Military challenge coins evoke pride and camaraderie

A cigar box containing more than 100 US Navy challenge coins, including the pictured Seal Team coin, made $230 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2018. Image courtesy of Affiliated Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

A cigar box containing more than 100 US Navy challenge coins, including the pictured Seal Team coin, made $230 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2018. Image courtesy of Affiliated Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

NEW YORK — Challenge coins have a rich history in the United States military, representing  patriotism, sacrifice and honor; and an esprit de corps among those who served their country together. They have been carried by soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen. Veterans Day provides a fitting opportunity to look closer at these items that are prized by those who earned them and widely admired by history buffs and militaria collectors.

Typically measuring roughly two inches in diameter, challenge coins are more like medallions despite their name. They often have the seal of a specific military branch or unit stamped in the center of the front, or obverse.

A US Army 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) 1st Battalion challenge coin, awarded to “B. Desirable,” realized $80 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2019. Image courtesy of Rapid Estate Liquidators and Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers.


A US Army 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) 1st Battalion challenge coin, awarded to “B. Desirable,” realized $80 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2019. Image courtesy of Rapid Estate Liquidators and Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers.

Challenge coins are issued to acknowledge membership in a particular military unit, to recognize unit anniversaries and to mark the completion of training. Military commanders and senior officers have even had special coins stuck, usually in bronze, to laud a soldier’s accomplishments.

The history of how and when challenge coins originated is a bit more challenging (pun intended) to sleuth out, as many different origin stories appear online. A well-known but unverifiable tale claims that in World War I, some American pilots flew for the French before the US forces joined the war. Allegedly, a wealthy French lieutenant had a bronze coin struck for the members of his unit. When one of their pilots was shot down and captured by the Germans, they took his ID but not the coin he hung around his neck. After escaping, he made his way back to France and the coin was accepted as proof that he was who he said he was, and not a German spy. Supposedly, as a result, challenge coins became popular.

By World War II, military challenge coins were fully embraced and have been minted for every conflict since then, from Korea and Vietnam to the Iraqi war.

A group lot of 55 US military challenge coins and insignia brought $350 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2020. Image courtesy of Dan Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

A group lot of 55 US military challenge coins and insignia brought $350 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2020. Image courtesy of Dan Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

Every branch of the US Armed Forces — Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marine Corps, Navy, and the Space Force – strikes its own challenge coins. While some collectors focus their collections on a service branch or particular unit, others cast a wider net. A group lot of 55 US military challenge coins and insignia brought $350 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2020 at Dan Morphy Auctions. The original collector had varied interests, as evidenced by his holdings, which included coins from the Commanding Officer of the U.S. Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal, USMC battalions and the Commander and Command Sergeant Major of the 3rd Ranger Battalion.

By the time military personnel and high ranking senior officers retire, most have accrued a healthy stash of challenge coins. Those they don’t keep go to their descendants or sell to collectors. The coins appeal to history buffs and military collectors as well as those who collect in the numismatics field.

A group of 31 challenge coins from service in the Army and National Guard as well as U.S. Public Health services, plus service medals and ribbons, realized $100 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2019. Image courtesy of North American Auction Co. and LiveAuctioneers.


A group of 31 challenge coins from service in the Army and National Guard as well as U.S. Public Health services, plus service medals and ribbons, realized $100 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2019. Image courtesy of North American Auction Co. and LiveAuctioneers.

Some military challenge coins are limited edition pieces but several — especially those made for commemorative purposes — were more widely distributed, so prices can vary. Common ones average about $15 each but some special coins can bring about $100. For many who earned them, however, the coins hold great sentimental value, far outweighing the monetary value of the coin.

The group of more than 100 US Navy challenge coins that sold for $230 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2018 included one shaped like an old-fashioned ship’s wheel. Image courtesy of Affiliated Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

The group of more than 100 US Navy challenge coins that sold for $230 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2018 included one shaped like an old-fashioned ship’s wheel. Image courtesy of Affiliated Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

While the Army is the largest and oldest branch of the US military, the Navy has issued a fair number of challenge coins. A cigar box full of more than 100 US Navy challenge coins made $230 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2018 at Affiliated Auctions. The lot included an unusual coin in the form of a ship wheel for the U.S.S. New Orleans that was inscribed on the obverse “Forged from the Deckplate” and “Unity, Service, Navigation,” and also featured a coin for the Navy Memorial and an individual Navy Augmentee “Boots on the Ground” coin.

Sometimes, challenge coins are offered within lots containing ribbons and medals. A group containing 31 challenge coins from service in the Army, the National Guard, and U.S. Health Services, as well as service ribbons and medals, went for $100 in December 2019 at North American Auction Co.

Colonel Al Worden’s 101st Airborne Vietnam challenge coin realized $200 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2021. Image courtesy of RR Auction and LiveAuctioneers.

Colonel Al Worden’s 101st Airborne Vietnam challenge coin realized $200 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2021. Image courtesy of RR Auction and LiveAuctioneers.

Some collectors concentrate rigidly on a particular war. By the time the Korean and Vietnam and wars took place, challenge coins were standard. Coins made for a specific battalion are highly desirable, but when a particular service member’s name is inscribed on the coin, it is even more coveted. A challenge coin bearing the name of Colonel Al Worden (evidently not the man who became an Apollo astronaut), who served in the 101st Airborne in Vietnam, realized $200 plus the buyer’s premium at RR Auction in May 2021. This silver-toned coin featured the emblem of the division on the obverse flanked with relief text noting military engagements in Normandy, Bastogne, Holland, Berchtesgaden and Vietnam. The reverse of the coin, or verso, depicted parachutist insignia and was engraved with the words  “Rendezvous with Destiny” and “Col. Worden.”

A US Army 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) 1st Battalion challenge coin, awarded to “B. Desirable,” sold for $80 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2019 at Rapid Estate Liquidators and Auction Gallery. Military buffs would cherish this coin as the 5th Group remains one of the most highly decorated active duty units. The engraving on the two-inch coin perfectly sums up the purpose of the military, and why veterans do what they do — “To Fight So Others May Remain Free.”