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A Brief History of Challenge Coins

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There are many examples of traditions that build camaraderie in the military, but few are as well-respected as the practice of carrying a challenge coin—a small medallion or token that signifies a person is a member of an organization. Even though challenge coins have broken into the civilian population, they're still a bit of a mystery for those outside the armed forces.

What Do Challenge Coins Look Like?

Typically, challenge coins are around 1.5 to 2 inches in diameter, and about 1/10-inch thick, but the styles and sizes vary wildly—some even come in unusual shapes like shields, pentagons, arrowheads, and dog tags. The coins are generally made of pewter, copper, or nickel, with a variety of finishes available (some limited edition coins are plated in gold). The designs can be simple—an engraving of the organization's insignia and motto—or have enamel highlights, multi-dimensional designs, and cut outs.

Challenge Coin Origins

It's nearly impossible to definitively know why and where the tradition of challenge coins began. One thing is certain: Coins and military service go back a lot farther than our modern age.

One of the earliest known examples of an enlisted soldier being monetarily rewarded for valor took place in Ancient Rome. If a soldier performed well in battle that day, he would receive his typical day’s pay, and a separate coin as a bonus. Some accounts say that the coin was specially minted with a mark of the legion from which it came, prompting some men to hold on to their coins as a memento, rather than spend them on women and wine.

Today, the use of coins in the military is much more nuanced. While many coins are still handed out as tokens of appreciation for a job well done, especially for those serving as part of a military operation, some administrators exchange them almost like business cards or autographs they can add to a collection. There are also coins that a soldier can use like an ID badge to prove they served with a particular unit. Still other coins are handed out to civilians for publicity, or even sold as a fund-raising tool.

The First Official Challenge Coin…Maybe

Although no one is certain how challenge coins came to be, one story dates back to World War I, when a wealthy officer had bronze medallions struck with the flying squadron’s insignia to give to his men. Shortly after, one of the young flying aces was shot down over Germany and captured. The Germans took everything on his person except the small leather pouch he wore around his neck that happened to contain his medallion.

The pilot escaped and made his way to France. But the French believed he was a spy, and sentenced him to execution. In an effort to prove his identity, the pilot presented the medallion. A French soldier happened to recognize the insignia and the execution was delayed. The French confirmed his identity and sent him back to his unit.

One of the earliest challenge coins was minted by Colonel “Buffalo Bill” Quinn, 17th Infantry Regiment, who had them made for his men during the Korean War. The coin features a buffalo on one side as a nod to its creator, and the Regiment’s insignia on the other side. A hole was drilled in the top so the men could wear it around their necks, instead of in a leather pouch.

The Challenge

Stories say that the challenge began in Germany after World War II. Americans stationed there took up the local tradition of conducting “pfennig checks.” The pfennig was the lowest denomination of coin in Germany, and if you didn’t have one when a check was called, you were stuck buying the beers. This evolved from a pfenning to a unit’s medallion, and members would "challenge" each other by slamming a medallion down on the bar. If any member present didn’t have his medallion, he had to buy a drink for the challenger and for anyone else that had their coin. If all the other members had their medallions, the challenger had to buy everyone drinks.

The Secret Handshake

In June 2011, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates toured military bases in Afghanistan before his impending retirement. Along the way, he shook hands with dozens of men and women in the Armed Forces in what, to the naked eye, appeared to be a simple exchange of respect. It was, in fact, a secret handshake with a surprise inside for the recipient—a special Secretary of Defense challenge coin.

Not all challenge coins are passed by secret handshake, but it has become a tradition that many uphold. It could have its origins in the Second Boer War, fought between the British and South African colonists at the turn of the 20th century. The British hired many soldiers of fortune for the conflict, who, due to their mercenary status, were unable to earn medals of valor. It was not unusual, though, for the commanding officer of those mercenaries to receive the accommodation instead. Stories say that non-commissioned officers would often sneak into the tent of an unjustly awarded officer and cut the medal from the ribbon. Then, in a public ceremony, they would call the deserving mercenary forward and, palming the medal, shake his hand, passing it to the soldier as a way of indirectly thanking him for his service.

