Military Coins: Symbols Of A Great Heritage

May - 12 2016 | By

Military coins may be small keepsakes, but they serve as great symbols of an even greater tradition. The use of these coins are widespread in the United States Armed Forces, and servicemen carry these coins on their person all the time as a sort of identification and proof of membership. Unit commanders also give these to their subordinates to recognize special achievements. They are also called challenge coins, with their use deeply rooted in military culture.

When one announces a “coin check”, all military personnel present are to show their coins. Anyone who does not have one will buy a round of drinks for the rest of the group. Such a challenge is issued to ensure that servicemen carry their respective military coins on their person at all times. A few Presidents of the United States—namely Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama—have also adopted the use of these coins as presents given to visiting foreign dignitaries.

Our military coins can come in a wide range of colors and finishes – from simple one like silver, nickel, brass, copper, bronze, and antiquated—up to a 24-karat gold finish. They can be coated with clear epoxy to provide extra resilience and guard against scratches. Challenge coins can be made using two methods. Zinc alloy castings are an economical method to create coins, while the die striking method creates a superior quality product – at a higher cost. A lot of companies nowadays outsource their production of these coins to China and South Korea, with the latter having a strong military connection due to the presence of US bases there.

There are several stories about how military coins came to be, with the earliest dating back to the Roman Empire. Widespred use of the coins in the military originated during World War I, with medallions stamped with a unit’s logo or insignia issued to airmen. A common story of the coins’ origin involves a pilot who received a bronze medallion, kept in a pouch hung around his neck. The pilot’s craft was damaged during a skirmish in French territory, forcing him to land.

Shortly after, he was captured by a German patrol that took anything related to his personal identification – save for the pouch around his neck. He fortunately managed to escape his captors, obtain civilian attire, and blend in with the locals. However, the local French militia mistook him for a German spy and was about to execute him.

The medallion became handy at that point in time. Having no other identification, he showed it to his new captors. One of the militiamen recognized the insignia on the medal and, after verifying the pilot’s identity, spared the latter and gave him a bottle of wine instead. Other stories abound of certain coins being used as tools to prevent enemy spies and saboteurs from infiltrating resistance organizations—from within Nazi Germany and the Japanese occupation of the Philippines, up until the Vietnam War.

The Air Force also makes use of our military coins as a proof of completion. Trainees who have successfully passed the Air Force Basic Military Training course are presented with an “airman’s coin”, the branch’s version of a challenge coin featuring designs centered around the Air Force’s logo. Graduates of the course are no longer called trainees after receiving the coin, but will now be addressed as airmen. In addition to this purpose, an airman’s coin will serve as the very first coin they will receive during their course of service with the United States Air Force.

Nowadays, challenge coins have also seen widespread use outside of the military. Police departments, fire departments, and a number of fraternal societies have used challenge coins as awards presented to their most exemplary members. Its use has also spread to other countries; Switzerland, Britain, Australia, and Canada have also started issuing coins to their military who have shown extraordinary bravery while in the line of duty. A lot of companies nowadays outsource their production of these coins but is the best source for different designs of military coins and other coins.