In a widely reported but probably apocryphal story, challenge coins got their start during World War I, when an American pilot, who had been shot down over France and lost his dog tags, was able to prove his Allied affiliation to French soldiers on the lookout for German spies by showing them a bronze medal made by a wealthy Army Air Service lieutenant.

The more likely origin of the challenge coin, though, dates to the 1960s, when a serviceman in the 11th Special Forces Group (Airborne) overstruck old U.S. coins with the group’s emblem, and passed them out to other members of the unit. The practice was soon picked up by other units and was used primarily as a drinking game, in which members of the unit who were not able to produce a coin when challenged were obliged to buy everyone a round of drinks.

In the decades that followed, challenge coins became a part of military culture—by some estimates more than 10,000 issues have been minted. At the low end of the spectrum are coins produced for lieutenant colonels and sergeant majors in the Army, who pass them out to troops as small tokens, literally, of appreciation. Coins produced for officers of higher rank are more difficult to come by, although challenge coins have been sold in military gift shops since Operation Desert Storm in 1990, so in that sense most are not rare.

Among the most sought challenge coins are those given by the president and vice-president. Reportedly, President Clinton had a case filled with his challenge-coin collection on display in the Oval Office. Challenge coins have also been minted for employees of the CIA and NSA, although, for obvious reasons, they are not used as official evidence of the holder’s employment in either government agency.

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