Special Forces Coins

Challenge coins began to catch on during the Vietnam War. The first coins from this era were created by either the Army's 10th or 11th Special Forces Group and were little more than common currency with the unit’s insignia stamped on one side, but the men in the unit carried them with pride.

More importantly, though, it was a lot safer than the alternative—bullet clubs, whose members carried a single unused bullet at all times. Many of these bullets were given as a reward for surviving a mission, with the idea that it was now a “last resort bullet,” to be used on yourself instead of surrendering if defeat seemed imminent. Of course carrying a bullet was little more than a show of machismo, so what started off as handgun or M16 rounds, soon escalated to .50 caliber bullets, anti-aircraft rounds, and even artillery shells in an effort to one-up each other.

Unfortunately, when these bullet club members presented “The Challenge” to each other in bars, it meant they were slamming live ammunition down on the table. Worried that a deadly accident might occur, command banned the ordnance, and replaced it with limited edition Special Forces coins instead. Soon nearly every unit had their own coin, and some even minted commemorative coins for especially hard-fought battles to hand out to those who lived to tell the tale.

President (and Vice President) Challenge Coins

Starting with Bill Clinton, every president has had his own challenge coin and, since Dick Cheney, the vice president has had one, too.

There are usually a few different Presidential coins—one for the inauguration, one that commemorates his administration, and one available to the general public, often in gift shops or online. But there's one special, official presidential coin that can only be received by shaking the hand of the most powerful man in the world. As you can probably guess, this is the rarest and most sought-after of all challenge coins.

The President can hand out a coin at his own discretion, but they are usually reserved for special occasions, military personnel, or foreign dignitaries. It’s been said that George W. Bush reserved his coins for injured soldiers coming back from the Middle East. President Obama hands them out fairly often, most notably to soldiers that man the stairs on Air Force One.

Beyond the Military

Challenge coins are now being used by many different organizations. In the federal government, everyone from Secret Service agents to White House staff to the President's personal valets have their own coins. Probably the coolest coins are those for White House Military Aides—the people who carry the atomic football—whose coins are, naturally, in the shape of a football.

However, thanks in part to custom coin companies online, everyone’s getting in on the tradition. Today, it’s not uncommon for police and fire departments to have coins, as do many civic organizations, such as the Lions Club and the Boy Scouts. Even the Star Wars cosplayers of the 501st Legion, Harley Davidson riders, and Linux users have their own coins. Challenge coins have become a long-lasting, highly-collectible way to show your allegiance anytime, anyplace.

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Aidan Monaghan/AMC
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History
What AMC's The Terror Got Right (And Wrong) About the Franklin Expedition
Aidan Monaghan/AMC
Aidan Monaghan/AMC

WARNING: This post contains spoilers for The Terror. If you haven't finished the show, don't read further!

We know the outcome of Captain Crozier's battle with Tuunbaq in the AMC series The Terror, and that he chose (as some rumors have suggested) to live with the Inuit rather than return to London when he has the chance. Now, it's time for a post-mortem (sorry) of the show's historical highlights. While Dan Simmons, author of the book on which the show is based, created Lady Silence and her supernatural evil spirit—Tuunbaq definitely wasn't stalking the men of the Erebus and Terror back in 1847—much of the show is faithful to the actual events of the Franklin expedition, one of the most enduring mysteries in polar exploration. Here's a rundown of what The Terror got right, and where the show slipped up.

RIGHT: THE TERROR’S ARCTIC ATMOSPHERE

A scene from AMC's The Terror with Sir John Franklin and James Fitzjames
Capt. James Fitzjames (Tobias Menzies), left, and Sir John Franklin (Ciaran Hinds) survey the ice.
Aidan Monaghan/AMC

Right off the bat, The Terror envelops viewers in an icy world that increasingly mirrors the crews’ isolation and desperation. In the first tragic scene, a sailor falls overboard into a sea of accurately rendered pancake ice. In another scene, Captain Francis Crozier sees a sun dog—a solar phenomenon caused by sunlight refracting through clouds of ice crystals, often witnessed by polar explorers. The officers' uniforms and caps are also recreated with authentic details. As the hopelessness of their predicament dawns on the officers and men, summer’s 24-hour daylight vanishes, replaced by the 24-hour darkness of winter. The imprisoned ships tilt with the pressure of the pack ice.

