Have you ever looked closely at the base of a policeman who swings his arms, flashes his insignia, and says "NYPD!"? Chances are that you haven't, for if you looked closely enough, you would have seen a coin beside the badge and registration. If your dad's in the military, you must have seen his collection of mini-medallions— each having a brilliant logo, insignias of the Armed Forces, or the Government.
In movies and reality, you must have seen military officers and policemen decorated with badges, commendation cards, and insignias. But are these the only tokens they receive for their valor and spirit? Well, if it were, we wouldn't be talking about those small medallions and coins which are termed Challenge Coins, would we?
If you have ever been observant at a military decoration ceremony, you would notice something shining secretly in the hands of the commander who is about to shake hands with the soldier being awarded. If you've noticed that glint of metal, you've seen a challenge coin.
So, what exactly do you mean by the term ‘challenge coin’?
Challenge coins are pocket-sized coins that fit on your palm. Challenge coin designs are usually circular but they may even come in the shape of a pentagon or a shield or a dog tag. They are made of bronze, nickel, or copper and are presented to the policemen and the military by their respective units, departments, and commanders upon membership or the completion of an operation or in commemoration of a special event.
Typically, challenge coins have a logo or symbol etched into the center, and the motto of the organization engraved around the edge. Nowadays challenge coins are not just awarded by the law enforcement, military generals, and the POTUS, but are also being used as entertainment collectibles, merchandise, and memorabilia for private companies like Uber and Marvel. Technically, a challenge coin is a really cool and small ID that says which division, unit, the organization you work for, or are posted to.
But what marked the beginning of the tradition of challenge coins?
Coins being given to warriors seems like an ancient custom and it actually is! Victorious soldiers in the Roman Empire were given their usual pay and also a bonus coin which marked their success in battle. This coin was a memento signifying honor and valor. During the Renaissance, it was common for European nobility to make coins in celebration of an event and to gift them to relatives, friends, and attendees.
How the Challenge Coin originated, how it got its name and the tradition of Coin Check are actually intertwined into one event that took place during the first World War. Volunteers came from all across the country to fill the squadrons of the newly made Air Force. Many of them were studying in the Ivy League colleges and came from wealthy families. One such Lieutenant gifted a small bronze medallion, inscribed with the insignia and logo of their squadron to all the members. One of the pilots from the squadron hung it around his neck by putting it in a leather pouch. After he took flight, he, unfortunately, crashed into German grounds and was taken captive by the patrol. All his possessions were stripped off him, except for his leather pouch. After some time, they moved him to a French town. Taking advantage of the bombardment on one particular night, the pilot fled to a French outpost in disguise. Unluckily, the French did not recognize his accent and thought he was one of the menacing German spies impersonating a foreigner. The young flyer had no way to prove his identity except his coin. He produced it to his would-be executioner. Fortune was in his favor as the squadron insignia was recognized by one of the French soldiers. They delayed his execution long enough so that he could prove his identity and in the meantime, they gave him wine to drink.
After this incident, his squadron started following a rule, and this set forth the rules of Challenge and gave the coin its name. The rule was that every soldier had to carry his squadron coin with himself. Any challenger could "challenge" another and then the "challenged" would have to show his coin. If he failed to do so, he would have to treat the entire unit to drinks. In the present day, any unit member can challenge by shouting "Coin Check" and everyone in the room has to produce their coins. Whoever doesn't have their coin on them has to pay for the drinks of all those who had their coins.
Challenge coins gained popularity during the Second World War and the Vietnam War to prevent infiltration and foreign espionage. Many commanders sanctioned coins for their own units.
What is the story behind the existence of police challenge coins?
Police departments adopted the tradition of challenge coins pretty quickly as the nature of their work was quite dangerous and intended for public welfare like the Military— the two pillars of public protection. Police challenge coins serve as markers of achievements, remembrances of tough operations, and service to the nation. Officers and Detectives from different units who worked together bond over these memorabilia and remember the troubled times when they stepped up in unison for the nation. Each coin carries a story and with it, a sense of pride and honor. Above all, a police challenge coin is a sign of camaraderie. One of the most famous coin designs is the Police K9 challenge coin design, which is made to commemorate the selfless work of dog squads and the officers attached to them in dangerous operations involving drug and explosives detection. Several custom challenge coins are based on the design of the K9 Coin.
Anyone can give out challenge coins. You could even make them for your Star Wars fan club, your school drama group, or your Chemistry department. These are called Custom Challenge Coins. They can range from 1.75" to 3" in diameter and costs usually depend on the number of coins that you want to be made and the complexity of your design. A single coin can cost anywhere between $2 to $10. All things aside, there's one thing about challenge coins: despite its minuscule size, there's nothing better which showcases your allegiance, dedication, or perseverance in an institution, group, or department. The collectible coins work as excellent gifts to people who have served their nation proudly. Truly, there's no object which is so small and yet binds you tightly to so many people and stirs up so many memories from the most valuable times of your life.