Custom military coins, similar to challenge coins are traced way back World War I. Such coins are given to members of the military force and signify the branch of the Armed Forces the owner belongs to. During the Nazi occupation of France, such coins (although some say they use ordinary currency coins) were issued to Bona Fides, and were used to identify which were allies and which were not.
Custom military coins are around 1.5 to 2 inches in diameter and about 1/10 of an inch thick. Not all military coins are round; some come in all sorts of shapes and styles. There are coins shaped like arrowheads, pentagon, shield or dog tag style. They are generally made of nickel, pewter (a common metal alloy) or copper. Coins vary in their finishing and commemorative military coins (the limited edition ones) are gold plated. These coins may bear the unit’s logo or insignia, their troop motto, and several other markings that could separate the group from the others.
Custom military coins bore no value and they were not minted by the Federal Government. They were not used as currency but as a mere identification. Aside from this there are several other uses of military coins; some of which prompted private organizations, companies and non-military organizations to adopt and make their own custom coins.
The first and obvious use of custom military coins is for identification purposes. It was believed that such coins protected military men during the First and Second World War. The most famous story about this very important use of military coins is said to have happened during the First World War when an American military pilot’s plane crashed in Germany. He was held captive by the German military forces, stripped off of any means of identification, except for a leather satchel he kept around his neck. It was said that his military coin was inside the satchel.
When the American soldier was to be transferred to a small French town, he seized the opportunity to escape and was able to successfully do so. Upon reaching a French military post, he was asked to show proof of identity, which he has none. He was then sentenced to death by execution and in sheer desperation, he showed his medallion. One of his executioners recognized the logo on the medallion, as that of an American ally and he was freed immediately.
Aside from being used as a form of identification, challenge coins are also used to earn free drinks in a bar. You don’t show it literally to the bartender though. The tradition of playing the military challenge coin game is believed to have started during war times as well. Each coin holder is expected to bring their coins all the time.
When in a bar, anyone can challenge everyone else to show their respective coins (assuming everyone has one) and whoever fails to do so is the one to pay one round of drinks for everyone else. However, if everyone else were able to show their coins, the person who challenged the group would be the one to pay that round of drinks.
Custom military coins are also used as a means to recognize any person’s valiant effort. Such coins of honor are bestowed upon military men whose acts, bravery or manner are highly commendable. Custom coins are proven to boost the morale of its recipients and seemed to be an effective way to motivate people. They are also issued to retiring members of the troop, to show the unit head’s appreciation of the service rendered by the outgoing service man. Foreign dignitaries, visitors and the likes are also given such coins as a memento or souvenir of their presence in the group.