There were a few hiccups noticed by sharp-eyed viewers in the Remembering the Franklin Expedition Facebook group, however. Caulker's mate Cornelius Hickey has a fondness for cigarettes, but most sailors probably smoked pipes at the time, and definitely not inside the ship. (Good thing they had that fire hole bored into the ice!) And assistant surgeon Harry Goodsir’s technique with the Daguerrotype camera in the blind would have produced a terrible photo. His 20th-century stopwatch wouldn’t have helped.

WRONG: FRANKLIN’S BACK-UP PLAN

A scene from AMC's The Terror with Sir John Franklin and Capt. Francis Crozier
Captain Francis Crozier (Jared Harris), right, tries to convince Sir John that they're going to need rescuing pretty soon.
Aidan Monaghan/AMC

In a flashback in Episode 3, Sir John Franklin’s good friend Sir John Ross asks the soon-to-depart commander if the Admiralty had any plans for his rescue. When Franklin says one won’t be needed—since the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror are the best-provisioned ships ever sent to the Arctic—Ross warns him that he’s being naïve. In real life, this conversation was much different, and it didn’t take place at the Admiralty.

Franklin and Ross knew firsthand how a well-provisioned expedition can become a fight for survival. (In Episode 6, Captain James Fitzjames hears the story of Ross’s disastrous Victory expedition from the Erebus's ice master Thomas Blanky, who was really there in 1829-1833.) Ross instead offered to rescue Franklin himself, and captained (at age 72!) a privately funded schooner in search of his lost friend in 1850. And because Ross and the Admiralty had had a major falling out decades before, Ross wouldn’t have been chatting with Franklin at the Admiralty's HQ in Episode 3, and he definitely wouldn’t have been there to hear Lady Jane Franklin’s plea for a search party in Episode 4.

Sir John Ross was the uncle of Sir James Clark Ross, whom we see in the first scene of Episode 1 and its replay, from a different point of view, at the end of Episode 10. In real life, Sir James was one of Crozier's closest friends.

WRONG (MAYBE): KILLER CANS

In a foreboding sign of things to come, Franklin removes a tiny blob of lead from his mouth while eating dinner with Fitzjames in the first episode. By Episode 4, the ships’ cooks are complaining that much of the canned meat is spoiled, and able seaman John Morfin shows up in Goodsir’s infirmary with a blackish line along his gums, an ominous sign of lead poisoning. To test that hypothesis, Goodsir feeds the monkey Jacko some of the canned meat, and then reveals his theory to the surgeon Stephen Stanley: The meat is contaminated with lead and the men have been eating it for more than two years.

The storyline is built upon a famous theory that is now in doubt. In the mid-1980s, forensic anthropologists found high levels of lead in Franklin crewmembers' remains. They suggested the source was poorly sealed food cans, and that lead poisoning led to the men’s deaths. But recent research has pointed to the Erebus’s and Terror’s unique water systems [PDF], which used lead pipes, as the primary source of contamination. And, a 2015 study compared lead content among seven crewmembers’ remains and found wide variation, suggesting some men may not have been debilitated.

RIGHT: SERIOUS SCURVY

A scene from AMC's The Terror with Goodsir and Young
Dr. Goodsir (Paul Ready) tries to save David Young (Alfie Kingsnorth).
Aidan Monaghan/AMC

David Young, the first fatality of The Terror, doesn’t show any signs of scurvy in Goodsir’s autopsy. But by the summer of 1848, the remaining crew camped on King William Island hasn’t eaten fresh meat in three years, and the Navy-issued lemon juice rations have either run out or lost potency. Signs of severe Vitamin C deficiency appear: Fitzjames’s old bullet wounds, which he boasted about at the officers' table in the first episode, begin to open up, and a rough-looking Lieutenant George Henry Hodgson loses a tooth as he chews the leather from his boot (a nod to Franklin’s awful 1819-1822 Arctic expedition) in Episode 9. The scenes match what most, though not all, historians and researchers now believe: that a grim combination of scurvy, starvation, exposure, and underlying illnesses spelled the end for Franklin’s men.

