Challenge coins are created to provide a symbol of nostalgia and membership in a group. The U.S. military has long used them to provide soldiers a souvenir of membership status in a particular unit, function, or mission, and the United States Army probably has the most proliferate collection of military coins issued.
First appearing sometime between 1914 and 1918, challenge coins exist today with decades of history and hundreds of different versions represented by the Army alone. All the other U.S. military branches provide them to soldiers and officers, and some non-military organizations produce them as well.
There are generally three ways to obtain Army challenge coins: 1) be a part of a military unit or branch that provides them, 2) trade coins with other military personnel recipients, and 3) buy them after the fact from dealers and private sales. For the most part, the third option tends to be the most common method of finding different coins the Army produced over the years, regardless of original membership and distribution.
The coins themselves are found in two types, as brass plated or zinc alloy, with an option for enamel paint. Both zinc and brass coins can be obtained in their bare metal form. Zinc alloy coins use a metal which affords much higher image detail at the expense of being somewhat lighter in weight – approximately an 11% difference from brass, and is often used for coins of odd shapes or with intricate cut outs. In many cases, Army challenge coins were enhanced with enamel paint. Original good quality hard enamel coins that have survived since the First World War are extremely rare.
Army challenge coins come in a number of different themes as well. The most common memorializes membership in a particular Army unit or squad. Not every unit has a coin, but many do. The next category can be function. Army coins exist ranging from typical military functions such as artillery and infantry, to administrative functions such as logistics or even procurement and contracting offices.
A common challenge coin tends to be the one that recognizes service and assignment to specific Army bases. For a soldier who has the career that brings him to different locations worldwide, it’s likely he could start to build up a portfolio of such coins over time. Some of the more common military coins represented tend to have the major Army bases such as Fort Benning, Aberdeen, Fort Riley, Fort McCoy, Fort Irwin, and so on.
More limited runs of Army challenge coins are manufactured to acknowledge participation in specific operations or missions. The name of the mission, dates, and artistic symbolism of the mission logo will be included. Many such activities involve Army functions on foreign soils, not to be repeated again. The rarity of some mission coins can make them highly desirable for collectors. Many mission coins also tend to use logos and images specific to that operation. For example, an Army mission coin for Task Force Troy uses Spy vs. Spy from Mad Magazine as its emblem.
Unique non-military groups can produce challenge coins with the Army as well. Such examples can include the vast collection of Army Engineer coins produced over the years as well as Army coins for certain retirees. There is even an Army coin for wives of Army soldiers.
Challenge coins minted for the US Army are not always circular in shape. Some can be in the shape of rank stripes worn on a shoulder or they can look like shields instead of round circles. The desired look of each coin is ultimately up to the unit or group that wished to have them made.
For the collector who is not directly connected with a military network or set of related contacts, the best way to find single Army challenge coins remains buying and trading them second-hand. This may be through dealers, military surplus, military nostalgia conventions, and even private sales. Many serious collectors connect themselves with trading groups and forums, talking about both the history and the availability of specific coins. This kind of word-of-mouth information can be far more valuable in hunting down a specific coin than perusing for it through classifieds or shop catalogs. New collectors are wise to comparison shop and keep their collection parameters wide so they can enjoy a number of a different coins and finding rather than being disappointed.
Collectible Army challenge coins can be found in a number of places included traditional storefront and online Internet vendors. If purchasing retail is not conducive, collectors can find challenge coins both through eBay as well as online classified sources. In local communities, the best sources for coins tend to be either at the local military surplus store or through garage and estate sales. While not every time, occasionally a garage or estate sale involves liquidating someone’s old collection or military nostalgia. Coins suddenly see the light of day and tend to be sold as group or box-load rather than individually.
If your unit is considering having custom coins made, MilitaryChallengeCoins.com is fully equipped to get you started in the right direction.