, and therefore cannot be purchased using APF/ORF.
Coins purchased through private funds are subject to less restrictions, such as being inscribed with the commander’s/giver’s name.
5 C.F.R. 2635.203 (b) (2) – Gifts From Outside Sources @ https://www.ecfr.gov/current/title-5/chapter-XVI/subchapter-B/part-2635/subpart-B.
5 U.S.C. 4503 – Agency Awards @ https://www.govinfo.gov/app/details/USCODE-2015-title5/USCODE-2015-title5-partIII-subpartC-chap45-subchapI-sec4503.
10 U.S.C. 1125 – Recognition for Accomplishments @ https://www.govinfo.gov/app/details/USCODE-2010-title10/USCODE-2010-title10-subtitleA-partII-chap57-sec1125.
31 U.S.C. 1301 – Appropriations @ https://uscode.house.gov/view.xhtml?path=/prelim@title31/subtitle2/chapter13&edition=prelim.
Carter, C. (2013) BACCN Military Region Commemorative Coin. BACCN Nursing in Critical Care. 18(6), pp.321.
DODI 7250.13: Use of Appropriate Funds for Official Representation Purposes. Change 01. 27 September 2017.
Mahoney, P.F. (2010) The DMACC Coins. Journal of the Royal Army Medical Corps. 156 (4 Suppl 1), pp.S412. doi: 10.1136/jramc-156-04s-25.
SECNAVINST 3590.4A: Award of Trophies and Similar Devices in Recognition of Accomplishments. 28 January 1975.
SECNAVINST 7042.7K: Guidelines for Use of Official Representation Funds (ORF). 14 March 2006.
SECNAVINST 7042.7L: Use of Official Representation Funds. 30 June 2020.