(VERY LIKELY) WRONG: FRANKLIN’S CAUSE OF DEATH

A scene from AMC's The Terror with Sir John Franklin and Tunnbaq
Tuunbaq takes a deadly swipe at Sir John.
Aidan Monaghan/AMC

The terrifying scene in Episode 3 in which Tuunbaq mauls Franklin to death and shoves him down the fire hole is most likely not the way it actually happened. Historically speaking, just after the men abandon ship in April 1848, Crozier and Fitzjames updated the note left in the cairn the previous spring. They reported that “Sir John Franklin died on 11th June 1847”—just 19 days after Lieutenant Graham Gore and mate Charles Des Voeux had left the same paper behind on May 24, 1847 and reported the crews “all well.” Unfortunately, it’s the only record ever found about the expedition’s progress, and no one knows for sure how Franklin died or what happened to his body. Inuit oral histories collected by Franklin scholar Louie Kamookak suggest Franklin was buried under a flat stone somewhere on King William Island, but to date, no trace has been found.

RIGHT: THAT CRAZY CARNIVAL

The wild masquerade party in the middle of the bleak and frozen Arctic, which Fitzjames orders as a morale-booster for the men in Episode 6, may seem like a total anachronism. In real life, it was a time-honored tradition. (We don't know for sure if the Erebus and Terror had a carnival because no logbooks from the expedition have been found, but it's likely that they did.) In 1819-1820, Sir Edward Parry led the first polar expedition to purposefully overwinter in the Arctic. He worried about how the men would fare psychologically during the months of darkness and teeth-cracking cold, so he brought along trunks of theatrical costumes and launched the Royal Arctic Theatre, a fortnightly diversion for the officers and men to perform silly plays and musicals. It kept the men busy writing shows, practicing their parts, and building sets, which Parry thought was the key to staying sane. The scheme was such a success that subsequent expeditions kept the tradition going. But unlike in The Terror, the frivolities didn’t end in fiery conflagrations and mass casualties. 

(POSSIBLY) WRONG: HICKEY’S MURDEROUS MUTINY

A scene from AMC's The Terror with Cornelius Hickey
Mr. Hickey (Adam Nagaitis) cooks up a mutiny.
Aidan Monaghan/AMC

In Episode 7, Hickey plans a mutiny and convinces enough of the desperate men to follow him, splitting the remaining officers and men into two groups and, in Episode 9, taking Crozier captive. Hickey also kidnaps Goodsir because, as the expedition’s sole remaining surgeon, he is the only one who knows how to wield a bone saw. We don’t know, though, if there was an actual mutiny among the Franklin survivors. The remains of some of Franklin's men were found in different locations, but that doesn’t necessarily indicate a breakdown of order. Smaller groups may have split off from the main group because they simply couldn’t march any farther or had decided to return to the ships. Despite the harsh conditions of service in the Royal Navy, mutinies were quite rare.

RIGHT: CANNIBALISM

Hickey’s followers, starving and desperate, dine on morsels of steward William Gibson in one of Episode 9’s most wrenching scenes with historical precedent. Hudson’s Bay Company trader John Rae discovered the truth about the Franklin expedition from interviews with Inuit in 1854, including testimony that the men resorted to cannibalism to survive. In his infamous letter to the Admiralty, he wrote, “from the mutilated state of many of the bodies, and the contents of the kettles, it is evident that our wretched countrymen had been driven to the last dread alternative as a means of sustaining life.” Victorian England refused to believe it—but Inuit testimony and forensic research [PDF] supported Rae’s account, finally revealing the expedition’s fate.

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(c) Field Museum, CSZ5974c, photographer Carl Akeley, used with permission.
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Animals
The Time Carl Akeley Killed a Leopard With His Bare Hands
(c) Field Museum, CSZ5974c, photographer Carl Akeley, used with permission.
(c) Field Museum, CSZ5974c, photographer Carl Akeley, used with permission.

Carl Akeley had plenty of close encounters with animals in his long career as a naturalist and taxidermist. There was the time a bull elephant had charged him on Mount Kenya, nearly crushing him; the time he was unarmed and charged by three rhinos who missed him, he said later, only because the animals had such poor vision; and the time the tumbling body of a silverback gorilla he'd just shot almost knocked him off a cliff. This dangerous tradition began on his very first trip to Africa, where, on an otherwise routine hunting trip, the naturalist became the prey.

It was 1896. Following stints at Ward’s Natural Science Establishment and the Milwaukee Public Museum, Akeley, 32, had just been appointed chief taxidermist for Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, and he was tasked with gathering new specimens to bolster the 3-year-old museum's fledgling collections. After more than four months of travel and numerous delays, the expedition had reached the plains of Ogaden, a region of Ethiopia, where Akeley hunted for specimens for days without success.

Then, one morning, Akeley managed to shoot a hyena shortly after he left camp. Unfortunately, “one look at his dead carcass was enough to satisfy me that he was not as desirable as I had thought, for his skin was badly diseased,” he later wrote in his autobiography, In Brightest Africa. He shot a warthog, a fine specimen, but what he really wanted was an ostrich—so he left the carcass behind, climbed a termite hill to look for the birds, then took off after a pair he saw in the tall grass.

But the ostriches eluded him at every turn, so he returned to camp and grabbed the necessary tools to cut off the head of his warthog. However, when he and a “pony boy” got to the spot where he’d left the carcass, all that remained was a bloodstain. “A crash in the bushes at one side led me in a hurry in that direction and a little later I saw my pig's head in the mouth of a hyena travelling up the slope of a ridge out of range,” Akeley wrote. “That meant that my warthog specimen was lost, and, having got no ostriches, I felt it was a pretty poor day.”

As the sun began to set, Akeley and the boy turned back to camp. “As we came near to the place where I had shot the diseased hyena in the morning, it occurred to me that perhaps there might be another hyena about the carcass, and feeling a bit ‘sore’ at the tribe for stealing my warthog, I thought I might pay off the score by getting a good specimen of a hyena for the collections,” he wrote. But that carcass was gone, too, with a drag trail in the sand leading into the bush.

Akeley heard a sound, and, irritated, “did a very foolish thing,” firing into the bush without seeing what he was shooting at. He knew, almost immediately, that he'd made a mistake: The answering snarl told him that what he’d fired at was not a hyena at all, but a leopard.

The taxidermist began thinking of all the things he knew about the big cats. A leopard, he wrote,

“... has all the qualities that gave rise to the ‘nine lives’ legend: To kill him you have got to kill him clear to the tip of his tail. Added to that, a leopard, unlike a lion, is vindictive. A wounded leopard will fight to a finish practically every time, no matter how many chances it has to escape. Once aroused, its determination is fixed on fight, and if a leopard ever gets hold, it claws and bites until its victim is in shreds. All this was in my mind, and I began looking about for the best way out of it, for I had no desire to try conclusions with a possibly wounded leopard when it was so late in the day that I could not see the sights of my rifle.”

Akeley beat a hasty retreat. He’d return the next morning, he figured, when he could see better; if he’d wounded the leopard, he could find it again then. But the leopard had other ideas. It pursued him, and Akeley fired again, even though he couldn’t see enough to aim. “I could see where the bullets struck as the sand spurted up beyond the leopard. The first two shots went above her, but the third scored. The leopard stopped and I thought she was killed.”

The leopard had not been killed. Instead, she charged—and Akeley’s magazine was empty. He reloaded the rifle, but as he spun to face the leopard, she leapt on him, knocking it out of his hands. The 80-pound cat landed on him. “Her intention was to sink her teeth into my throat and with this grip and her forepaws hang to me while with her hind claws she dug out my stomach, for this pleasant practice is the way of leopards,” Akeley wrote. “However, happily for me, she missed her aim.” The wounded cat had landed to one side; instead of Akeley’s throat in her mouth, she had his upper right arm, which had the fortuitous effect of keeping her hind legs off his stomach.

It was good luck, but the fight of Akeley’s life had just begun.

Using his left hand, he attempted to loosen the leopard’s hold. “I couldn't do it except little by little,” he wrote. “When I got grip enough on her throat to loosen her hold just a little she would catch my arm again an inch or two lower down. In this way I drew the full length of the arm through her mouth inch by inch.”

He felt no pain, he wrote, “only of the sound of the crushing of tense muscles and the choking, snarling grunts of the beast.” When his arm was nearly free, Akeley fell on the leopard. His right hand was still in her mouth, but his left hand was still on her throat. His knees were on her chest and his elbows in her armpits, “spreading her front legs apart so that the frantic clawing did nothing more than tear my shirt.”

It was a scramble. The leopard tried to twist around and gain the advantage, but couldn’t get purchase on the sand. “For the first time,” Akeley wrote, “I began to think and hope I had a chance to win this curious fight.”

He called for the boy, hoping he’d bring a knife, but received no response. So he held on to the animal and “continued to shove the hand down her throat so hard she could not close her mouth and with the other I gripped her throat in a stranglehold.” He bore down with his full weight on her chest, and felt a rib crack. He did it again—another crack. “I felt her relax, a sort of letting go, although she was still struggling. At the same time I felt myself weakening similarly, and then it became a question as to which would give up first.”

Slowly, her struggle ceased. Akeley had won. He lay there for a long time, keeping the leopard in his death grip. “After what seemed an interminable passage of time I let go and tried to stand, calling to the pony boy that it was finished.” The leopard, he later told Popular Science Monthly, had then shown signs of life; Akeley used the boy’s knife to make sure it was really, truly dead.

Akeley’s arm was shredded, and he was weak—so weak that he couldn’t carry the leopard back to camp. “And then a thought struck me that made me waste no time,” he told Popular Science. “That leopard has been eating the horrible diseased hyena I had killed. Any leopard bite is liable to give one blood poison, but this particular leopard’s mouth must have been exceptionally foul.”

He and the boy must have been quite the sight when they finally made it back to camp. His companions had heard the shots, and figured Akeley had either faced off with a lion or the natives; whatever the scenario, they figured Akeley would prevail or be defeated before they could get to him, so they kept on eating dinner. But when Akeley appeared, with “my clothes ... all ripped, my arm ... chewed into an unpleasant sight, [with] blood and dirt all over me,” he wrote in In Brightest Africa, “my appearance was quite sufficient to arrest attention.”

He demanded all the antiseptics the camp had to offer. After he'd been washed with cold water, “the antiseptic was pumped into every one of the innumerable tooth wounds until my arm was so full of the liquid that an injection in one drove it out of another,” he wrote. “During the process I nearly regretted that the leopard had not won.”

When that was done, Akeley was taken to his tent, and the dead leopard was brought in and laid out next to his cot. Her right hind leg was wounded—which, he surmised, had come from his first shot into the brush, and was what had thrown off her pounce—and she had a flesh wound in the back of her neck where his last shot had hit her, “from the shock of which she had instantly recovered.”

Not long after his close encounter with the leopard, the African expedition was cut short when its leader contracted malaria, and Akeley returned to Chicago. The whole experience, he wrote to a friend later, transported him back to a particular moment at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, which he’d visited after creating taxidermy mounts for the event. “As I struggled to wrest my arm from the mouth of the leopard I recalled vividly a bronze at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, depicting the struggle between a man and bear, the man’s arm in the mouth of the bear,” he wrote. “I had stood in front of this bronze one afternoon with a doctor friend and we discussed the probable sensations of a man in this predicament, wondering whether or not the man would be sensible to the pain of the chewing and the rending of his flesh by the bear. I was thinking as the leopard tore at me that now I knew exactly what the sensations were, but that unfortunately I would not live to tell my doctor friend.”

In the moment, though, there had been no pain, “just the joy of a good fight,” Akeley wrote, “and I did live to tell my [doctor] friend all about it.”

Additional source: Kingdom Under Glass: A Tale of Obsession, Adventure, and One Man's Quest to Preserve the World's Great Animals

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